- Zoos have been shuttered and wildlife rehabilitation centers barred from releasing animals into the wild as a result of measures imposed in Indonesia to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Without revenue from visitor fees, zoos in the country, long notorious for the egregious conditions in which they keep the animals, are looking at the possibility of killing some of their animals to feed the others.
- Wildlife rehab centers, which mostly care for orangutans and other apes, have been ordered to keep taking in rescued animals but not to release them for fear of spreading the virus to wild populations.
- This has raised concerns about overcrowding at rescue centers, many of which are also under financial pressure as donations decline.
JAKARTA — Measures aimed at halting the spread of the novel coronavirus in Indonesia have meant tough times for Indonesia’s captive animals, both at wildlife rehabilitation facilities and in the country’s poorly regulated zoos.
Earlier this year, Indonesia’s conservation department at the environment ministry alerted animal rehabilitation facilities and zoos about the potential for captive wildlife to be infected with COVID-19 from humans. The ministry subsequently ordered 33 centers across the archipelago to postpone releasing rescued individuals into the wild to protect them from contracting the highly contagious virus. But rehabilitation facilities are still allowed to take in newly rescued animals. The government also instructed all zoos to shut to the public.
“Two percent of all extinction is caused by diseases. It’s one of the threats that experts are still pretty much unfamiliar with,” Indra Exploitasia, the ministry’s director of biodiversity conservation, said in a recent webinar.
Indonesia is home to many endemic and threatened species, some on the brink of extinction. The lifeline for many of these species has been captive breeding or in-situ conservation efforts.
While the COVID-19 protocols are deemed necessary, they’ve resulted in zoos and wildlife rescue centers being deprived of revenue while still having to bear the operational costs of feeding and caring for the animals.
A survey published in April by the Indonesian Zoo Association (PKBSI) showed that only a tenth of zoos across the country would be able to feed their animals for longer than a month, and only up to four months, in the absence of revenue from visitor fees. There are about 60 zoos nationwide, with a total of more than 4,900 animals.
Zoos in Indonesia are privately owned but the animals are considered the property of the state. Most are notorious for the egregious conditions in which they keep the animals, failing even the government’s standards. Negligence, mismanagement and corruption have long plagued the country’s zoos, with animals dying of malnutrition or ill treatment, or sold off into the illegal wildlife trade, prompting calls from conservationists to either shut down or reform the facilities.
Some of the zoos have launched online donation appeals directly to the public to help buy food for the animals, while others are harvesting vegetation growing in their area to feed their herbivores. Some zoos have sent vegetables and grass to others in need.
“But if this does not end in three months, we will be in big trouble,” Rahmat Shah, the PKBSI head, said earlier this month as quoted by the Jakarta Post.
The association said the last resort in a worst-case scenario would be to slaughter some animals to feed other animals. PKBSI said the animals qualified for slaughter would have to be from an abundant species, healthy, and at an unproductive age. Such a move wouldn’t violate any laws, the environment ministry has confirmed, but will still have to be approved by the ministry.
The environment ministry said it has proposed a bailout fund from the state budget to help buy food and medicine for zoo animals. It has also requested tax breaks for zoos to ease their financial burden.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers are not faring much better than zoos. Mongabay spoke to three organizations — the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), International Animal Rescue Indonesia (IAR) and the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) — operating facilities that care for rescued animals, mainly the critically endangered Sumatran and Bornean orangutans (Pongo abelii and P. pygmaeus).
For rehabilitation centers, which work closely with the environment ministry, a government directive temporarily banning releases while still requiring them to take in new animals is putting pressure on facilities that are already either at capacity or overcrowded.
“This is certainly a challenging time for all of us,” Jamartin Sihite, the BOSF chief executive, told Mongabay. “We have seen that, just like us, many have launched emergency funding campaigns.”
The centers have significantly reduced the interaction between caretakers and animals. Staff tasked with closely monitoring the captive individuals are required to follow strict hygiene protocols, such as wearing personal protective equipment. But PPE have become a rare commodity amid the COVID-19 crisis, with available stock selling for massively inflated prices. Wildlife rescue centers have had to bear those costs themselves.
“It’s been quite stressful times, especially considering how difficult it is to obtain some of the PPE,” Karmele Llano Sanchez, the IAR program director, told Mongabay. Her organization runs a center in West Java province housing 13 macaques and 146 slow lorises, and another center in West Kalimantan housing 99 orangutans and nine slow lorises. Most of the orangutans at the IAR live are in open-air forested areas, not cages, so human contact is minimal, Sanchez said.
Both BOSF and IAR have launched separate campaigns seeking help to buy more PPE to maintain good-quality care of their rescued animals.
While OFI has not launched any special appeals to the public directly related to the pandemic, the organization said it was approached by “a small foundation” offering funding for protective clothing and coronavirus test kits. OFI has nearly 300 orangutans at its care center. This year it has received an orphaned infant orangutan and rescued and translocated a number of wild orangutans from dangerous situations.
“We have noticed less donations from the general public as the economies of many countries have been devastated by the pandemic,” Birute Mary Galdikas, a pre-eminent primatologist and founder of OFI, told Mongabay.
“We hope that stock markets and the global economy will recover as soon as possible but note that many people continue to be concerned about great apes, including orangutans, and are still donating as best they can,” she added.
But with animal releases on hold, the centers are concerned about being overwhelmed with animals to care for. BOSF once had to operate for 11 years taking in new rescues but not being able to release any animals, Jamartin said. “This is not something we want to repeat, as the centers were over capacity and this presented many animal welfare challenges,” he said.
He added his organization’s utmost priority was the animals’ safety and that they would wait as long as necessary to ensure each animal can be safely released back into the wild.
“There are orangutans who are ready to return to the forest, but we cannot emphasize enough that our current priority is biosecurity above all,” he said. “For our operations to continue without releases, it is important that we have a strong network supporting our work and emergency measures, including the government, local communities and funding bodies.”
IAR’s Sanchez said she supports the decision to postpone releases, calling it irresponsible to reintroduce to the wild an animal that might potentially be infected with the coronavirus and could go on to infect its wild counterparts or even other species. The IAR’s latest rescue is a baby orangutan being kept as a pet.
Even though there have been no reports of great apes catching the coronavirus, orangutans may be at risk as all great apes are susceptible to catching respiratory diseases from humans, primatologists have warned.
Sanchez called on the government to start thinking of ways to safely resume animal releases should the emergency situation last longer than anticipated. She said the chances of animals getting infected at the centers where they are in contact with humans are much higher than if they were free in the wild.
“I think we must be able to set up biosafety or biosecurity protocols and procedures that will ensure the absolutely minimum risk of infection from released animals to other wild animals,” Sanchez said.
Conservationists agree the ultimate solution is to stop destroying wildlife habitats so that there wouldn’t be any need for wildlife rescues or translocations, and less chance of the emergence of new zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
“The irony is that this pandemic, like so many newly emerging infectious diseases, occurred because humans increasingly destroyed intact ecosystems with wet wildlife markets being a collateral occurrence,” Galdikas said.
“To stop pandemics similar to the current one emerging, it is important to stop the destruction of intact ecosystems such as tropical rainforests.”
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