- Indonesia has allowed the release of captive animals back in to the wild to continue, after freezing the activity to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to wildlife populations.
- Orangutan rescue centers in Indonesia have welcomed the decision as they struggle with crowded facilities and rising operational costs.
- But the centers say they won’t release any orangutans anytime soon, as the great apes are likely vulnerable to the coronavirus.
- Experts have recommended that the apes also undergo COVID-19 testing prior to being released back into the wild.
JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has lifted a moratorium on the release of captive wild animals, imposed earlier this year as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus into wildlife populations.
Rescued wild animals that have passed rehabilitation protocols at wildlife centers are now allowed to be released back into the wild, according to a decree recently published by the environment ministry but dated May 20. The ministry had frozen such activity for months following the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Wild release can now continue by upholding the measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Wiratno, the ministry’s director-general of conservation.
The decree lays out measures for wild release amid the pandemic, including physical distancing, the use of personal protective equipment, and limiting the number of on-the-ground personnel allowed at each release. Rescue and rehabilitation centers will still need approval from the ministry before releasing an animal back into the wild.
On June 20, six saltwater crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) became the first batch of rescued wildlife released under the new protocol. They had been cared for at a rehabilitation center in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java, and released in Way Kambas National Park, in Sumatra
Orangutan rescue centers have welcomed the ministry’s decision as they struggle with a growing number of the apes brought in from rescues and seizures, and no way to release others, combined with captive wildlife as facilities are rising costs of upkeep. But the centers say they won’t release any orangutans anytime soon, as the great apes are likely vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Until we know the impact of the disease on orangutans and that it is completely safe for them to be moved, we will not start releasing orangutans until some basic requirements are met,” Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, which runs a reintroduction center in Central Kalimantan province, told Mongabay.
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.
Jamartin said keeping the orangutans in rehabilitation centers longer than originally planned might introduce additional stress to the animals, but his team wanted to be cautious and prioritize the animals’ physical health due to the unknown effects of the coronavirus on the orangutan population.
“We do not want to send a ‘time bomb’ into the forest population,” Jamartin said. “This means we need to be completely sure that we are not creating a path for transmission by sending an infected orangutan or staff member to the release sites.”
He added some of the orangutans in BOSF’s care were ready for wild release, but would have to wait until the areas in which they’re slated for release are declared free of from the outbreak.
All 34 provinces across Indonesia have reported COVID-19 cases, although the severity of the outbreaks varies. Authorities in many parts of the country have relaxed lockdown protocols as they look to resume economic activity that was hit by the pandemic.
Some orangutan experts say that in the case of animals that were wild caught as opposed to those that were kept as pets and handed in by their owners to authorities, an immediate release might be the best choice to reduce risk of infection.
“You would prefer to return them as soon as possible to the wild, rather than keeping them in a rescue/rehab center with a lot more contact with humans and possible risk of infection,” Karmele Llano Sanchez, program director at International Animal Rescue Indonesia (IAR), said in an email to Mongabay.
“I think it’s difficult to make a blanket decision about the release of rescued animals,” she said. “We do not have yet enough scientific evidence to demonstrate that natural infection is possible in wild animals, and even then, it is very likely that not all species of wildlife have the same susceptibility to infection.
“I don’t think we can choose the strategy to wait because we don’t know for how long this pandemic will last. I believe that this pandemic will stay here for very long. So I think it makes sense to start planning to conduct releases following necessary protocols,” she said.
Other experts have recommended that orangutans undergo COVID-19 tests before being released back into the wild. Officials at centers run by IAR, BOSF and Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) told Mongabay they already have the kits to test for the coronavirus.
“We tested the only orangutan infant brought into the center after the start of the pandemic and also tested our veterinarians,” Birute Mary Galdikas, a leading primatologist and founder of OFI, told Mongabay in an email. “All were negative for the coronavirus.”
Galdikas said orangutans in the wild are solitary or semi-solitary in their social organization, effectively practicing a type of social distancing from each other that’s different to the troop behavior seen among the more social African great apes. She added that wild orangutans were almost entirely arboreal that they would typically not come into close contact with humans.
“One might expect that a virus would be transmitted among a wild orangutan population relatively slowly compared to many other animals,” Galdikas said.
There have already been reported cases of coronavirus detected in other captive animals. In April, a Malayan tiger housed at Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for COVID-19, believed to have been contracted from an asymptomatic caretaker who had the disease.
“To be clear, we should not only worry about COVID-19; we know there are many coronaviruses in the wild,” Sanchez said. “This might be to our advantage because it might be possible that wild animals already have the immunity for these wild coronaviruses.”
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