Published 19 August 2023

No respite for Southeast Asia’s Red Apes

Known for their striking auburn fur, orangutans call the rainforests of Southeast Asia their home. “Orangutan,” a name that translates to “Person of the forest”, perfectly captures their nature as highly intelligent animals that form deep connections with their young; some even showcase the use of tools in the wild. Sadly, the future of these tree-dwellers is threatened by deforestation and poaching, with trafficking attempts recorded throughout the region.

As Asia’s only great ape, this World Orangutan Day we highlight how orangutans continue to be targeted for the illegal pet trade. From January 2013 to July 2023, at least 161 live individuals were seized  in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. 

TRAFFIC data* show records of 103 seizure incidents involving confiscation and surrender of orangutan pets and individuals found in trafficking attempts in the three countries. 

The orangutan is native to Indonesia and Malaysia and is largely threatened by habitat loss. However, juvenile orangutans are also targeted for the illegal pet trade.

More than half the number of orangutans seized in the recorded incidents were juveniles. Orangutans only become independent of their mothers after eight years and mothers are fiercely protective of their young.

In the pursuit of juveniles for the pet trade, it’s very likely that many more orangutans were poached or killed than is known from these detected cases alone”

Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.   

There were also two times more seizures and surrenders of illegally held pets than there were trafficking cases.

“This highlights the driving force of exotic pet ownership and how it continues to threaten orangutans. The demand, along with a boost to strengthen protection and enforcement at source, must be addressed if these endangered apes are to have any chance of surviving in the long term,” said Krishnasamy.

The three known species - the Sumatran, Bornean, and Tapanuli Orangutan - are all listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. The latter species was only newly described by science in 2017; it is considered to be the rarest great ape species in the world with a population of about 800 individuals, confined to a restricted range in Sumatra.

Of the three countries studied, Indonesia accounted for the bulk of seizures with West Kalimantan province recording the highest confiscations and number of orangutans seized. 

At least seven smuggling attempts showed international trafficking, involving Kuwait, Russia, and South Korea.

While Indonesia recorded the most seizures, records show that it has also made some of the most high-profile arrests linked to orangutan trafficking in recent years.

Last year, Indonesian authorities in Sumatra smashed an orangutan smuggling network. Separately, a former high-ranking government official who was being investigated for graft was also arrested for illegal possession of an orangutan.

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*TRAFFIC's WiTIS Database, largely from open-source records as well as selected data contributed by enforcement agencies and other organisations. All figures are minimum estimates.