An Indonesian wildlife trader, who was caught trying to sell an infant orangutan, has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined ten million Indonesian rupiah (about 750 US$) in Medan, North Sumatra.
The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, said the prosecution was an “excellent and extremely welcome result”.
He added: “Since the early 1970s there have been more than 3,000 confiscations of orangutans illegally kept as pets in Sumatra and Borneo, but there have only been a handful of actual prosecutions.”
All the prosecutions have occurred in recent years, Singleton says. “For far too long, those involved in wildlife crime in Indonesia have known that the chances of any serious legal consequences to their activities were essentially almost zero.”
The trafficker, Vast Haris Nugroho Sentono, was apprehended in February this year by the Forest Police Rapid Response Unit (SPORC) of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s Conservation Agency (BBKSDA) in North Sumatra. He was attempting to sell a one-year-old female orangutan, transported in a holdall.
Investigations revealed that Vast Haris had also illegally traded numerous other live animals, including golden cats, porcupines, greater slow lorises, siamangs, gibbons, hornbills, and juvenile crocodiles. He also illegally sold animal parts, such as hornbill beaks and the skins, claws, and canine teeth of Sumatran tigers.
The country director of the Indonesia programme of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Noviar Andayani, said after the judgement: “We view the law enforcement efforts in this case as evidence of the government’s commitment to preserving Indonesia’s rich biodiversity, including its many protected wildlife species.
“We hope that the very clear and firm decision from the judge and the prosecution today will have a deterrent effect among the community, sending a clear message that wildlife crimes can and will be punished.”
The authorities say Vast Haris initially attempted to resist arrest, physically trying to fight off law enforcement officials.
“The suspect was apprehended in February conducting a transaction involving a living orangutan believed to be 6-12 months old and worth 1,300 US$ on the illegal market,” the WCS said in April. “The arrest on April 13 is the second level of the suspect’s law process before going to trial. Besides orangutans, the suspect’s network offered other wildlife and wildlife parts such as green peafowl, antler and deerskin, weasel, and more.”
Orangutans are a protected species in Indonesia. Vast Haris was charged under Article 40, Clause 2, and Article 21, Clause 2, of Indonesia’s 1990 National Law N° 5 on the conservation of living resources and their ecosystems and Article 7 of the 1999 law on the preservation of plants and wildlife, which forbids the killing, capture, trade, or ownership of orangutans.
The sentence imposed on Vast Haris is the most severe ever handed down for orangutan trafficking. The prosecution initially sought a prison sentence of three years.
Under Indonesian law, illegally trading in orangutans can be punishable by up to five years in jail and a 100 million rupiah fine.
The head of BBKSDA North Sumatra, Ir. John Kenedie, said: “The sentence imposed on this orangutan trader is an important step taken by the government in reducing the level of orangutan trade in Indonesia. We will act firmly every time there is wildlife crime so as to prevent such cases from recurring in the future.”
Vast Haris admitted illegally sourcing wildlife via a hunter’s network and local dealers in Aceh and North Sumatra, and having a trading network that reached as far as the Indonesian island of Java.
According to the WCS and the BBKSDA North Sumatra, this is the second time that Vast Haris has been known to trade in orangutans. He confessed to carrying out numerous illegal wildlife transactions over the past two years.
The Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) is a distinct species and is different to its relative in Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus). Sumatran orangutans are listed on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered and are on the list of the world’s 25 most endangered primates.
Both orangutan species are protected under Indonesia’s National Law N° 5. The main threats to their survival include the destruction and fragmentation of their tropical rainforest habitat, most often for the development of oil palm and other plantations and the construction of roads; conflict with humans on farmland and plantations; and the illegal black market trade in orphan orangutans, who are sold after their mothers have been killed. The infants are sold to be kept as pets, often by local businessmen or high-ranking police officers.
The director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan, Panut Hadisiswoyo, points to deforestation as the main cause of human-orangutan conflict. The deforestation triggers poaching, he says, and the primates get pushed on to farmland. “All these things are related, but the root of the problem is orangutans losing their habitat. Their habitat is fragmented and they are captured by humans and humans sell them to businessmen.”
Vast Haris’s arrest came after the arrest in April 2014 of one of his staff, Dedek Setiawan. Two golden cats, a siamang, and a gibbon were found in Dedek’s possession and were confiscated. In August 2014, Dedek was sentenced to 16 months in prison and fined five million Indonesian rupiah (about 375 US$).
Dedek was found to be offering wildlife for sale illegally on the Internet and was sourcing many animals from Vast Haris Nugroho.
Ian Singleton said: “The sheer scale of wildlife crime and trafficking in Indonesia is staggering. Effective law enforcement and the threat of serious consequences for those involved is an essential component of the conservation arsenal if there is to be any hope of preventing the extinction of orangutans and many other heavily traded and persecuted species here.”
The policy and legal advisor for the WCS’s Wildlife Crimes Unit, Irma Hermawatti, said at the time of Vast Haris’s arrest: “We appreciate firm action from the authorities in arresting this illegal wildlife trader. The effort to stop orangutan and other wildlife trading is a tough journey with great commitment needed from all stakeholders.”
WCS executive director for Asia programmes, Joe Walston, said: “The Wildlife Crimes Unit is supporting the Indonesian authorities in achieving a growing list of arrests and prosecutions of perpetrators of wildlife crimes. Through a combination of commitment and intelligence, Indonesia is now making strides in the war against wildlife crime, and in securing the natural heritage of Indonesia for its citizens – now and in the future.”
The one-year-old orangutan confiscated from Vast Haris Nugroho is now named Cita Ria and is being cared for at the SOCP’s orangutan quarantine centre in Sumatra until she is ready to be taken to a special reintroduction centre so as to be returned to the wild.
Headline photo courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Indonesia.