Freedom beckons for Pongky the orangutan after more than a decade in captivity

Pongky's tiny dirty cage at the police officer's house

A Sumatran orangutan who was kept for more than a decade in a tiny cage, then was rescued, only to end up back behind bars in a zoo, is now at a rehabilitation centre and there is every chance he will be released into the wild.

Pongky, who is now about 14 years old, was kept in captivity by a high-ranking police officer in Sumatra’s Aceh province until he was discovered by a team from the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in July 2013.

Pongky was locked in a small cage with no access to open space, very limited room to move, and only a single rope, on which he swung back and forth obsessively.

Pongky in his cage at police officer's house

The OIC reported the case to the authorities, and the Department of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation (BKSDA) intervened and confiscated the primate from the police commissioner, but, instead of being taken to a rehabilitation centre, the primate was sent to Medan zoo.

Helen Buckland, the director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), which co-founded the OIC, said: “When Pongky was confiscated, but then transferred to Medan zoo, he simply swapped one life behind bars for another. He should never have been sent to the zoo; he should have been given a second chance at a life in the wild.”

pongky clings to bars at medan zoo

Pongky reaches out for food or water at Medan Zoo

Conservation groups and concerned individuals lobbied the zoo to hand Pongky over to the orangutan quarantine centre run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) with the aim of eventually returning him to the wild.

The campaign to get Pongky out of the zoo attracted worldwide attention and support. Nearly 10,000 emails were sent to the head of BKSDA Aceh and the director-general of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) in Jakarta, urging them to transfer Pongky to the SOCP centre.

In October 2013, the PHKA director-general ordered the zoo to transfer Pongky to SOCP’s care.

“This was a short-lived victory, however, as the zoo ignored the order and Pongky remained languishing in filthy conditions in the zoo,” Buckland said.

The director of the OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo, says the campaigners didn’t give up. “We continued lobbying the government and the zoo to release Pongky.”

The campaigners’ efforts eventually paid off and today (Tuesday) Pongky was finally safely relocated from Medan zoo to the SOCP’s centre in Batu Mbelin, north of Medan.

“After more than two years of hard work and campaigning, Pongky has finally been granted another chance of freedom,” Hadisiswoyo said. “This is a fantastic outcome, not only for him, but also for other orangutans still in need of rescue from the illegal pet trade.”

The BKSDA and Medan zoo have agreed to ensure that no orangutans confiscated from the illegal pet trade will be taken to the zoo in the future. “They will instead be given every opportunity to be rehabilitated and released back to the forest, to contribute to the survival of this critically endangered species in the wild,” Hadisiswoyo said.

There are only about 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. Their habitat is being destroyed to make way for oil palm and other plantations, and the construction of roads, and many of them die at the hands of poachers. Often, the mothers are killed so that their infants can be sold on the black market to be kept as pets.

Indonesian law states very clearly that it is illegal to keep, kill, harm, transport, or trade orangutans and it is also Indonesian government policy – set out in its National Strategy and Action Plan for Orangutan Conservation 2007-2017 – that all orangutans confiscated from the pet trade should enter a rehabilitation programme and be returned to the forest.

Deforestation is the main cause of human-orangutan conflict, Hadisiswoyo says. “The deforestation triggers poaching, 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.”

Hadisiswoyo recounts what happened when he first went to try and confiscate Pongky. “The police commissioner started banging the table, insisting that he was the lawmaker. He said I shouldn’t try teaching him what was legal or illegal. He got very stressed and emotional and kept telling me how he loved the orangutan like his own son.”

Hadisiswoyo tried to explain to the police commissioner that the orangutan would grow to a serious size and could even escape and kill someone. “He is someone who is supposed to prosecute the people who are keeping orangutans, but he himself was keeping one.

“It is completely illegal to keep orangutans as pets, but people think of them as a status symbol, something to show that they are above the law. It is especially shocking when it is members of the police force that keep orangutans as pets, but unfortunately this is not uncommon.”

The police commissioner even asked for cash to give up the orangutan, arguing that he had spent a lot of money keeping the primate.

When the police commissioner refused to give Pongky up, the OIC went to the BKSDA for help.

Unfortunately, Buckland says, no legal action has ever been taken against the police commissioner for keeping Pongky illegally.

It took four people to lift Pongky Photo credit Irsan Antara for OIC

It took four people to lift Pongky. Photo by Irsan Antara for the OIC.

There is still a long journey ahead for Pongky before he can be released, Hadisiswoyo says. “But we are optimistic that he has a good chance of being a wild orangutan again, out in the forest where he belongs.

“We thank the government for their assistance and support in ensuring Pongky’s long-term welfare and granting him this opportunity.”

Pongky's right eye needs urgent medical attention

Pongky’s right eye needed urgent medical attention.

Senior veterinarian at the SOCP, Yenny Saraswati, says Pongky will need time to adjust to his new surroundings. He will then be given a complete health check. The vets will be examining him for such illnesses such as tuberculosis and hepatitis, which captive primates sometimes contract from their human captors and owners.

“Once we have the results of his tests, we’ll then be able to properly assess his future; namely if Pongky can indeed be returned to a life in the wild, or if we will have to find an alternative long-term solution for his care.

“Whatever the outcome, Pongky is definitely now in much better conditions and has much better care than he has been used to as an illegal pet and at Medan zoo. And there’s every chance he can be free once again if all goes well.”

Pongky is tranquilised at Medan Zoo by OIC's vet

Pongky is tranquilised at Medan zoo by the OIC’s vet before being transported to the SOCP centre. Photo by Irsan Antara for the OIC.

Buckland urges the Indonesian government to crack down on the illegal pet trade “so that in future it is the wildlife poachers and traders, not orangutans, that end up behind bars”.

There are very few prosecutions of wildlife traders in Indonesia. One trader, who was caught trying to sell an infant orangutan, was sentenced to two years in prison and fined ten million Indonesian rupiah (about 750 US$) in Medan in July last year.

Investigations revealed that the trafficker, Vast Haris Nugroho Sentono, 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 director of the SOCP, Ian Singleton, described the prosecution as an “excellent and extremely welcome result”.

Another orangutan trader – a 29-year-old university student named Rahmadani – was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 50 million rupiah (about US$3,653) in November last year. He was convicted for selling three infant orangutans. It was the first ever conviction of an orangutan trader in Aceh, which is a centre for orangutan trafficking.

When Rahmadani was arrested in an operation in August, he also had in his possession two red-backed sea eagles, a great argus, which is a type of pheasant, and a taxidermied Sunda clouded leopard.

These baby orangutans were confiscated from a trafficker in Aceh in August. Photo by Junaidi Hanafiah

Infant orangutans confiscated in Aceh in August.

Hadisiswoyo said the conviction was an important milestone for law enforcement against environmental crimes, but Rahmadani should have received a stronger sentence. The maximum penalty for wildlife trafficking under the 1990 conservation law is five years’ imprisonment and a 100 million rupiah fine.

Also noting the sentence handed down in July in North Sumatra, Hadisiswoyo said: “This proves that wildlife trafficking cases are not being taken seriously by the courts, even though these creatures represent priceless natural assets for Indonesia.”

Singleton said: “Since the early 1970s there have been more than three thousand 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.”

Since 2001, the SOCP has released more than 180 orangutans at the edge of the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Jambi province, and more than eighty in the Jantho Wildlife Reserve in Aceh, gradually establishing two new, self-sustaining, and genetically viable wild populations.

The SOS is appealing for funds to support Pongky’s care and recovery.

pongky eye


Headline photo: Pongky kept in a cage by a police commissioner in Aceh.