Arif bought his first orangutans on Facebook.
They were two babies, and the seller offered them together for $560. The former wildlife trafficker agreed to the purchase, then sold the animals on the social media platform for $1,000.
That was in 2015, the peak of a career in the lower rungs of the illegal animal trade, where he primarily dealt in various types of exotic birds and reptiles. But the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan offers more profit, as well as more risk.
After going deeper into the business, he was eventually caught and offered two options: go to jail or cooperate by remaining undercover and providing information to police and conservation groups. He chose the latter, and agreed to speak to VICE World News under a pseudonym. He fears his life could be in danger if his contacts know about his activities.
“I am an active seller and my name is well-known in various animal trading groups, both protected and unprotected animals,” he said. An NGO confirmed his participation to VICE World News.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are a little more than 14,500 Sumatran Orangutans, one of three species of the great ape living in Indonesia, where they are threatened by habitat loss and poaching. With their distinctive red hair, gentle manner, and tourism selfie potential, the creatures are prime targets for traffickers.
“High demand from the black market” fuels hunting and trading, said Panut Hadisiswoyo, the director of local organization Orangutan Information Center (OIC), which is dedicated to protecting the species. The OIC said reasons for ownership are diverse, from private pets to animal entertainment.
In March, chaos broke out as authorities in North Sumatra confiscated a baby orangutan from a prominent local resident. The seizure went ahead but not without trouble. Members of the community reportedly refused to hand over the animal, attacked wildlife authorities and threw stones at their car, which broke down.
“It’s sad to see that there are still many unscrupulous people and even community leaders who still have the ambition to keep protected and endangered animals just for fun and social status,” Panut said.
The practice of hunting down the creatures in the wild is also extremely cruel, according to experts, who say poachers shoot mother orangutans and take their young from them as they are smaller, weak, and easier to transport.
“It’s sad to see that there are still many unscrupulous people and even community leaders who still have the ambition to keep protected and endangered animals just for fun and social status.”
Indonesia has laws on the books for protected animals like the orangutan, and violators face maximum prison terms of five years and fines of $7,000. But traffickers rarely face justice. Based on government data from the Sumatra Region reviewed by VICE World News, there were only two people named as suspects in the trafficking of orangutans in 2020.
Before he sold an orangutan, Arif bought a gibbon, making a mere $18 in a sale organized on Facebook. Tempted by bigger profits, he was soon communicating with orangutan sellers, acting as an intermediary and arranging sales to third parties.
When someone captures an orangutan, they contact Arif on Whatsapp. Real identities or pictures are rarely, if ever, divulged. He arranges to send the animals in packages via inter-provincial bus routes, which are rarely monitored.
“The package was sent to the terminal. I never wanted that item to be sent to my house,” he said, explaining how a typical trade works. “My fellow hunter just wrote down the name and destination of the delivery, and the package would only arrive at the bus terminal. Later someone ordered by the buyer will pick up the package from the terminal.”
Before they are shipped, orangutans, generally under 10 months of age, are first put in crates or baskets. Fruit and milk are provided to help calm the creatures down. The containers are wrapped in packaging so as not to be visible from outside over journeys that can last up to two days. Payments are almost always made online.
“So far, the delivery process has never failed, and the transactions have never been a problem, so my fellow hunters are happy to sell through me,” Arif said.
As part of the broader trade, orangutans are also sold outside of the country. In December 2020, nine Sumatran orangutans were repatriated from Malaysia and two from Thailand. Many of them were believed to have been captured as infants and smuggled over sea routes to Malaysia.
“So far, the delivery process has never failed, and the transactions have never been a problem, so my fellow hunters are happy to sell through me.”
Because of the level of intermediaries and corruption, it is difficult to pinpoint identities of main buyers or syndicates, according to Arif. Hunters also sometimes get tipped off that monitoring will be carried out in the forest, he said.
“I have never met buyers in person, because I also take care of my security so as not to be caught by the police,” he said, adding that stepped up law enforcement would help stop the trade.
Many orangutan poachers initially worked as farmers, but could not resist the draw of more money. Even if they are on the low end of the profit structure, a payout of roughly $1,000 per animal can be too tempting for some. Arif may have continued if he was not caught a few years ago and given the opportunity to help.
“We’ve been charting his movements for a long time. If he didn’t want to [cooperate], he might be in jail by now,” said the director of the conservation group that has worked with Arif.
Several animal trafficking cases have since been disrupted, including orangutans and other protected animals. Over the past year or so, 10 orangutans have been confiscated from the trade, according to the conservation group.
Arif has also had the chance to reflect on his past.
“Now I feel very sad when orangutan infants are taken from their mother. Sometimes the mother must be killed first so that she can be separated from the arms of her infant child. One time I realized, why am I so cruel?”
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