Science

On the trail of the Orangutan Killers

They meet potential leads in cafés, at markets, and sometimes even in their own homes. Social skills are a must; you need to be chatty to get people to open up about the kidnappers in their midst.

The investigators have built up a network of informants. They regularly receive tip-offs that another kidnapping has occurred.

But this can be dangerous. When the victims of kidnapping are rescued, the criminals will often seek out the people who tracked them down, and try to get revenge. To protect themselves, the investigators all have undercover stories, meticulously constructed to help them blend in.

This is the life led by Indonesia’s undercover wildlife crime investigators. Over the last 10 years they have rescued hundreds of orangutans that have been illegally captured and sold to the highest bidder. The trade is a lucrative one, and the investigators face an uphill battle. But after a decade of work, they think they know the scale and nature of the problem – and how to save the orangutans from extinction.

Bornean orangutans are now critically endangered (Credit: Tim Laman)

Bornean orangutans are now critically endangered (Credit: Tim Laman)

Edi Rahman is one of these investigators, working for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP).

He says getting local people’s trust has been crucial. To help with that, the GPOCP provides educational programmes, visits schools, and hosts community discussions and field trips.

When cases are reported and then a confiscation occurs, they are upset and will often search for who conveyed this information

Now it has informants in every village in the area. “If an informant has information, they will contact our investigation team, who will then visit the location to collect more information for the formal report,” says Rahman.

But the risk of blowback is real. “People who keep orangutans as pets are very attached to the animal,” says Rahman. “They have spent money on care, meals and other maintenance costs. When cases are reported and then a confiscation occurs, they are upset and will often search for who conveyed this information.”

If that sounds like a serious operation, it is. Wildlife crime is considered the fourth most lucrative black-market industry in the world. It is worth about $19bn (£15.4bn) a year. And orangutans are some of the criminals’ most vulnerable targets.

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