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  Channel NewsAsia 23 Apr 06
Boxing orangutans offer hope on animal trade war

BANGKOK : They were removed from the jungle and smuggled into Thailand. There, they were forced to knock each other out as spectators snapped photos and chuckled in amusement.

But two years after they were rescued from a Bangkok zoo, more than 50 orangutans may finally go home, marking a small victory in the struggle against the illegal wildlife trade.

"We're sending a strong signal that the game is over now," said Sean Whyte, chief executive of Nature Alert, a non-profit environmental group. "Anyone who tries to make a living selling orangutans will find it very difficult."

The simian saga started in 2003 when government officials raided Safari World, a zoo in the eastern suburbs of Bangkok, and recovered 114 orangutans. Before their rescue, the apes were forced into donning silk shorts and boxing gloves, and performing mock kickboxing matches. The show was one of Safari World's main attractions. Zoo owners claimed the primates were bred in-house, but DNA tests proved that 57 were born outside Thailand, most likely in Malaysia or Indonesia.

Officials sent the wild orangutans to the Khao Pratap Chang wildlife preserve to await repatriation. Three have since died.

Since the case first came to light, the orangutans have been in a well-publicized tug of war between Thai officials and non-government organizations. NGOs claim that the government has been uncooperative and slow in sending the animals back. The government, however, insists it is doing everything to ensure the apes' survival in the wild, including further DNA testing to determine whether the apes came from Malaysia or Indonesia.

On Friday and Saturday, officials met in Bangkok for the first time to discuss the best way to handle the orangutans' long-awaited homecoming and decided to send them to Indonesia while awaiting results of the DNA tests. If the tests show the orangutans are from Malaysia, they will be sent there from Indonesia, Tassannee Vejpongsa, a representative of the WildAid foundation said who was present in the meetings, told AFP Saturday.

"The sooner we repatriate them, the better, because they will have a greater chance of survival in the wild," said Chawann Tuhikorn, Thai deputy chief of national parks, adding that the government had planned from the beginning to send the apes back. "We said we would do anything in our power to do it right. We want to do things properly and through the right channels," he told AFP.

Some NGO representatives, who had been stepping up protests for the orangutans' release, saw the meeting as a small step in the right direction. "I think our campaign is bearing fruit," said Edwin Wiek, the Thailand representative for The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), which specializes in orangutan rehabilitation and conservation. "The pressure is getting a lot stronger."

Wiek said at least 700 orangutans are smuggled annually in Southeast Asia, with an estimated 100-300 trafficked through Thailand alone.

The saffron-haired primates are native to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and to Borneo, an island shared by Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Experts say only about 27,000 remain in the wild and that populations are fast declining due to deforestation and trafficking.

Although the Safari World case may set a precedent in the fight against animal smuggling, the battle is far from over.

"Orangutans are at the tip of the iceberg," said Willie Smits, BOS chairman in Indonesia. "The problem of animal trafficking is much bigger. Governments need to do more."

But Chawann points out that international alliances, such as the Wildlife Enforcement Network within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are trying to do just that.

"Money drives the animal trade," he said. "We need cooperation and communication within and among the countries." Wiek also blamed irresponsible tourism.

"People understand that wildlife should not be exploited," he said. "But they are still going to monkey shows and getting their pictures taken with snakes and gibbons. We can only fight it with proper education." - AFP/ir

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