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  Channel NewsAsia 24 Jul 06
Vietnam to send two smuggled orangutans back to Indonesia

HANOI : Vietnam was due to send back a pair of smuggled orangutans to Indonesia on Monday in a speedy repatriation environmentalists said sent a strong signal to illegal wildlife traffickers.

The endangered apes from the rainforests of Indonesian Borneo were confiscated less than two weeks ago from a private hotel zoo near the southern Vietnamese business hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

The two females, aged two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years, were due to return in the cargo hold of a Garuda Airlines flight leaving at 1:50 pm (0650 GMT) and arriving in Jakarta at 5:50 pm local time.

"It's a very good message to illegal wildlife traders and rich people who think they can afford to keep them," said Edwin Wiek, of the not-for-profit Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) foundation, who was to accompany the apes.

Wiek and another non-governmental group, Wildlife At Risk, found the animals and alerted Vietnamese authorities, leading Forestry Protection Department officials to confiscate the great apes from the Tanh Canh Hotel on July 11.

They had been smuggled into the country seven to 12 months ago from the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on Borneo island, Wiek said. "We believe the animals came by boat through the Mekong Delta somewhere on a trade ship, although one of them may have been brought through a small harbour in Cambodia and then taken overland," said Wiek. "I think people actually order the animals and get them shipped out. I believe it's organised."

Wiek said the apes were dehydrated and malnourished when they were found, but were in good health now after being cared for by BOS veterinarian Dr Cheryl MacPherson, who was also to fly with the animals.

The hotel where the apes were found also kept macaques, civets, birds and about 80 Asiatic black bears, used to extract bile used for traditional medicine, said Wiek.

Orangutans are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which Vietnam signed in 1994, yet experts say the trade in them continues unabated.

"Thailand and Cambodia are probably number one, and Vietnam would definitely be somewhere in the top ten as well," said Wiek.

He praised Vietnam for clearing the repatriation in less than two weeks. "It's the first time ever I witness something like this," he said. "Vietnam is doing absolutely the right thing and is sending out a very clear message."

By contrast, Wiek said, the repatriation of 53 orangutans from a zoo in the Thai capital had been held up for almost three years, and Cambodia had refused to discuss the matter of orangutan smuggling.

An estimated 65,000 orangutans remain in the wild in Indonesia and Malaysia, says the foundation, but the animals are threatened by habitat loss, disease and the illegal pet trade. - AFP /ct

ASEAN Wildlife Trade Initiative on the TRAFFIC website
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