Indonesia Sanctuary Puts the Beast Back into Animals
CIKANANGA, Indonesia Looking irritated, Indonesian animal trainer Alen tries to ignore the loud shrieks of "good morning" coming from white cockatoos in an outdoor cage.
"Please don't answer them," said Alen, walking past other exotic birds such as Javanese eagles and birds of paradise at an animal rescue shelter in Indonesia's West Java.
"We are training the animals to be wild here."
The birds are among 1,300 protected animals in the sanctuary run by a non-governmental group trying to reduce Indonesia's rampant illegal trade in wildlife.
The Cikananga Animal Rescue Center tries to help animals regain their natural instincts to allow their return to the wild.
But if two Sumatran tigers awaiting a meal of raw goat meat are any indication, Alen and his team face a challenge.
"Once we gave the tigers live goats, but instead of attacking the goats, they were afraid of them," Alen, who uses only one name, said pointing at one of the sleepy eyed tigers, whose mood appeared more like that of a house cat than a dangerous predator.
Indonesia is home to some of the world's rarest animals and has tough regulations aimed at protecting them, yet the population is dwindling.
Although Indonesia signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) almost three decades ago, endemic corruption means environmental laws are flouted or ignored.
"It's difficult to get accurate data on how many endangered animals were being traded and smuggled from Indonesia," said Suparno of ProFauna, a local animal protection group. "Our investigation shows up to 1,000 animals per year."
Many of the orang-utans, Sumatran tigers, Javanese Rhinos and birds at Cikananga were illegally kept as domestic pets by anyone from high ranking officials to business tycoons.
The animals were status symbols, trained and domesticated -- the white cockatoos can even utter greetings in Arabic.
Getting them into the sanctuary is a battle both against their powerful owners and bureaucracy.
Suparno said owners were rarely charged once animals were seized. "We have weak law enforcement here. They can easily buy animals again," he said.
Many endangered species are traded or smuggled for use as house pets while stuffed rare animals end up in living rooms of the wealthy as house decorations. Many are smuggled abroad. "It's difficult to stop illegal trading of animals. In this country, it has become an organized crime," said Budiharto, a spokesman for the Cikananga center.
At the center, located in thick forest about 100 miles south of Jakarta, animals go through a multi-step process before being declared ready to return to their natural habitat, away from the support of their human keepers.
When animals are first brought in they are moved into specially designed cages that replicate their natural environment.
They eat what they would normally hunt or forage for in the jungle, while human contact is limited. As their natural instincts develop, the animals are moved to a giant enclosure that also aims to re-create their usual environment.
Run by local and international volunteers, the center relies on private donations and gets help from local people who provide food for the animals.
One program allows donors to "foster" animals by providing money for their food and other necessities.
Budiharto said the center had been overcrowded for some time as deforestation made it difficult to find habitats for some animals to return to.
Indonesia has the world's worst deforestation rate and some environmental groups estimate that a forested area the size of Switzerland is being lost every year.
For some of the animals, like the exotic birds, being in the sanctuary can be better than a return to the wild.
"It's not easy to release the birds. When we release them people are going to shoot them or trap them again," said French volunteer Cyril Blin.