Thai Scientists Begin Probe in Big Orangutan Case
BANGKOK, Thailand Thai scientists began an investigation this week into what some conservationists believe could be the world's biggest case of ape smuggling: nearly 100 orangutans found in a Bangkok amusement park.
Researchers from Thailand's Kasetsart University began collecting hair, saliva, and blood samples from the Safari World orangutans for DNA tests which should determine whether the endangered orangutans were smuggled in from Indonesia.
"This case is actually very significant," said Edwin Wiek, director of the Wildlife Friends Rescue Center that treats abused animals near Bangkok. "We've had cases of seven or eight chimpanzees being smuggled, but there's never been a case so big: over a hundred orangutans found only in one place," he said.
Experts say the DNA testing will pinpoint the birthplace of the orangutans to within a few hundred kilometers (miles) in an investigation reaching a climax as Thailand prepares to host an international environment conference in October.
If the orangutans are found to be from Indonesia, they will be repatriated and the owners of the Safari World amusement park will be prosecuted, police say.
The owners of Safari World said initially their 115 orangutans were a result of a successful breeding program, but they have now admitted buying a number of them illegally, said police investigator Aroon Promphanapes.
"The owners said they got 45 of the orangutans through an exchange with someone in Thailand. Who they made the deal with and what they exchanged for the animals, we do not know yet," he said.
The DNA results should be known in about a month, when hundreds of delegates meet in Bangkok for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference.
"I think we should really consider for the future how these cases are dealt with," said Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Rescue Center. "In the 10 months that this case has been going, the animals are still in the same place, 13 of them have died in circumstances we don't know about, and I'm really concerned about the welfare of these animals," he said.
Indonesia has also expressed concern for the animals, with protesters demonstrating outside the Thai embassy in Jakarta last month to demand the immediate return of the orangutans.
Fewer than 30,000 orangutans are left in the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Animal rescue groups have offered to pay for the repatriation of the animals if they are found to have come from Indonesia. They will then need to be rehabilitated and released into the wild in a process that could take several years.