What to Know about the Illegal Orangutan trade

Illegal animal trade and poaching have long been cemented in human history. Orangutans are no exception.

Jun 24, 2023By Alex Guse
illegal orangutan trade

We hear about large exotic predatory cats being taken from the wild and put into questionable nature preserves. The ivory trade is also a popular subject among illegal trade activists. However, one of the least documented acts of animal cruelty resides in the community of unlawful Orangutan trades. There are some unimaginable acts going on behind the scenes that take these primates from their natural habitat into a cage and onto a buyer. This is their story.

Where Does it All Start?

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The majority of the orangutan population resides in Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests, specifically in Borneo and Sumatra, where the primates derive their names from. These rainforests are home to many other animals that are poached or illegally traded, like elephants and tigers.

The area inhabitants are taken and shipped up to mainland southeast Asia to places like Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan. There is evidence that the mammals are taken up through the middle east to Europe, but the reports are vague at best. We know where it starts, as there is only a tiny population of these animals left in a small part of the world. What is hard for people following the illegal trade is where they are going, as the documents of this process are essentially non-existent from both authorities and poachers alike.

So, we know where they are coming from, but why is this happening, and how?

How They Capture Orangutans and Why?

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Across the globe, deforestation is destroying habitats at a spectacular rate, and the Orangutan's habitat is no different. Reports say that one in every four orangutans' habitat is threatened and will be destroyed. That is an absurd stat line.

This deforestation is caused by the palm oil industry clearing forests for both plantations and palm oil itself. It ultimately drives orangutans from their natural habitat onto the outskirts of the rainforest, where they search for food and shelter.

This is where the trouble takes place. It is hard to spot and capture an orangutan in the jungle as it is an arboreal animal and lives in the trees. But, if there are no trees to live in, the primates must stick to the ground where they are easily captured.

The biggest money maker for the illegal trade industry is far and wide the babies. People who buy these animals want a cute, cuddly monkey, and not a 250-pound behemoth. That means most mature orangutans are shot and killed while the orphaned babies are caged and sold.

This works on two levels as the adult great apes are extremely hard to move, keep hidden, and are worth minimal amounts. The babies can fit in a backpack and are worth many times over their mothers and fathers. Convenience and money are what these poachers are looking for. The trade continues as more and more wealthy people want exotic pets, but the transaction doesn't always end there, as some people buy these primates to use as exotic meat to eat. Tragic and gross.

What is Being Done to Stop This?


In all honesty, not much is being done. The lawmakers and authorities in the area turn a blind eye to the illegal trade industry regarding orangutans. For the most part, very few laws are put into place to hinder this type of activity, and many officers are easily bribed. Some even own pet orangutans themselves.

The illegal wildlife trade industry is upward of a 20-billion-dollar business, so getting in the way of it could spell trouble for officials and their families as well. When they find orangutans in homes, the great ape is rarely taken from the individual.

When people are caught and tried, the punishment is relaxed. A man was tried and convicted (for the first time) recently for trying to sell orangutans illegally. His sentence was less than a year, with less than a thousand-dollar fine. So not more than just a slap on the wrist.

That does not mean all hope is lost. Many organizations are putting their morals in the forefront and doing something to combat these horrendous acts of animal cruelty. These folks help bring orangutans into protected sanctuaries where they can live in peace with others from their species that have been rescued.

Why is This Important?

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Besides this being an unethical act on the animal kingdom? Here are some other reasons why you might find that bringing light to the illegal orangutan trade is important.

The population of the Sumatra Orangutan is roughly six to ten thousand, making them a critically endangered species. Their cousins, the Borneo Orangutan, have a larger population of around 50,000, but are still endangered.

Poaching, coupled with habitat loss due to deforestation, is a force that will wreak havoc on this already-decimated population. If that does not seem like enough, orangutans have an incredibly slow reproduction and birth rate. This trifecta is on track to wipe out the entire orangutan species forever unless something is done about it.

Being aware of what is happening is not only for the preservation of the great apes but for other animals that are being traded on the exotic pet market. If changes are not made, many other species will follow down the path of the orangutan and land on the critically endangered list.

Something must be done, and it starts with awareness.

Alex Guse
By Alex Guse

Alex is the proud owner of Chester the puggle (beagle pug mix); his first dog was Zion, an Australian shepherd, which translated into a love for animals at an early age. He has since owned many pets, from dogs to reptiles and everything in between. His true passion for animals comes from being an outdoorsman. He finds that nature is where knowledge and respect for wildlife are paramount!