The plight of an emaciated, possibly crippled baby orangutan has brought worldwide attention this week to the cruel practices that resulted in the endangered ape spending the first 10 months of his life in a chicken cage in Borneo.
Budi, as the baby orangutan has come to be known, arrived at the Orangutan Rescue Center in Ketapang late last month suffering from malnutrition, anemia and crippling pain from poorly developed muscles and bones. His unnamed Indonesian “owner,” who voluntarily turned him in to the rescue center, had fed him nothing but condensed milk for months. The lack of nutrition and protein left him too weak to sit up on his own. Not only that, his limbs were so swollen with fluid that he screamed in agony when veterinarians tried to lift him. (See the heartbreaking video below.)
So how did Budi come to be in such a sorry state? In all likelihood he entered the pet trade—which is banned under Indonesian law—after his habitat was destroyed, probably illegally, for agriculture or the palm oil trade, says Alan Knight, OBE, chief executive of International Animal Rescue, the organization that runs the center. “Experience tells us that his mother is likely to have been killed and Budi caught and sold,” he says. “We have countless infants in our rescue center with similar stories.”
Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, blames the palm oil industry for the horrors faced by Budi and other orangutans like him. “The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are the only place where these gentle, intelligent creatures live—each island is home to a different species—and the cultivation of palm oil has directly led to the brutal deaths of thousands of individuals as the industry has expanded into previously undisturbed areas of rainforest at an alarming rate.” Borneo’s orangutan population has declined at least 55 percent over the past 20 years due to rampant deforestation and hunting. Palm oil, meanwhile, is used in everything from candy to cosmetics.
As the palm oil industry has expanded, orangutans and other wildlife pay the price. “When the forest is cleared, adult orangutans are typically shot on sight,” Zimmerman explains. “These peaceful, sentient beings are beaten, burned, mutilated, tortured and often eaten. Babies are literally torn off their dying mothers so they can be sold on the black market as illegal pets to wealthy families who see them as status symbols of their own power and prestige.” Other animals end up in zoos or wildlife parks. The exact number of orangutans that enter the pet trade is not known, but the organization Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia estimates it at more than 1,000 per year. All of this trade is illegal under national laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Budi, despite his suffering, is actually one of the lucky ones. A report published in 2013 by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GASP) found that the vast majority of orangutans and other apes that enter the illegal pet trade do not survive.
Luckily for this one orangutan the public has taken notice of Budi’s situation. Since his story hit this past weekend people around the world have donated more than $30,000 toward his care, an amount Knight says he hopes to double. “Budi may never recover sufficiently to return to the wild, in which case we will be responsible for his care and well-being for the rest of his life. If he can't be released, we will aim to provide a suitable place for him to live in a secure, seminatural, forested environment.”
By the way, Budi is making progress, reports veterinarian Christine Nelson. “Budi can lift a small bottle of milk to drink on his own now, but only if it’s not too full or heavy. He is trying new foods all the time and he is willingly opening his mouth to eat, but we are blending his food because he still hasn’t learned how to chew.” He has also started to sit up on his own for at least a few minutes. The exertion tires him out so much that he quickly falls asleep, cuddling with his favorite stuffed animal. That’s small comfort for what he’s been through, but for now it will have to be enough.
Photos courtesy of International Animal Rescue