JAKARTA ~ Forty-eight orangutans that were smuggled into Thailand returned home to Indonesia on Wednesday, two years after they were discovered in a Bangkok zoo.
The apes were received by First Lady Ani Yudhoyono in a brief ceremony at a Jakarta airforce base.
The orangutans were supposed to leave for Indonesia in September, but their departure was delayed by the military coup in Thailand when operations at the air base in Bangkok were suspended.
They had been held at a conservation area about 100 kilometers west of Bangkok, where they have lived in large pens.
“Indonesia is happy for the return of the lost children,” Ani Yudhoyono said.
The orangutans were later flown by an Indonesian Air Force plane to the Nyaru Menteng orangutan rehabilitation center near Central Kalimantan’s capital of Palangkaraya.
Willie Smits, of conservation charity the Gibbon Foundation, said: “Orangutans, some of them as young as nine months old, are still being illegally sold at pet markets in Jakarta for Rp5 million (US$550).
“It (the repatriation of the apes) should be a beginning of a total eradication of illegal animal trade in Indonesia.”
Citrakasih Nente, a member with the veterinary team traveling with the apes, said it had isolated seven of the orangutans that were infected with Hepatitis B.
“In the rehabilitation centre, they will be living in manmade islands, so they will not be in contact with the other orangutans,” she said.
“It is better for them to be living out in the open rather than stay all their lives in cages,” Nente added.
Orangutans, the only great ape to be found outside of Africa, are native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
About 62,000 orangutans are estimated to live in Indonesia, 7,500 of them in Sumatra, Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban said.
But experts said populations are fast declining due to deforestation and illegal animal trafficking.
Smits said least 1,000 orangutans were estimated to have been killed by fires and land clearing in Indonesia this year.