The officials and dignitaries sat in neat rows on plush white chairs. The speeches were done on flowered podiums with an expensive-looking figurine of an orangutan and its baby on the front of the stage. We were quietly lurking in the background behind the media. The orangutans at the side of the stage were in crates, in the baking sun, wracking their metal crates back and forth, shaking to get out and be free.
Last week I went with Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand, where I have been volunteering, to Bangkok to help with an orangutan repatriation project that was 7 years in the works. We went to the military terminal of the Bangkok airport to help load the orangutans into the Indonesian special forces airplane so they could go back home to Indonesia. You can check out the full back story here, but I’ll give the sparknotes version.
In 2008, the director of WFFT Edwin Wiek filed an official complaint to the Thai government about 12 illegally smuggled orangutans being held in a zoo in Phuket. He poked and prodded them about it for months and eventually they took action. When the government went to intervene, they discovered the orangutans in crates on the side of the road. According to Edwin, the person responsible for the zoo is well connected in Thailand so it seemed a tad conspicuous that the orangutans just appeared at the side of the road. Since then, they have been living in a government facility, with Edwin consistently prodding the government to organize a repatriation back to Indonesia, the home from which they were smuggled. Thursday of last week, the orangutans were loaded onto a plane and sent home.
Before I get into what a strange and eye-opening day it was, I want to say that it was great to be a part of this. It was incredible to see the culmination of years and years of hard work, cooperation between governments, and to take a step back and be part of something greater than myself and my own personal circumstances.
That being said, it didn’t feel like we at WFFT were really welcome at this splashy, back-patting ceremony. In all of the 5 or 6 speeches that were delivered, WFFT was mentioned once, and only by the Indonesian ambassador for Thailand. No Thai official mentioned Edwin or WFFT. In the video kicking off the ceremony that explained the history of the orangutans, they began the story when the Thai government found them on the side of the road in crates. Nothing of Edwin or the zoo or their resistance to take action (not surprising they left the last one out). They made it seem like they just stumbled upon the orangutans on a Sunday drive through Phuket.
I didn’t mind being a silent presence, though. We wore our WFFT shirts and made ourselves visible in photographs. We would even turn our backs so the photographers would catch the organization name printed on the backs of our shirts.
The rest of the speeches were basically an hour-long pat on the back between the Indonesian and Thai governments. They said several times that this project is evidence of their commitment to ending illegal wildlife trade in Thailand. Given that Edwin basically had to force their hand to take any action at all, this made me raise an eyebrow. It is a step, yes, but it is not enough to begin claiming they have solved it and everything will be fine and dandy. When Edwin found them, there were 12 orangutans. Now there are 14, which they said was proof of how well the animals had been treated over the past few years in their care. Now, I’m not an expert in wildlife care by any means whatsoever but animals who are kept in god awful conditions can still reproduce. At WFFT, we spay and neuter the animals in our care so they don’t produce more animals that then have to be kept in captivity.
I wanted more transparency from the Thai government, more recognition that this is the beginning of a bigger movement to end animal cruelty in Thailand. I wanted them to recognize Edwin, not for his own sake because he knows he is provoking positive change and we didn’t need anymore back pats for the sake of back pats, but because recognizing him would have been a subtle recognition that they made a mistake in waiting so long to do anything. But that takes a very difficult realm of honesty that most governments aren’t willing to touch for fear of being perceived as weak. One small mention would have been all it took though, just a word or two slipped in there. Instead, they spent at least an hour congratulating each other on something they hadn’t actually done yet.
It was like the governments got so caught up in congratulating each other on this one step in ending the illegal wildlife trade in Thailand, patting each other on the back for doing such a great thing, that they forgot why they were there, and forgot about the wildlife right beside them.
When all was said and done, the orangutans were loaded on the plane and brought back to Indonesia to be rehabilitated and hopefully released back into the wild where they belong. Everything else aside, that is amazing and rewarding and inspiring. And at the end of the day, though I’m not thrilled with the way it was handled, that they went home is all that really matters.
Until Next Time,
P.S. WFFT rescued an elephant from a trekking camp yesterday and we are rescuing another on Monday. Good things are happening for Thai wildlife this week, let’s keep it going.