Thailand Theme Park Continues to Host Orangutan Kickboxing Matches
Endangered primates still exploited for amusement despite years of protests by animal welfare activists and anti-trafficking crackdowns
I recently found out that Safari World, an animal theme park on the outskirts of Bangkok, hosts orangutan kickboxing matches. Captive orangutans, dressed in lurid satin shorts and boxing gloves, kick and punch each other until there is a knockout. The performances even feature female orangutans in bikinis holding up the round number. The matches last more than 30 minutes, after which the orangutans are returned to their dark cages. Video footage of the park shows tourists cheering the grotesque display.
Photo courtesy Care2
Safari World insists that the orangutans are trained to pretend punch and feign knock-outs, however, animal rights activists say that the large animals could easily injure one another.
“The use of endangered species for sport and entertainment is appalling. These critically endangered orangutans do not exist for our entertainment; local indigenous populations should know this, and tourists must be sensitive to this. We as a species and global population did not develop to exploit animals for amusement,” Michael Muehlenbein, professor of anthropology at Indiana University told me via email. Muehlenbein has spent a lot of time in Borneo studying primate disease ecology and the potential negative effects of interactions between humans and wild animals.
Back in 2004, after mounting pressure from animal rights groups, the Thai government cracked down on Safari World, taking custody of the orangutans. As wild orangutans are now only found in the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia, Safari World claimed that their orangutans were the result of a successful domestic breeding program. DNA tests, however, proved that many were illegally traded from Indonesia. Eventually, nearly 50 smuggled orangutans were returned to their native Indonesia, after one of the world’s largest cases of great ape trafficking.
Photo by Eric Vondy
Although those repatriated primates are now healthy, the outlook for their species is grim.
Orangutans are remarkably similar to humans. These highly intelligent primates can use advanced tools and display distinct cultural patterns in the wild. Their anatomy, physiology and behavior undeniably link them to us. Yet humans are the greatest threat to orangutan’s survival. Orangutans once used to live all over Southeast Asia, but are now restricted to small populations on Borneo and Sumatra. But even their last remaining habitats in the lowland tropical forests of Indonesia are under threat. Human usage, such as logging and conversion of forests to palm oil plantations is quickly devastating these jungles. Less than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild. The IUCN lists the Sumatran orangutan and the Borneo orangutan as critically endangered and endangered, respectively. Without intervention, orangutans will likely go extinct in the next 20 years.
Illegal trade of orangutans, for entertainment or pets, also contributes significantly to their decline through removing individuals from already undersized wild populations. In the last 30 years, an estimated 2,000 orangutans have been confiscated or turned in, in Indonesia, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization.
Despite the crackdown, orangutan kickboxing matches continue at Safari World. According to an email I received from the park, orangutan matches are hosted daily — once a day on weekdays and twice a day on weekends — continually attracting tourists to the perverse spectacle.
“The immediate outcome is the removal of this charismatic species from its natural habitat, and loss of reproductive populations. Apes and monkeys of course are viewed as cute and similar to humans in many of their actions. Yet these are not reasons to exploit them as side-show attractions, as if they are not autonomous, beautiful animals that deserve our protection,” says Muehlenbein.
The orangutan’s plight is not unique among its brethren species. Last week the IUCN released a list of the top 25 most endangered primates, called Primates in Peril. The list details the urgent status of extremely threatened primates around the world.
“Primates are our closest living relatives and probably the best flagship species for tropical rain forests, since more than 90 percent of all known primates occur in this endangered biome,” says Dr Russell Mittermeier, who chairs the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, which compiled the list.
Although orangutans did not make the list, they are among the over 50 percent of the world’s 633 primate species and sub-species classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List. Orangutans are particularly vital to their native rainforests, because as fruit eaters, they act as seed dispersers, helping to regenerate the forest. Conservation of orangutans is essential to the conservation of Indonesian rainforests and it is clear that this flagship species is in dire need of careful protection.
It is true that eco-tourism can have a positive impact on conservation efforts. Borneo-based outfit Red Ape Encounters, for example, offers guided tours through the jungles where small groups of tourists can watch orangutans in the wild. In this case, stress to the orangutan is minimized through keeping tourist groups small and at least 30 feet away from the primates. Vital revenue is generated, which helps keeping rainforests intact economically viable in the face of logging efforts. Tourists additionally gain an appreciation for the wild orangutan, perhaps inspiring further conservation efforts.
“Primates are increasingly becoming a major ecotourism attraction, and primate-watching is growing in interest and serving as a key source of livelihood in many local communities living around protected areas in which these species occur,” says Mittermeier who encourages “primate-watching,” a growing past-time akin to birding.
This is well-crafted, productive eco-tourism. Primate boxing matches are simply idiotic.