Senior Ragunan Zoo curator speaks out for orangs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2009:
JAKARTA, Indonesia–Ragunan Zoo senior
curator Ulrike Freifrau von Mengden on December
30, 2008 for the second time in three years put
her unpaid job and her home inside the zoo at
risk by speaking out on behalf of the orangutans
she has looked after ever since the zoo opened.
Prompting von Mengden’s concern each time
were the implications for nearly 50 orangutans
of a long-evolving deal whereby the Ragunan Zoo
is reportedly to acquire a female gorilla from
the Howletts Wild Animal Park in Britain in early
2009, in trade for 12 primates of Indonesian
Brokered by Gibbon Foundation director
Willie Smits, a Dutch-born Indonesian resident,
the exchange was disclosed in February 2006.
Five silvery gibbons and several Javan langurs
were sent to Howletts. Smits credited Howletts
with curing the gibbons of diseases and getting
them out of small cages.
Preparations to receive the female
gorilla are still underway, Ragunan Zoo
spokesperson Bambang Wahyudi recently told
Mariani Dewi of the Jakarta Post.
The female gorilla is expected to arrive
after a Ragunan Zoo veterinarian, a senior
keeper, and a data base administrator complete
three months of training at Howletts. Their
training started in October 2008.

The series of animal swaps that are to
culminate in the Ragunan Zoo acquring the female
gorilla began coincidental with the opening of
the Puck Schmutzer Primate Center in 2002, when
Howletts sent four young male gorillas to the
Ragunan Zoo. Only three of the gorillas have
been mentioned in recent Ragunan Zoo
announcements and media coverage. The
International Primate Protection League has
received a report that the missing gorilla died
from head injuries, but has not been able to
confirm it, IPPL founder Shirley McGreal told
Schmutzer, the Swiss patron of the
Liechtenstein-based Gibbon Foundation, and
longtime sponsor of von Mengden’s position at the
Ragunan Zoo, funded the primate center in 2000.
A longtime friend of Howletts founder John
Aspinall, who died in 2000, Schmutzer died in
2006. The Gibbon Foundation appears to have
subsequently collapsed.
Von Mengden has contended since soon
after Schmutzer’s death that Schmutzer would not
have approved of the subsequent actions of
Ragunan Zoo director Sri Mulyono. Hired in 2004,
Sri Mulyono is the eighth Ragunan Zoo director
von Mengden has worked under. A German-trained
medical technical assistant, von Mengden
emigrated to Indonesia in 1952, and soon became
a volunteer at the former Cikini Zoo in Jakarta.
“Forty years ago the then-Jakarta
Governor Ali Sadikin, Cikini Zoo director
Benjamin Galstaun, his biologist wife, and I
moved the zoo from Central Jakarta to Ragunan,”
von Mengden recalled in 2006. “Since then I have
lived in a part of the zoo not open to the
public, rearing young orangutans, babies of
killed mothers, and animals who have been
confiscated from people keeping them illegally as
pets. We prepare them to be released into their
natural habitat,” a goal that Aspinall,
Schmutzer, and Smits all favored.
The primate center had semi-autonomy
under the previous directors, but Smits’
“critical remarks and public protest against the
wide destruction of the rain forests in Indonesia
and clashes with the departments in charge,
created high tension,” von Mengden charged in
When the Gibbon Found-ation was no longer
able to fund the primate center, von Mengden
said, “In May 2006 the city government handed
over the management centre to the zoo director.
This resulted in the dismissal of a number of
qualified employees. The well-equipped workshop
with good technicians was closedÅ Now I don’t have
much left from my old age pension for food for
the neglected animals, repair of old cages, for
medicine, and for salaries of many workers.
“The original plan was to keep animals
only from Southeast Asia to promote knowledge of
them among the people, especially children, but
was abandoned,” von Mengden alleged.
“The original aim of the center catering
to the poor was diminished,” von Mengden added
in her December 2008 statement, “since entry
into the primate center requires a separate fee,
prohibitively expensive for poor Indonesian
children. The center currently houses a variety
of primates,” she noted, “including
chimpanzees, three African gorillas, gibbons,
siamangs, lorises and a few fortunate
But the Primate Center does not house the
whole Ragunan Zoo orangutan collection, von
Mengden wrote to the Jakarta Post.
“Unbeknownst to most visitors,” von Mengden
said, “there are close to 50 other orangutans
living at the zoo. These orangutans could not be
accommodated in the primate center, but were
promised new enclosures. That promise has been
unfulfilled. For more then 10 years,” von
Mengden added, “I have been waiting for the
release of several eligible orangutans back into
the wild. Currently, they are waiting patiently
in rotten dark cages, some of which were built
for bears and cats, and were used for quarantine
areas. Many times full-grown orangutans have
tried to escape. One managed to lift a piece of
iron fence from the concrete walls, so desperate
was that orangutan to see sunlight.
“My hopes quickly turned to bitter
tears,” von Mengden said, “when I learned that
[construction at the zoo] would become a new
gorilla enclosure! How can Indonesia’s beloved
national treasures sit and rot while the zoo
builds a beautiful enclosure for an African
animal? Who will care for Indonesia’s red-haired
children,” she asked, “if not the Indonesian
people themselves?”
Commented McGreal, “IPPL fails to
understand how exhibiting gorillas will help
Indonesia’s unique red apes, who are in
desperate straits. England often has dismal
dreary weather, totally unsuitable for
rainforest primates. It seems that a lot of
money has been spent on this questionable animal
deal, including plenty on travel. This was
money better spent on protecting Indonesia’s
forests and wonderful animals.”

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