Hundreds of orangutans were smuggled to fuel the exotic pet trade from the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra to areas far beyond orangutan native range in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990, the Royal Thai Forestry seized six infant orangutans at the Bangkok Airport who were in the process of being smuggled to the former Yugoslavia. The two small wooden boxes on the baggage belt were labeled “Birds,” but Thai baggage handlers heard sounds coming from within the wooden crates that did not seem birdlike. They called security, who called the Forestry Department, and a Forestry official ordered the two boxes to be x-rayed. Once they discovered it was not birds that the boxes contained, the Forestry official ordered the boxes confiscated and opened. The orangutans had been without food or water for four days and were packed so tightly into the two boxes that they could barely move. At least three of them seemed very close to death. Thanks to quick support from OFI donors, volunteers in Thailand who gave around the clock care to the ailing infants as soon as they were found, and the willingness of OFI volunteer/experienced animal caregiver Diane Taylor-Snow to leave immediately for Bangkok and take charge of nursing the infants back to strength, they survived in Bangkok. The youngsters became known as the “Bangkok Six.”
Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas flew to Bangkok from Borneo at the request of the Indonesian government to join the official team negotiating the return of the Bangkok Six to Indonesia. The Thai government wanted a verified orangutan expert to be on the negotiating team to ensure that the orangutans would return to the forest. Negotiations were carried out under a strong spotlight of attention from the Thai media. After weeks of negotiation, the Thai Forestry Department agreed to return the infant orangutans to Indonesia. After negotiations and much discussion, the Bangkok Six were sent to a camp in Tanjung Puting National Park to be cared for by an OFI team, including Ms. Taylor-Snow. Unfortunately, the three smallest infants ultimately died. One larger infant, now a juvenile, successfully returned to the forest. The fate of the other two larger infants is unknown, as they disappeared into the forest never to be seen again. It was very clear that being crammed into a small wooden box with tiny airholes, without food and water for several days, in the heat of the tropics, with the box often upside down, was not conducive to good health and survival.
The tragedy of the Bangkok Six, with only one robust little female known to successfully return to the wild, was not a surprise to most people. Much credit should be given to the late Shirley McGreal, who had by then established International Primate Protection League (IPPL), for her determined and persistent pursuit through the US courts of the animal smugglers ultimately responsible for this tragedy. The tragedy of the Bangkok Six was amplified when the apparently healthy middle-aged head of the Thai Forestry agency responsible for the confiscation of the Bangkok Six at the airport flew to Washington DC in the course of the US government’s investigation and abruptly died in the US from unknown causes. Dr. Galdikas was contacted in person by one of the former Noriega prosecutors and asked to confirm in a Florida court that the six orangutans in question were truly orangutans. Former President Noriega of Panama had just been apprehended and arrested and was sitting in a US prison. Paranoia struck deep. Despite assurances from the serene US government official, Dr. Galdikas went and tried to buy a bulletproof jacket but was not successful. As she later commented, these things are not commonly found in department stores. As it turned out, the day before the trial was to begin in Florida in August 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and the courthouse was demolished. The huge hurricane caused many billions in damages. The court case was postponed. Dr. Galdikas never flew to Florida. Dr. Galdikas’ belief that Mother Nature is more powerful than the intentions of people was once again confirmed. Somebody eventually was convicted in 1993 for great ape smuggling as a result of the Bangkok Six investigation and sentenced to prison.