Illegal trade in Indonesian markets putting wild animals in danger

Source: AFP, 17 July 2008

JAKARTA  — Tiger skins and rare caged primates openly sold at markets in the heart of Indonesia's capital are the most brazen and visible aspect of a thriving illegal wildlife trade.

Indonesia is struggling to take on a multi-million-dollar industry that is stripping the archipelago nation's vast forests of endangered species for enormous profit by selling them to buyers around the world.

With corruption rife and authorities overwhelmed, conservationists say police and forestry officials have barely made a dent.

Activists and the government estimate Indonesia loses at least 80 million dollars a year through the illegal trade, with rare animals -- dead and alive -- being sold at huge mark-ups once they get to overseas markets.

"What's interesting is that an orangutan caught in Kalimantan (on Borneo island) costs no more than three million rupiah (327 dollars) and is sold in Jakarta for five million rupiah," said Asep Purnama from the non-government organisation ProFauna.

"Once they get to Taiwan they will sell for around 100 million rupiah and in Europe they'll sell for 400 million," he said, adding that an estimated 100 orangutans are taken every year from Kalimantan's forests alone.

Purnama's group estimates around 10,000 animals found only on Sumatra island were poached in 2007 to supply the illegal trade.

While some animals are shipped directly from Kalimantan or Sumatra to Malaysia or the Philippines, much of the trade is directed through the teeming animal markets of Indonesia's major cities, Purnama said.

"Since the illegal wildlife trade in the markets is the result of wild poaching, stopping the illegal trade in the markets would reduce the poaching itself," he said.

A short walk through Jakarta's Jatinegara shows a flourishing trade.

Peddlers sell slow lorises, a rare bug-eyed primate from Sumatra's forests, for less than 10 dollars each as pets for middle-class families.

Most buyers likely don't know trade in the seemingly cute animals is illegal -- or that they usually die within weeks from the stress of captivity -- but the sellers do, and they are extremely camera shy.

A few hundred metres (yards) away in Jatinegara's gem market, however, one trader selling tiger skins was happy to show off her wares.

The skins are from tigers killed more than a decade ago, she said, and the most valuable parts, the bones and meat, were long ago sold to China and Singapore.

What was left would only be good for making handbags, she said.

Most of Jakarta's animal trade, including at Jatinegara, comes through the city's massive Pramuka bird market, the largest in Southeast Asia, according to Femke den Haas from the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN).

Occasional raids have driven most of the high-profile endangered animals from clear view, but buyers from around the world still place orders for goods as exotic as tiger cubs and ivory, den Haas said.

"The bigger stuff you get from houses from behind (the markets) and the even bigger stuff, for example orangutans, you have to order," she said.

Investigations by JAAN and other non-government organisations have found exotic birds brought by ferry from Papua in the country's east and rare animals brought in from Sumatra by air-conditioned coach.

"We call them the grandmother mafia network because all these grandmothers transport the animals," den Haas said.

While conservationists have been pushing for a crackdown, they say authorities are often either under-resourced, corrupt or unaware of the problem.

"(For a prosecution) you need to pay the judges, you need to pay the police, you need to pay for the food in the police cell," den Haas said.

"The reason the justice system takes so long is that the judge says: 'I didn't know these species were protected, I have two sea turtles in my house'," she said, adding this was a genuine anecdote from a recent trial.
Despite the slow progress, the forestry ministry says it is doing the best it can with limited resources.

"Regular enforcement is still going on. I see the enforcement making a lot of progress compared to the past," said ministry biodiversity conservation head Toni Suhartono.

But the ministry can usually only muster small teams to go on raids, and they are often easily outwitted in the winding alleyways of the animal markets, Suhartono said.

"They're very smart," he said of the wildlife dealers.

"When we send people there they disappear. It's like hit and run," he said, adding that low penalties meted out by courts mean even successful raids are not a strong deterrent.

Corruption within the ministry also made enforcement a challenge, Suhartono said, with officials earning a basic wage of only 1.3 million rupiah a month.

ProFauna said a recent investigation found one forestry ministry officer in Medan in northern Sumatra moonlighting as a smuggler.

Another investigation by the group in 2007 found ministry officials had sold off confiscated ivory that had been stockpiled as evidence in a poaching trial.