Indonesia Field Report On Wildlife Trafficking And Illegal Fishing As The Last Twitch?
The Cruel Wildlife Market
Hundreds of cages with birds, lizards, bats, and mammals were stacked upon one another, with tens or sometimes even hundreds of specimens crammed into one cage. Several dozen white-eyes (a bird genus) were squeezed into a cage appropriate for one canary. At least a hundred bats were stuffed into another container. In a cage atop this stack, more than fifty green agama dragon lizards, some dead, with their bodies rotting amidst those still alive, were desperately competing on the ceiling of their container for a little of bit space. Two baby civets, on sale for 400,000 Indonesia rupiah each (about USD 40) were shoved into an adjacent box. Like the rest of the unfortunate animals – squirrels, chipmunks, black-naped orioles, drongos, leafbirds, shamas, mynas, partridges, and the highly-prized and highly-threatened lories – the civets had no water and no protection from the full blast of the hot Indonesian sun. Many of the animals would die in this (in)famous Yogyakarta bird market before they were sold to new owners.
Meanwhile, however, the Yogyakarta bird market, like other wildlife markets in Indonesia and East Asia, serves as a perfect incubator for diseases that can mutate and jump among species, such as avian influenza and SARS. Such zoogenic diseases could potentially set off a catastrophic pandemic killing millions of people. The spread of the viruses to domestic animals and people is exacerbated by the trade in roosters for cock-fights, also on sale in the market amidst the wild-caught birds and animals. Even the animals sold before they die in the hands of their traders often do not survive as household pets – typically the fate of species such as woodpeckers, eagles, and owls.
The inhumane treatment of the animals in the many wildlife markets I visited during my research across the Indonesian archipelago was as heart-wrenching as the devastation this unmitigated trade in wild birds and other animals wreaks upon Indonesia’s ecosystems. Orange-headed thrushes and white-crested laughing thrushes, available in cages to eager buyers, are now exceedingly rare in the remnants of Indonesia’s forests, for example.
To reduce the consternation and criticism of international tourists, Yogyakarta’s wildlife market was moved more out of sight – away from its previous location next the frequently visited old royal palace. Nevertheless, enterprising Indonesian young men on motorcycles still bring Western tourists to the market’s new location. A young German woman, with a Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook tucked in her purse, was eagerly taking photos of the cages, her very short shorts and tanktop as much an affront to Indonesia’s cultural sensitivities in this conservative Muslim city as the appalling conditions of the traded animals are to Westerners. An emblematic introduction to the fusion and confusion of conflicting values in this modernizing yet tradition-bound country?
Hunters and Buyers
In the Indonesian Market
Indonesian buyers and sellers rarely exhibit any qualms about the ecological impacts of the trade and the conditions of the animals. Wildlife trade, particularly in birds, is deeply entrenched in Java’s culture. A Javanese proverb states that every man should have a house, a horse (these days often interpreted as a car, or at least a motorcycle), a wife, a kris (a traditional dagger), and a bird. Because of this strongly-held tradition, at least one third of Javanese households keeps birds, I was told by representatives of a joint international-Indonesian environmental NGO, whom I interviewed on the condition of anonymity. Indeed, strolling through middle-class neighborhoods of Javanese towns reveals house after house with several cages of prinias, bulbuls, orioles, laughing thrushes. Eerily, however, there are precious few birds in the Javanese countryside, most having been caught by traders.
The bird trade is so culturally-ingrained that only some environmental NGOs operating in Indonesia dare oppose it. “Our current priority is to preserve and try to rehabilitate the devastated Indonesian ecosystems. The bird trade is just too difficult; too culturally sensitive. Attempting to stop it could get us shut down or hamper our other operations, such as trying to restore at least a tiny sliver of Indonesia’s lowlands forests. The Indonesian police are not interested in the bird trade anyway. We count ourselves lucky when we get law enforcement action against endangered mammals,” one of the NGO representatives told me after I repeatedly assured him that I would not identify either him or the NGO.
But even in this tradition-oriented society, tastes in the wildlife market do evolve. Unfortunately, in Indonesia and East Asia, wildlife tastes have been changing all too often toward a more expanded and voracious appetite for wild animals and wildlife products. One of the latest fads in Indonesia is keeping lizards; and young middle- and upper-class Indonesian men on the make now prefer them to birds.
Still, rare and highly-endangered birds, such as lories from Papua, or the Bali starling, continue to be highly desirable and can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. A summer 2012 biological survey revealed that only 31 Bali starlings were left in the Bali Barat National Park, a conservationist involved in the survey told me. Then in July 2012, poachers coated a few trees with glue and captured six of the starlings in the park, eliminating one fifth of the population in the wild. A release of captive-bred birds is planned to boost the population of the species whose survival hangs on a thread as thin as the fishing nets that poachers also use to catch the birds. But without better law enforcement in the park and against buyers throughout the archipelago, and without a dramatic decline in the desirability of the Bali starlings by Javanese bird owners, will the released birds have any chance?
Some of the poachers are desperately poor. In the Moluccas or Papua, they are sometimes paid as little as a bowl of noodles for a day’s hunting, or a pack of cigarettes for a rare bird. But that pack of cigarettes can be enough to extirpate an endangered species. And traders can be shockingly frivolous in how many individual birds or animals they are willing to have killed for the survival of a few that would bring high profits on the international market. Ambonese hunters, mostly very poor, will be paid five dollars for a caught black-capped lori. In order to smuggle out the protected endangered and highly-desired species, traders will then shove the small birds into plastic bottles tied together, throw them into the sea, and fish them out miles away from the island and any possible law enforcement action. With the surviving birds fetching up to thousands of dollars, even a 95% loss of the captured birds (many would suffocate in the plastic bottles) will generate handsome profits. For a fistful of dollars, a species can be rapidly wiped out.
Keeping birds and consuming products from wild animals has a long history in Indonesia. The Dayak communities in Kalimantan, for example, have hunted hornbills for their feathers for centuries. In northern Sulawesi, the Christian community has had a strong taste for bushmeat, with anything that can be hunted often being highly craved for dinner (and very pricey in the Langowan and Tomohon bushmeat markets). One of the greatest delicacies—its consumption being a symbol of status and affluence -- is the black crested macaque, a primate endemic to Sulawesi. Over the past three to four decades, the species has been experiencing an 80% decline. Although deforestation in Sulawesi has eliminated much of the macaques’ habitat, hunting these days actually poses a far greater threat to the species. In addition to its highly-prized meat, its fur is used in traditional dancing to signify bravery; and its skulls decorate masks and costumes.
Protecting the threatened primate has become an environmental priority for conservationists in northern Sulawesi. In an inspired move, an NGO tried to reduce some of the hunting pressures on the macaques by producing artificial skulls looking identical to the real ones, so the replicas would be used for traditional costumes. Another NGO that is currently leading the effort to save the macaques near the Tangkoko Reserve – the Selamatkan Yaki project – has emphasized environmental education to explain to consumers that if they do not reduce the hunting to sustainable levels, all the macaques will be gone and there will be no more pricy meat or and no more fun of hunting the primates, a factor which many hunters identified as an important motivation. (Many of the wildlife traders I interviewed across the archipelago about the critical depletion of the species they were selling and the negative impact on their business if the animals were extirpated in the wild were shockingly unaware and indifferent. They would insist that the birds and animals would always be in the forest and dismiss my suggestions that the species could die out and their trade collapse.) As part of its environmental education and demand-reduction effort, the Selamatkan Yaki project has also tried to involve the local Christian church in the campaign for environmental conservation, as well as to get influential community leaders to declare that the macaque meat, unlike pork, is not crucial for celebrations. But these demand reduction efforts, as imperative as they are, are also very painstaking and slow-going. And for many species, the time is running out at a rapid pace.
In the Booming International Market for Wildlife
The portent of extinction has become all the more threatening as the volume of animals hunted for the local traditional markets is nowadays vastly surpassed by the volume of animals hunted for the booming international market. These international profits often dwarf those in the traditional trade, and international wildlife trading and trafficking are expanding at an exponential rate as a consequence. Many of the hottest wildlife markets are located in China and in East Asia.
Keenly embraced by East Asia’s increasingly affluent middle and upper classes, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concoctions promising extraordinary curative powers, enhanced longevitySo is the consumption of exotic bushmeat. These international wildlife-demand markets have resulted in extraordinary numbers of animals being hunted, sometimes in the millions of specimen per year. The toll on genera such as pangolins, seahorses, turtles, or civets has been huge. Just over a decade ago, for example, Malayan box turtles, then widespread across Indonesia, as well as two endemic Sulawesi land tortoises, fell victim to the Traditional Chinese Medicine craze. So that they would be eventually shredded in blenders into TCM jelly and paste, villagers in Sulawesi would collect them everywhere and sell them for 5000 Indonesian rupiahs (about half a U.S. dollar) per turtle or tortoise. According to a biologist from the Pacific Institute in northern Sulawesi, a subsequent three-month field research project in the area in 2007 found only 2 specimens of what used to be several plentiful species, including some found nowhere else. The turtles and tortoises were literally eaten off the island.
One of the newer fads in the Traditional Chinese Medicine market I encountered during my research in Kalimantan was for hornbill tusks. In Kalimantan, the bills and tusks would fetch 2 million Indonesian rupiahs (roughly USD 200), making the beautiful and enigmatic hornbills a new favorite of local Kalimantan hunters. In the demand markets of China, Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong, the tusks would bring far more. The presence of well-heeled Chinese coal and timber companies in Kalimantan facilitated the trade, and the companies were often already paying off the Indonesian police, military, navy, and coast guard. Even without extensive bribes, stopping the trade in the tusks would be of far lower priority for Indonesian law enforcement agencies than interdicting artisanal illegal mining, for example, which the big mining companies have an interest in stopping and can financially motivate the law enforcement agencies to take action against.
Reducing Demand for Wild Animals through Captive Breeding
Sometimes, a legal market in captivity-bred animals can greatly reduce pressures on the natural ecosystems and species. The prohibitions and restrictions on importing wild birds into the United States and European Union, coupled with a legal supply of desirable birds, such as parrots, from captive stocks, greatly reduced poaching for those markets. This legal supply of birds certified to have been bred in captivity have had a palpable impact in Indonesia too, where the bird trade to Europe and the United States dramatically declined, despite the fact that the trade had a centuries-old history, being established essentially at the time when Europeans first arrived in the Moluccas and Papua and saw the local exotic birds.
However, according to the environmental NGOs and conservation biologists I interviewed in Indonesia, bird-breeding facilities in Indonesia itself have not produced similarly positive conservation outcomes, and often serve merely as mechanisms for laundering birds caught in the wild. For a bribe, Indonesian officials often hand out fake licenses for such supposedly captive-breeding programs and the birds. For example, since selling wild-caught lories is illegal, traders often claim that they are captive-bred and produce fake documents to launder the birds.