Indonesia - Social Issues

Indonesian Wildlife NGO locks Horns with Criminals

ANYONE looking for the office location of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (Jaan) will have a hard time finding it. Jaan is one of Indonesia’s most active non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in conservation issues. But it does not make its location available. Instead, visitors to its website are told for “security and safety reasons” to use e-mail.

All this may seem excessively cautious, but its field director, Ms Femke den Haas, who often provides information to the police about the activities of criminal gangs involved in the illegal wildlife trade, begs to differ.

“We regularly receive threats,” Ms den Haas, 35, told me in Jakarta earlier this month.

Last November, Jaan’s office was trashed by thugs. And in the following month, neighbours warned Ms den Haas about strangers loitering near her residence in south Jakarta. She was not at home at the time, and has not been back since. Cars were nevertheless seen parked nearby for several days, their occupants apparently waiting for her to return.

Founded in 2008 by Ms den Haas with a core team that started working together in 2003, Jaan has 14 full-time staff, 25 active volunteers and a network of 150 supporters and informers across the archipelago. A Dutch native, Ms den Haas has been working with animals since she was 15.

While reliable statistics on the true extent of the illegal trade in protected species in Indonesia are hard to get, it is almost certainly lucrative and very well organised.

In April, officials at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport confiscated 687 endangered baby pig-nosed turtles reportedly bound for Hong Kong. The smuggled turtles were found in packages registered as hold baggage on a Sriwijaya Air flight from Papua via Makassar (South Sulawesi) on March 15.

The identity of the sender and receiver could not be traced since the shipment lacked proper documents. Still, without such papers, the fact that the package ended up in the aircraft’s hold suggested collusion by key airline personnel. But no arrests were reported.

Thanks to the exotic pet trade, the pig-nosed turtle, which is native to Papua and northern Australia, is almost extinct. Reports say that juveniles and adults can fetch prices from US$550 to US$2,000 (S$690 to S$2,500).

Ms den Haas said the most commonly traded endangered animal is the slow loris. The illegal trade in them is among the most cruel. Traders looking for buyers in local or foreign markets keep these small nocturnal primates exposed to daylight, play with them as puppets, and cut their teeth with wire cutters or pliers – to prevent a potentially lethal bite from the frightened animals. But it frequently leads to serious infection. “Death usually comes within two or three weeks,” Ms den Haas said.

Within Indonesia, slow lorises are popular as temporary pets for children. They are also smuggled into Japan, where women find them cute. Other markets include China, Europe and the Middle East.

In Indonesia, it is also illegal to capture wild macaque monkeys. But because these monkeys are not on the list of protected species, traders who use harsh training methods to get the monkeys to dance for prospective local buyers face few restrictions.

Ms den Haas said that investigations by her organisation show macaque monkeys illegally captured in Indonesian forests are exported to China. Falsified documents declaring them as bred in captivity allow the monkeys to be re-exported to the US as well.

Indonesia has tough laws protecting many endangered plants and animals. Violators of the 1992 law on animal, fish and plant quarantines, or the 1990 law on biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, face up to three years’ imprisonment and fines of up to 150 million rupiah (S$19,500). Sadly, these laws do little to deter either buyers or sellers.

One reason is public apathy. “In the West,” explained Ms den Haas, “animals are seen as creatures that can feel pain and have emotions.” In Indonesia, “people treat animals as things”.

But such attitudes are changing. Last year, Jaan joined local celebrities to urge the authorities to take action against the world’s last travelling dolphin show in Java. A public petition gathered 100,000 signatures within three months.

Jaan’s strength, however, lies in its hands-on approach. “We don’t avoid conflict,” Ms den Haas said. Jaan representatives are often present when the authorities confiscate illegal shipments of endangered animals.

And unlike many other NGOs with similar objectives that focus on political advocacy, Jaan has both the facilities and expertise to handle many of the recovered animals.

Confronting criminal gangs directly, however, has its price. With the exception of taxi company Bluebird and transport company Sante Fe, corporate sponsorship has been difficult to get. But Ms den Haas is undeterred.

“The source of the problem needs to be tackled head-on,” she said.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

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