Caged Birds what's driving Indonesia's animal trafficking epidemic?

It is a humid 30 degrees at midday, and the harsh Jakarta sun beats down upon countless cages lining the street. Brightly-coloured birds are stacked outside shop fronts, while rarer creatures huddle in shadow further back. There are bats, possums, even a monkey; the rarer the creature is, the more protective the stance of the seller standing outside.

The scene is Jatinegara Market, an illegal wildlife market blatantly flaunting its trade in the heart of East Jakarta. The market is easily accessible to tourists and locals, visible from the main road of Jl. Matraman.

In Jakarta, it isn’t a rare phenomenon. Hundreds of illegal wildlife markets operate right under the nose of the law, and enforcement on the issue is almost non-existent.

It is difficult to obtain an accurate figure for the annual value of Indonesia’s illegal wildlife trade, due to its largely unregulated nature. However, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Indonesia Program last year revealed its official estimate: around 13 trillion rupiah, or 1.2 billion Australian dollars. This is a conservative estimate; the real value is likely to be much higher. Even this low-ball figure, however, is four times that of 2010.

The causes of this increase are multi-faceted and deep-rooted, but Femke den Haas, from the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN), says financial gain has been, and always will be, the primary driver of illegal wildlife trade.

“The biggest drive is money,” she says.

“The more rare an animal is, the more money it brings in.”

Nurul*, an ex-seller of illegally poached animals, says that his reasons for becoming a wildlife trader stemmed from a fear of unemployment.

“The government does not have enough jobs for us,” he claims.

Indonesia is an export hotspot for exotic pets, which are also extremely popular locally. According to den Haas, the purchase of these animals, more often than not, is fuelling the illegal wildlife trade. However, these animals remain extremely popular as a signifier of wealth.

“It can be a marker of social status,” Btari Nadine, a student at Universitas Indonesia, says. “Having an exotic pet shows that you are very rich.”

The Indonesian government: the problem or the solution?

The loudest voices speaking out against animal trafficking are Indonesia’s animal activism groups. International heavyweights, such as WCS and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), are supported by smaller, local groups, including the JAAN. There is no shortage of voices calling for a change; the problem is that the Indonesian government does not seem to be listening.

Den Haas attributes the Indonesian government as the biggest challenge JAAN faces in carrying out its anti-cruelty and anti-trafficking campaigns.

“It’s very hard to get the government to be consistent; these are the people that are meant to uphold and enforce the law, but instead, they are allowing these practices to continue.”

Theoretically, the trade of endangered animals is illegal under the Natural Resources Conservation, 1990; people caught poaching, trafficking or selling prohibited animals face a maximum five year jail term and 100 million rupiah fine. However, the case of Jatinegara is an apt representation of the relationship between animal trafficking and law enforcement in Indonesia: don’t ask, don’t tell.

“I’ve never found any case where the maximum penalty has been enforced,” Dr Wibisana says.

“For [poaching or trafficking] a tiger, for example, the punishment may only be two or three months. It’s not good [enough] to deter the other criminals with these very low sanctions.”

The strong economic and cultural incentives may be the reason behind ignorance of the law in the lower economic ranks of Indonesian society, but why do law enforcement officials continue to turn a blind eye?

The answer is not simple; it is multi-faceted, and lies deep within Indonesia’s governmental and legal structure. However, a strong driving force, according to den Haas, may be institutional corruption.

“There are too many officials that are financially involved [in the animal trafficking industry], who would like to see these practices keep running.”

Wenni Adzkia, from the International Council of Environmental Law (ICEL), says that those in power are exempt from legal, and often public scrutiny.

“I’ve found some cases that didn’t progress through the system...some people have the power to get immunity.”

“The problem is the mindset, not only from the people, but also from the law enforcers,” Dr Wibisana says.

Dr Anom Bowolaksono, associate professor and coordinator of environment management at Universitas Indonesia, adds that part of the problem is rooted in human resource scarcity.

“We don’t have enough police with expertise in this field. [The system] is also not integrated between the judge, prosecutor and police.”

The illegal wildlife trade has clear benefits for individuals who have financial stakes in the game. However, it may also benefit the government as a whole.

“It will help the economy if people buy their snakes and pets here,” den Haas says.

“Why would the government want to stop this trade?”

Illicit economies such as animal trade in Indonesia generate thousands of jobs, especially in impoverished rural areas, drawing pressure and potential criticism away from the government by those affected by unemployment. A 2015 case study into Indonesia’s “off-budget” economy also found that supporting, or at the very least permitting these activities gains valuable political support from the growing population of players involved.

As den Haas states simply, “economy comes first.”

“They never seem to see [eradicating animal trafficking] as a priority on their agenda.”

In fact, it is often the practices with almost the exact opposite environmental effect that are top of the government’s bill.

“Expanding palm oil plantations, for example,” den Haas says. Four new palm oil permits were issued in areas of Papua in the latter half of last year; exports provide a major stimulant for the Indonesian economy, despite the crippling environmental impacts the palm oil industry has been proven to have.

“They always state that the laws [around animal trafficking] are not yet well socialised. It’s just an excuse for being lazy on enforcement.”

Talks to strengthen Indonesia’s conservation laws have been taking place within the government since 2015, although they have been pushed by conservationists for much longer. On 5 December 2017, a bill was submitted to the government for review, proposing a number of changes to existing legislation.

A primary change proposed by the bill is the redefinition of wildlife crime from referring to anyone who “trades, keeps, distributes or kills” a protected species to a person who fails to obtain a permit to “utilise natural and biological resources”. Although the newly proposed ramifications are higher— the maximum sentence remains at five years, while the bill proposes the fine be raised from around 9400 AUD to around 469 000 AUD—activists are afraid that the new, broader definition may make it even harder for law enforcement to punish criminals.

A second controversial alteration to the law is Article 152, which exempts “people who have good intentions and are forced to perform such legal acts to meet the needs of daily living” from the revised punishments set out in the draft bill. Here, the bill seems to rather counter-productively address one of the primary drivers of illegal wildlife trade: financial gain. What the bill considers “good intentions” also remains undefined, leaving a broad scope for Article 152 to be used as a defense by those convicted of animal trafficking.

However, debates around the proposed revisions were temporarily stalled when, on 4 April 2018, following a meeting regarding the draft law led by President Joko Widodo, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laoly stated that, for the time being, the revisions would be suspended.

“We see that [the current law] is enough to maintain conservation and natural resources. The aspect of implementation [just] needs to be synchronized between seats,” Minister Laoly said in a press release.

It was a bittersweet moment for activists, many of whom had been seeking a change to Indonesia’s legislation since its enforcement, almost three decades ago.

“It’s very, very disappointing,” den Haas says, “but [the government] weren’t really ready for it yet. The changes that they are making, some of them don’t really make any sense. We’re happy it’s on hold for a bit, because it really needs more consultation from NGOs.”

However, she believes the future may be looking brighter; four years after Widodo’s inauguration, animal rights organisations are finally noticing an increased crackdown on animal traders.

“Joko Widodo is much more serious about conservation,” den Haas says.

In the past, Widodo has come under fire for his gestures of solidarity with conservation organisations like JAAN; in 2016, for example, the president bought 190 birds from Jakarta’s notorious Pramuka Bird Market in order to release them into the wild. It was a symbolic gesture, but ultimately a futile one, serving only to inject more money into the illegal wildlife trade.

However, if den Haas’ testimony is anything to go by, it seems as if Widodo’s efforts to lead by example may finally be paying off.

What are the solutions?

It would be naive to rest the future of Indonesia’s biodiversity in the hands of one president and his prospectively shifting priorities. The solution, like the problem, is complex, and certainly won’t be easy. It also largely depends on who you ask.

“There will be no trafficking if there is no demand,” Dr Wibisana says. “We have to change the paradigm of the law; we need to broaden our focus from just the poachers and sellers to include the buyers too.”

However, he says changing the laws on paper will not be enough to significantly decrease rates of animal trafficking.

“Increase the sanctions, that’s for sure. But we cannot rely heavily on the legislative product; we also need to increase the capacity and the education of our law enforcers, and also the people."

Den Haas believes the solution lies in continued pressure on the government.

“So many people are now becoming active, pressuring the government to do more. Also, within the government now, there are a lot of platforms to report trafficking.”

Dr Bowolaksono has been involved with a more scientific solution.

“Many genetics methods can help to trace and track the illegal poaching and trafficking,” he says.

“We can use common genetic methods; if we need to trace the parent or even ancestor of one species, we can use the DNA.”

The multicausal and deep-rooted nature of Indonesia’s illegal animal trade makes it a tough beast to slay; when one head is severed, two more grow back in its place. The only way to tackle the problem, it seems, is from the ground up.

*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity

Stacey Whitlock, UQ in Indonesia

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