Reptiles in the Park The story behind indonesia's travelling "animal lovers"

Taman Suropati on a Sunday afternoon bursts with life. A string ensemble plays in one corner, while children play joyfully with bubbles in another. In the centre of the park, a large crowd is gathered, murmuring with excitement. Men in black t-shirts walk among them, handing out snakes and lizards like candy at a movie theatre.

They are the Komunitas Pecinta Reptil Jakarta (the Jakarta Community of Reptile Lovers, or KPRJ) and, according to Amir, a member of the group, they come to this park about once a fortnight to show off their collection.

Scattered around the park is a variety of reptiles, including a ball python, a water monitor, monopohon, and a platinum reticulated python. The crowning jewel of the display is the iguana, whose genus is, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, among the world’s most endangered.

This one is around one and a half metres from head to tail, and sits placidly on the concrete, narrowly avoiding the footsteps of the many children running around it. Some of the snakes are not so lucky; a number are stood on as they roam, largely unsupervised, around the park. Several are dropped indelicately onto the concrete.

Members of KPRJ hand out snakes to tourists and locals, giving no handling or care advice, and often turning their backs on visitors holding the reptiles.

Veterinary student and reptile enthusiast Brooke Smith says that, while reptiles are often seen as more resilient than mammals or other small animals, incorrect handling may cause them severe harm.

“Snake handling isn’t as basic as you may think.”

“The biggest problem with reptiles are their bones. If the snake is kept in captivity, they often have bone diseases, and if they are dropped, their spine will likely break.”

According to Smith, special care needs to be taken with ground-dwelling snakes, such as the platinum reticulated python, ball python, and monopohon, due to their need to be fully supported from head to tail, as they are in their natural habitat.

Co-founder of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, Femke den Haas, says that, while these “animal lovers” groups may seem innocent, public displays such as these pose serious threats to animal welfare.

“This is where I find it very hypocritical that the government is not doing more to stop all wildlife trade,” den Haas said.

“They use wildlife that is not protected, so by law it’s fine, but it shouldn’t be about their numbers in the wild. It should be about this animal whose welfare is at stake. You’re taking an animal from the wild and you’re using it.”

It doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident; den Haas highlights Indonesia’s infamous travelling dolphin shows as another prominent example of animals being “used” for human profit and entertainment. In these shows, illegally-captured dolphins are transported in boxes from location to location, performing up to five times a day.

“In Indonesia, animals are seen as objects; people can even find it funny when animals are in pain,” den Haas said.

“However, it’s difficult because you also have to look at the religious aspects of it. Different religions see animals in different ways, and you have to take all of that into consideration.”

In the park, a small sugar glider is being passed around from person to person. Amir claims it is only three weeks old. When the short-lived interest in the creature dies down, it is put into a small pencil case, apparently to sleep. It is promptly forced back out again when more people arrive, and it reappears, squealing and shaking. The crowd seems delighted, with children begging to hold the animal.

When asked about the treatment of their animals, Amir was adamant that they were happy and well cared for.

KPRJ’s mission statement is “to introduce and explain to the public that reptiles can be friendly with humans. To educate people to better understand reptiles and explain how handling when meeting reptiles in the wild without having to kill them, and contribute in preserving the reptile.”

Education, welfare and conservation may be their goal, but at Taman Suropati on this particular afternoon, this is not particularly evident.

An international selection of animals, from Australia to South America, is represented in the selection at Taman Suropati, raising the question of exactly how these animals were acquired by the KPRJ.

When asked, Amir refused to comment.

Despite the legal and ethical problems these “animal lovers” groups raise, den Haas says that the future of animal welfare in Indonesia seems to be looking up.

“I see a lot of young people out there that act as volunteers, that are proactive in ending abuse of animals."

"There is a big change happening, for the better.”

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