ABEPURA, Indonesia — In the dim light of the Indonesian warship, forestry police commander Otis Howay could hear the rare birds calling, their bright song reverberating in the metal chambers.
He and two of his officers hurriedly searched the navy troop ship for protected tropical birds being smuggled out of Indonesia's Papua province, formerly Irian Jaya, by soldiers ending their tour of duty. They confiscated seven black-capped lories, beautiful birds of vivid red and green, but Howay is certain that there were many more.
"It was very dark on the ship," he recounted. "I heard a lot of voices of the birds, but I could not see them. The time was very short, and the ship was about to leave."
Illegally catching and selling protected wildlife are big business in Papua, the untamed eastern province of Indonesia that makes up half the island of New Guinea. Many indigenous islanders take part, especially in hunting and catching the birds. But the biggest smugglers, according to police and environmentalists, are members of Indonesia's powerful military.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 375 words Type of Material: Correction
Bird misidentified--A caption in Friday's Section A misidentified an exotic bird at a market in the Indonesian province of Papua. The bird is a greater sulfur-crested cockatoo.
"They are untouchable," said Roy Rindorindo of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Jayapura, the provincial capital. "They have their own ships and airplanes. They collect the birds, bring them back to Jakarta and sell them."
Thousands of protected birds are caught or killed by poachers and smuggled out of the province each year, threatening the survival of the remote island's rarest species, officials and environmentalists say.
B.G. Resubun, Howay's boss at the Natural Resources Conservation Department, said the widespread involvement of soldiers and police in the wildlife trade--something law enforcement officials acknowledge--adds to the difficulty of cracking down.
"We are very scared, because these people intimidate us," Resubun said. "I can't prove it, but people know that high-level people have a hobby of collecting all the endangered species."
Demand for birds is great in Indonesia. It has long been a symbol of prestige to own one, especially a lory or cockatoo, which sing or can be trained to talk.
Pet birds are most popular on the main island of Java, which is less than a third the size of Papua but has a population of 121 million.
According to Javanese tradition, a man must have five things to rise above the ordinary: a house, a horse or car, the traditional dagger known as a kris, a bird and, last of all, a wife.
Bakdi Soemanto, professor of cultural sciences at the University of Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta, said some Javanese believe that birds can bring enlightenment or serve as a symbol of a person's character, much as a birth sign would. Some birds, such as the lory, are thought to ward off supernatural beings. But most of all, people like to hear them sing.
"Javanese people love birds," Soemanto said. "But the way they love them is not by setting them free but by putting them in a cage."
A recent trip to the Hamadi market in Jayapura showed that it was easy to find protected birds for sale, dead or alive.
Souvenir shops openly sold stuffed birds of paradise for the equivalent of $25. They offered headdresses and ornaments made with bird of paradise tail feathers, as well as decorated eggs of the cassowary, whose leg bones are used to make knives. One shop owner offered a black-capped lory for about $55, enough to support a family here for a month.
At an open stall, a trader named Mustafa was willing to sell a sulfur-crested cockatoo for the equivalent of $65.
He acknowledged that selling it was illegal but said taking it out of the province would be easy.
"You can carry it by airplane, by ship," he said. "You just arrange it with the officer in the airport."
So it seems. At the Jayapura airport and the harbor, a few of the passengers wait to board with special luggage--small cardboard boxes with holes cut in them. Sometimes, the boxes shake on their own.
The forestry police say that they have tried to search the market for protected birds but that every time they plan a raid, word leaks out and the creatures are hidden by the time they arrive.
"That's one of our problems," said Resubun, the head of the conservation department for Papua's eastern region. "If we make an inspection, they know it in advance. We go to the market, and they just laugh. Maybe we have to change our system."
Resubun acknowledged that his agency is largely ineffective in protecting wildlife.
The department has 54 officers to patrol more than half the province, he said. They share one car and one boat.
"We are lacking control, I can say honestly," Resubun said.
The military, whose main role in Papua is to keep the local population in check, has operated with impunity here for decades. The brief search that Howay and his men conducted on the troop ship in March is rarer than the birds they are trying to protect.
Soldiers have been known to pull their weapons on the unarmed forestry police when questioned about their activities, officials say.