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Monkey Brains on the Menu

The World | COLUMN ONE

In Indonesia, unusual animals, including endangered species, are consumed as health remedies, impotency cures or gourmet treats.

February 25, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

In Bali, sea turtles are butchered alive to keep the meat from sticking to the shell. In Sumatra, monkeys are burned to death before butchering in the belief that they will taste better if the blood is not drained from the body.

Perhaps most brutal of all is the treatment of the long-tail macaques. Some believe that eating the monkeys' brains can cure impotence. The practice has led to over-hunting, says ProFauna, which has campaigned against the slaughter.

Some establishments serve macaque at a special table with a hole in the center. The monkey is tied up and the top of its skull cut open with one slice of a sharp knife. The animal, still alive, is placed under the table so its head protrudes like a bowl. Arrack, a powerful native alcohol, is sometimes poured into the skull and mixed with the brain.

In the central Jakarta neighborhood of Kota, a shopkeeper who calls himself Cobra Man specializes in selling snakes, bats and dried lizard meat. He said he gets 10 to 20 orders a year for monkey brains.

"I feel pity, but I have to do it," he said. "It's my work."

Cobra Man said each week he sells about 100 cobras, all caught in the wild. Little of the snake goes to waste. Typically, he cuts off the head and drains the blood into a glass of arrack. He adds the bile and serves the drink as a treatment for respiratory ailments, skin problems, aches or indigestion. It is also said to improve a man's stamina and sex life.

As a cure for impotence, the cobra's penis can be soaked in arrack for a month much like a worm in a bottle of mescal. A bag of 50 snake penises sells for $11.50.

The concoctions are as varied as the imagination. One customer asked Cobra Man to boil a cobra live. When it was cooked, the man filtered the liquid and drank it.

The quest for cures is contributing to the near-extinction of some animals, particularly the rhinoceros, valued for its horn, and the sun bear, prized for its gall bladder and bile. Some bears are smuggled to China, where their parts are even more valuable. Though the Sumatran tiger is highly endangered, tiger penis can be found for sale in Jakarta, the capital, as a cure for impotence. The price: $40.

The arrival of Viagra might someday help reduce the slaughter of species that are believed to cure impotence. But for most Indonesians, Viagra is too expensive to replace traditional medicine. The smallest size of Viagra tablet, 25 milligrams, sells for the equivalent of $8, while a concoction made from cobra penis is only $3.50. The minimum wage here is about $50 a month.

One who swears by traditional remedies is Hajjah Nurdiani, 60. Five years of treatment with cobra bile and powdered shark cartilage cured her intestinal cancer, she claims. Nurdiani ate cobra bile every day for three years after learning of its benefits from a friend, she said. Worried that the bile would eventually shrink her bones, she switched to shark cartilage, a treatment she had read about in a magazine. Every day for two years, she drank an ounce of the powder mixed with water.

"The snake's bile tasted like nothing," she said. "But the shark's cartilage was loathsome."

Nurdiani, a devout Muslim who has taken the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, said the medicine worked because she had faith.

"I had a health checkup in 2001 and, thank God, the doctor did not find any cancer left in my body," she said. "I believed God would help me heal my illness. Shark's cartilage powder was just a tool."

In Medan, a city of 2.2 million people, Unan and a man who gave his name only as Dibah sell their bats under a large mahogany tree on busy Walikota Street, a block from the North Sumatra governor's mansion.

A major port city across the heavily traveled Malacca Strait from Malaysia, Medan has long been an entry point for Chinese immigrants.

The two men, along with a woman who declined to give her name, also sell turtle eggs for the equivalent of about 17 cents each. It is illegal because the turtles are endangered, but no one enforces the law.

The bats, with black wings and reddish-brown fur, are caught in the jungle by stringing a net between two trees. They are kept tied up day and night until they are sold. Two or three times a day, their keepers unbind their mouths for a few minutes and give them a few squirts of sugar water. Every once in a while, they are fed banana.

"You fry the heart and make the meat into a soup," Dibah said. "I feel nothing because I sell them as medicine to help other people."

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Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

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