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Indonesia activist hunts poachers of endangered wildlife

Irma Hermawati, who works for a nonprofit, seeks to stem a lucrative trade in rare animals, including orangutans and the Sumatran tiger, that is evident in teeming Indonesia markets.

November 02, 2009|John M. Glionna

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The monkey, shackled to an iron stake, paced a narrow strip of dirt filled with its own excrement. As people laughed and pointed, the creature bared its teeth and lunged at the end of its line.

"He gets angry," said one trader at the teeming animal market here. "Like a little person."

Irma Hermawati gets angry too. The 31-year-old Javanese native is an investigator for the nonprofit group ProFauna, which lobbies on behalf of what she believes is Indonesia's most precious resource: its indigenous wildlife.

She spends her days plotting sting operations against well-organized poaching rings that extend across Indonesia. Wearing a traditional veil over her face, she also ventures undercover into Jakarta's riotous animal markets.

Hermawati is hunting the animal hunters.

Poaching has joined rampant logging and jungle deforestation as one of this developing nation's most pressing environmental problems. Indonesia has 230 animals on its endangered species list, and virtually every one of them can be bought here in the capital.

"It's alarming to see that Indonesia's list of protected species is getting longer, not shorter," she said. "People want medicine and exotic pets. If an animal is protected and therefore expensive, they think it gives them status to own it."

Each year, hundreds of thousands of animals are trapped and carted from the forest to supply an underground market that activists say reaps between $10 million and $20 million annually.

Although laws prohibit such poaching and sales, enforcement is weak and in many places nonexistent.

The hunted animals include Sumatran tigers, orangutans, cockatoos, monkeys, bats, parrots, turtles, even baby elephants, activists say. Poachers often employ crude trapping techniques that leave animals with wounds and infections that go untreated.

Cramped in crates, many animals die on the long, secretive journey to market. Some are given tranquilizers or drugs before being smuggled out of the country, where they fetch 10 times their local value.

"The problem is real and bigger than anyone realized," said Aschta Boestani, an Indonesia expert for the Wildlife Enforcement Network of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations.

In addition to the many creatures displayed and sold legally at markets in Jakarta and elsewhere, many vendors keep a secret list of species for customers willing to pay $1,500 for the pelt of a Sumatran tiger or $150 for a Javan gibbon.

"You'd be surprised what's on those lists," Boestani said. "Sun bears packed off to Japan. Tigers sent to China for medicine. Pangolins shipped to Vietnam -- some of the most beautiful imperiled creatures on the planet."

Government officials admit they are fighting a losing battle. With Indonesia having little money for public campaigns and only 12,000 rangers to cover nearly 50 million acres of dense forest, poachers often operate with impunity.

"Nobody wants to see this. People see magazine pictures of gorgeous, colorful birds and exotic animals and they ask, 'Why can't you stop this?' " said Tonny Soehartono, former director of biodiversity conservation with the Forestry Ministry.

"It comes down to money. There is a market for these animals that draws organized-crime syndicates," he said. "The jungle is a difficult place to enforce the law."

On a recent day at Jakarta's Pramuka market, thousands of bamboo cages dangled overhead -- many filled with birds supposedly protected by the government -- as customers and traders crowded into a maze of darkened stalls.

One vendor sought $750 for a Balinese monkey that sat in a cramped cage, barely able to move. Nearby, two vendors demonstrated how a small wooden device inserted into the anus of a pigeon produced a whistling noise when the bird flew. Woodpeckers hammered at logs and large bats hung upside down in cages.

"Batman," the merchant said, smiling, patting the cage.

Nearby at the sprawling Jatinegara market, a baby brown eagle indigenous to Indonesia was tied to a stick, eyeing passersby with a look that seemed a mixture of fear and fury.

Hermawati first witnessed the fate of Indonesia's wildlife on mountain hikes in East Java, when she saw exotic birds trapped in tiny cages, waiting to be scooped up by poachers.

"It was cruel," she said, "and I wanted to find out how to stop it."

She joined ProFauna in 1998 and soon relocated to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where she saw firsthand the extent of the urban smuggling network.

At some markets here, a deposit of just $50 can get a customer a tiger, endangered monkey or orangutan delivered in a week.

The job is dangerous. She has received death threats. Ominous visitors have shown up at her office outside Jakarta.

What keeps her going, she said, are the successful stings that land poachers in jail -- at least for a while.

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