Sunday, December 26, 2010

Indonesia Needs to Get the Message Out: Killing Wildlife Is a Punishable Crime

Indonesia is famed for its wildlife diversity. Straddling the contact zone between Asia and Australia, evolution has created some of the earth’s most remarkable species here. Think babirusa , Komodo dragon, orangutan and birds of paradise, and you get the picture.

Most of us also know that Indonesia has a major problem maintaining this diversity through effective conservation programs. Not a day goes by without Indonesia appearing somewhere in the world’s media with a negative story on how it is managing its wildlife.

Most conservation critiques in this country focus on the rapid loss of forests. As the forests disappear, the argument goes, so does the wildlife.

This is partly, but not always, true. Recent studies have shown that most forest species are a lot more adaptable than we once thought, and that most species survive in well-managed timber concessions.

What animals cannot tolerate, however, is being shot, speared, poisoned or otherwise killed. And this is happening a lot more in Indonesia than generally is acknowledged.

Globally endangered species such as the wild banteng, pangolins, crocodiles, tigers, elephants and rhinos are threatened less by habitat loss than they are by hunting. Banteng happily graze on grasses in deforested areas, but poaching has decimated populations even in former strongholds such as the Baluran and Alas Purwo national parks in East Java.

The previously very common pangolin has been hunted out from large parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan for the Chinese medicine trade. Crocodiles used to line the banks of major rivers in the millions, but have now all but disappeared. The stories of shot tigers, elephants and rhinos are all too familiar.

It’s not just mammals and reptiles that are overhunted. Indonesia’s love for caged birds has driven many species to the brink of extinction. The song of the famous cucak rowo or straw-headed bulbul is often heard in the streets of Jakarta and other towns, but has disappeared from all but the most remote parts of Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The critically endangered white-shouldered ibis — only a few dozen of which remain in river areas in East Kalimantan and Cambodia — is a large bird that feeds on river banks. If there ever was a sitting duck, this is it.

Indonesia is an interesting case. As opposed to many countries where wildlife poaching has been well documented, Indonesia’s prohibition on private gun possession has possibly fed the suggestion that hunting cannot be much of a problem. But many local hunters make their own guns, or they use snares, spears, blowpipes, poison and other means to kill animals.

Hunting is happening inside and outside protected areas and enforcement of anti-hunting laws is nearly nonexistent. Only the anti-poaching teams for tiger and rhino protection seem to have had some success in catching poachers and getting them prosecuted. The rest of the hunting goes on largely unnoticed, uncontrolled and unpunished.

Indonesia does have laws against killing, trading or otherwise harming protected species, but apart from a handful of cases in which tiger and rhino poachers were jailed, no one has ever been effectively prosecuted for illegally killing protected wildlife in Indonesia.

A recent report by the wildlife trade organization Traffic suggested that more than 1,000 orangutans are killed or captured each year in Kalimantan for the wildlife trade alone. Recent surveys by the Nature Conservancy and the Indonesian Association of Primatologists (Perhappi) suggest that this figure may be an underestimate, and that many more orangutans are killed simply for local consumption.

Obviously, government authorities are not effectively addressing the hunting issue. Admittedly, to effectively control and reduce hunting is difficult. Even relatively well-organized and funded countries such as Britain have major problems controlling the illegal killing of endangered species like golden eagles.

But Indonesia needs to start thinking seriously about reducing the hunting of its endangered wildlife. Most citizens here may not even be aware of hunting prohibitions. And if they are, they may not care because they do not understand the consequences of their hunting, either to themselves (since chances of punishment are negligible) or to wildlife populations. New efforts in law enforcement and nationwide public campaigns would be a good start, and Indonesia could do well to follow the example of its neighbor.

Malaysia has recently drawn up new legislation that means stricter penalties for poachers. The Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, enacted in August, will mean increased fines and jail sentences for illegal wildlife hunting and trade. Penalties will be handed out to makers of products that contain parts of protected species, and those who set up snares would face jail.

Having such laws in Indonesia and enforcing them would be very helpful for wildlife conservation. Such laws should make it impossible, for example, for illegal wildlife products such as bear gall bladders to remain openly for sale in the duty free shopping zone in Jakarta’s international airport (check the various drawers in the shop selling shark fins).

Indonesia also urgently needs to review its list of protected species. When a species is considered endangered by the IUCN-World Conservation Union it means that it is expected to go extinct in the near future unless better managed. But species such as the endangered Javan warty pig remain unprotected by Indonesian law.

In the end, Indonesia will only manage to keep its incredible wildlife resources if it gains the support of its citizens. But that could take decades.

In the meantime, real and immediate action is required to stop some of the most destructive hunting practices. Televised campaigns could send the message that hunting is neither cool nor civilized, and often illegal. If that starts to resonate more widely, many species could be diverted from the road to extinction.

By Erik Meijaard forest director for People and Nature Consulting International in Bali. (Jakarta Globe)

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