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Indonesian Illegal Wildlife Trade Threatens Biodiversity - 2002-04-09

Indonesia is ranked the third richest country in the world in terms of bio-diversity and it is home to dozens of endangered species. Aside from environmental hazards, illegal trade is threatening the survival of many of the animals. Efforts to stop the illegal trade in wildlife are being hampered by government and military officials who keep endangered species at home as status symbols.

The office of the Forestry Police on the outskirts of the Indonesian capital Jakarta houses not alleged criminals, but victims of the country's illegal wildlife trade.

It is here that dozens of crocodiles, turtles, gibbons, orangutans, parrots, cockatoos, eagles and other animals that have been confiscated by authorities are kept until they can be reintegrated into the wild.

Stretching over thousands of kilometers, the Indonesian archipelago is rich with wildlife. Almost 300,000 different animal species make their homes here, 17 percent of all the world's animals. There are 36 species of primates alone.

But conservationists say Indonesia is also the largest exporter of wildlife in the world. A Jakarta-based organization, Animal Conservation for Life, says 90 percent of animals sold in world markets have been poached from the wild. They do not come from captive breeding programs, as many traders claim.

People flood to Jakarta's animal markets because it is considered prestigious to own an exotic bird or endangered animal, says Hardi Bakiantoro from Animal Conservation for Life.

"The buyers of orangutans and turtles and other protected animals usually they are the rich men who understand law and are educated," he said. "They really know the animal is protected. They know it trespasses the law. But usually they have something like prestige."

One of Indonesia's best-known animals is the orangutan, whose name in Indonesian means "forest person." With big brown eyes and an affectionate, docile nature, it is the orangutans' human qualities that attract poachers and help put it high on the list of endangered species.

"Many people have them as a kind of replacement for human babies," said Willie Smits of the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation. "There are quite a few families where we've found orangutans that were shaven bald, wearing rings, sleeping with the owners in their bed," Mr. Smits said. " And that's really more like a replacement actually. A couple of times we confiscated orangutans where we had to physically pull them from the breasts of women who were feeding them with her own milk."

The trade in endangered species is big business. The price of a primate purchased for the equivalent of five dollars on Indonesia's outer islands climbs to $500 by the time traders bring it to Jakarta. It can reach $10,000 if the animal is exported to Japan or Taiwan, and $30,000 if it is sent to the United States or Europe.

Many of the people who own endangered species are extremely powerful. For a time, a tiger patrolled the front yard of a house belonging to the daughter of Indonesia's former President Suharto.

Officials from the Forestry Police say top military officials and even the governor of Jakarta also keep endangered species in their homes.

That makes stopping the illegal wildlife trade dangerous business. Yunus Makasau is with the Forestry Police. Officer Makasau once had his arm broken trying to protect endangered animals, and counts himself lucky. It could have been much worse.

He said he has almost died a couple of times trying to protect these animals, because some of the people who have them are from the military. They have weapons. And if that's the case, there's not much he can do.

Officer Makasau says there are signs the conservationist's efforts are having an effect. The police now publicize the raids they carry out on homes and businesses to confiscate endangered species, which prompts others to hand over wildlife voluntarily. There are also programs to reintegrate confiscated animals, such as orangutans, back into the wild. But conservationists say more must be done to stop the illegal wildlife trade.