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Indonesia Field Report IV: The Last Twitch? Wildlife Trafficking, Illegal Fishing, and Lessons from Anti-Piracy Efforts

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The Cruel Wildlife Market

Hundreds of cages with birds, lizards, bats, and mammals were stacked upon one another, with tens or sometimes even hundreds of specimens crammed into one cage. Several dozen white-eyes (a bird genus) were squeezed into a cage appropriate for one canary. At least a hundred bats were stuffed into another container. In a cage atop this stack, more than fifty green agama dragon lizards, some dead, with their bodies rotting amidst those still alive, were desperately competing on the ceiling of their container for a little of bit space. Two baby civets, on sale for 400,000 Indonesia rupiah each (about USD 40) were shoved into an adjacent box. Like the rest of the unfortunate animals – squirrels, chipmunks, black-naped orioles, drongos, leafbirds, shamas, mynas, partridges, and the highly-prized and highly-threatened lories – the civets had no water and no protection from the full blast of the hot Indonesian sun. Many of the animals would die in this (in)famous Yogyakarta bird market before they were sold to new owners.

Meanwhile, however, the Yogyakarta bird market, like other wildlife markets in Indonesia and East Asia, serves as a perfect incubator for diseases that can mutate and jump among species, such as avian influenza and SARS. Such zoogenic diseases could potentially set off a catastrophic pandemic killing millions of people. The spread of the viruses to domestic animals and people is exacerbated by the trade in roosters for cock-fights, also on sale in the market amidst the wild-caught birds and animals. Even the animals sold before they die in the hands of their traders often do not survive as household pets – typically the fate of species such as woodpeckers, eagles, and owls.

The inhumane treatment of the animals in the many wildlife markets I visited during my research across the Indonesian archipelago was as heart-wrenching as the devastation this unmitigated trade in wild birds and other animals wreaks upon Indonesia’s ecosystems. Orange-headed thrushes and white-crested laughing thrushes, available in cages to eager buyers, are now exceedingly rare in the remnants of Indonesia’s forests, for example.

To reduce the consternation and criticism of international tourists, Yogyakarta’s wildlife market was moved more out of sight – away from its previous location next the frequently visited old royal palace. Nevertheless, enterprising Indonesian young men on motorcycles still bring Western tourists to the market’s new location. A young German woman, with a Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook tucked in her purse, was eagerly taking photos of the cages, her very short shorts and tanktop as much an affront to Indonesia’s cultural sensitivities in this conservative Muslim city as the appalling conditions of the traded animals are to Westerners. An emblematic introduction to the fusion and confusion of conflicting values in this modernizing yet tradition-bound country?

Hunters and Buyers

In the Indonesian Market

Indonesian buyers and sellers rarely exhibit any qualms about the ecological impacts of the trade and the conditions of the animals. Wildlife trade, particularly in birds, is deeply entrenched in Java’s culture. A Javanese proverb states that every man should have a house, a horse (these days often interpreted as a car, or at least a motorcycle), a wife, a kris (a traditional dagger), and a bird. Because of this strongly-held tradition, at least one third of Javanese households keeps birds, I was told by representatives of a joint international-Indonesian environmental NGO, whom I interviewed on the condition of anonymity. Indeed, strolling through middle-class neighborhoods of Javanese towns reveals house after house with several cages of prinias, bulbuls, orioles, laughing thrushes. Eerily, however, there are precious few birds in the Javanese countryside, most having been caught by traders.

The bird trade is so culturally-ingrained that only some environmental NGOs operating in Indonesia dare oppose it. “Our current priority is to preserve and try to rehabilitate the devastated Indonesian ecosystems. The bird trade is just too difficult; too culturally sensitive. Attempting to stop it could get us shut down or hamper our other operations, such as trying to restore at least a tiny sliver of Indonesia’s lowlands forests. The Indonesian police are not interested in the bird trade anyway. We count ourselves lucky when we get law enforcement action against endangered mammals,” one of the NGO representatives told me after I repeatedly assured him that I would not identify either him or the NGO.

But even in this tradition-oriented society, tastes in the wildlife market do evolve. Unfortunately, in Indonesia and East Asia, wildlife tastes have been changing all too often toward a more expanded and voracious appetite for wild animals and wildlife products. One of the latest fads in Indonesia is keeping lizards; and young middle- and upper-class Indonesian men on the make now prefer them to birds.

Still, rare and highly-endangered birds, such as lories from Papua, or the Bali starling, continue to be highly desirable and can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. A summer 2012 biological survey revealed that only 31 Bali starlings were left in the Bali Barat National Park, a conservationist involved in the survey told me. Then in July 2012, poachers coated a few trees with glue and captured six of the starlings in the park, eliminating one fifth of the population in the wild. A release of captive-bred birds is planned to boost the population of the species whose survival hangs on a thread as thin as the fishing nets that poachers also use to catch the birds. But without better law enforcement in the park and against buyers throughout the archipelago, and without a dramatic decline in the desirability of the Bali starlings by Javanese bird owners, will the released birds have any chance?

Some of the poachers are desperately poor. In the Moluccas or Papua, they are sometimes paid as little as a bowl of noodles for a day’s hunting, or a pack of cigarettes for a rare bird. But that pack of cigarettes can be enough to extirpate an endangered species. And traders can be shockingly frivolous in how many individual birds or animals they are willing to have killed for the survival of a few that would bring high profits on the international market. Ambonese hunters, mostly very poor, will be paid five dollars for a caught black-capped lori. In order to smuggle out the protected endangered and highly-desired species, traders will then shove the small birds into plastic bottles tied together, throw them into the sea, and fish them out miles away from the island and any possible law enforcement action. With the surviving birds fetching up to thousands of dollars, even a 95% loss of the captured birds (many would suffocate in the plastic bottles) will generate handsome profits. For a fistful of dollars, a species can be rapidly wiped out.

Keeping birds and consuming products from wild animals has a long history in Indonesia. The Dayak communities in Kalimantan, for example, have hunted hornbills for their feathers for centuries. In northern Sulawesi, the Christian community has had a strong taste for bushmeat, with anything that can be hunted often being highly craved for dinner (and very pricey in the Langowan and Tomohon bushmeat markets). One of the greatest delicacies—its consumption being a symbol of status and affluence — is the black crested macaque, a primate endemic to Sulawesi. Over the past three to four decades, the species has been experiencing an 80% decline. Although deforestation in Sulawesi has eliminated much of the macaques’ habitat, hunting these days actually poses a far greater threat to the species. In addition to its highly-prized meat, its fur is used in traditional dancing to signify bravery; and its skulls decorate masks and costumes.

Protecting the threatened primate has become an environmental priority for conservationists in northern Sulawesi. In an inspired move, an NGO tried to reduce some of the hunting pressures on the macaques by producing artificial skulls looking identical to the real ones, so the replicas would be used for traditional costumes. Another NGO that is currently leading the effort to save the macaques near the Tangkoko Reserve – the Selamatkan Yaki project – has emphasized environmental education to explain to consumers that if they do not reduce the hunting to sustainable levels, all the macaques will be gone and there will be no more pricy meat or and no more fun of hunting the primates, a factor which many hunters identified as an important motivation. (Many of the wildlife traders I interviewed across the archipelago about the critical depletion of the species they were selling and the negative impact on their business if the animals were extirpated in the wild were shockingly unaware and indifferent. They would insist that the birds and animals would always be in the forest and dismiss my suggestions that the species could die out and their trade collapse.) As part of its environmental education and demand-reduction effort, the Selamatkan Yaki project has also tried to involve the local Christian church in the campaign for environmental conservation, as well as to get influential community leaders to declare that the macaque meat, unlike pork, is not crucial for celebrations. But these demand reduction efforts, as imperative as they are, are also very painstaking and slow-going. And for many species, the time is running out at a rapid pace.

In the Booming International Market for Wildlife

The portent of extinction has become all the more threatening as the volume of animals hunted for the local traditional markets is nowadays vastly surpassed by the volume of animals hunted for the booming international market. These international profits often dwarf those in the traditional trade, and international wildlife trading and trafficking are expanding at an exponential rate as a consequence. Many of the hottest wildlife markets are located in China and in East Asia.

Keenly embraced by East Asia’s increasingly affluent middle and upper classes, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concoctions promising extraordinary curative powers, enhanced longevity, and increased sexual prowess are more popular than ever. So is the consumption of exotic bushmeat. These international wildlife-demand markets have resulted in extraordinary numbers of animals being hunted, sometimes in the millions of specimen per year. The toll on genera such as pangolins, seahorses, turtles, or civets has been huge.[1] Just over a decade ago, for example, Malayan box turtles, then widespread across Indonesia, as well as two endemic Sulawesi land tortoises, fell victim to the Traditional Chinese Medicine craze. So that they would be eventually shredded in blenders into TCM jelly and paste, villagers in Sulawesi would collect them everywhere and sell them for 5000 Indonesian rupiahs (about half a U.S. dollar) per turtle or tortoise. According to a biologist from the Pacific Institute in northern Sulawesi, a subsequent three-month field research project in the area in 2007 found only 2 specimens of what used to be several plentiful species, including some found nowhere else. The turtles and tortoises were literally eaten off the island.

One of the newer fads in the Traditional Chinese Medicine market I encountered during my research in Kalimantan was for hornbill tusks. In Kalimantan, the bills and tusks would fetch 2 million Indonesian rupiahs (roughly USD 200), making the beautiful and enigmatic hornbills a new favorite of local Kalimantan hunters. In the demand markets of China, Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong, the tusks would bring far more. The presence of well-heeled Chinese coal and timber companies in Kalimantan facilitated the trade, and the companies were often already paying off the Indonesian police, military, navy, and coast guard. Even without extensive bribes, stopping the trade in the tusks would be of far lower priority for Indonesian law enforcement agencies than interdicting artisanal illegal mining, for example, which the big mining companies have an interest in stopping and can financially motivate the law enforcement agencies to take action against.

Policy Responses

Reducing Demand for Wild Animals through Captive Breeding

Sometimes, a legal market in captivity-bred animals can greatly reduce pressures on the natural ecosystems and species. The prohibitions and restrictions on importing wild birds into the United States and European Union, coupled with a legal supply of desirable birds, such as parrots, from captive stocks, greatly reduced poaching for those markets. This legal supply of birds certified to have been bred in captivity have had a palpable impact in Indonesia too, where the bird trade to Europe and the United States dramatically declined, despite the fact that the trade had a centuries-old history, being established essentially at the time when Europeans first arrived in the Moluccas and Papua and saw the local exotic birds.

However, according to the environmental NGOs and conservation biologists I interviewed in Indonesia, bird-breeding facilities in Indonesia itself have not produced similarly positive conservation outcomes, and often serve merely as mechanisms for laundering birds caught in the wild. For a bribe, Indonesian officials often hand out fake licenses for such supposedly captive-breeding programs and the birds. For example, since selling wild-caught lories is illegal, traders often claim that they are captive-bred and produce fake documents to launder the birds.

Alternative Livelihoods for Hunters and Illegal Fishermen

These days hardly all hunters are desperately poor individuals. Nonetheless, even organized crime groups specializing in poaching frequently hire local people living on the edge or inside the forest as trackers, guides, and even shooters. In Indonesia, they can be very destitute individuals struggling to eek out a living and support their families, like those in the Moluccas, who will hunt endangered birds for a bowl of noodles a day. Providing them with an alternative means of livelihood is not only important from the perspective of human rights and human security, but also frequently critical for the success of conservation policies.

Occasionally, alternative livelihoods programs to reduce poaching have scored successes. On the Indonesian island of Seram, for example, twenty poachers of rare parrots were converted (through the work of Profauna, one of Indonesia’s NGOs most determined to fight against the illegal wildlife trade) into rescue-center staff and wildlife guides for tourists. As a result of this alternative livelihoods effort, poaching dramatically fell off. But the success depended on a steady flow of eco-tourists whom the newly-converted poachers could guide. For that, an international counterpart to the conservation effort helped recruit birdwatchers in the United States to travel to Seram. When that international supply of eco-tourists fell off, the income from wildlife guiding for the former poachers declined and the pressure to resume illegal hunting to generate livelihoods intensified once more.

The Seram story is a micro-example of the conditions on which successful alternative livelihoods depend. If poor poachers have an assured income from other sources, they are often willing to abandon the illegal hunting, even though poaching often brings more money. But their income from other sources needs to be steady and assured. The problem with many ecotourism alternative livelihoods efforts is that the income fluctuates greatly and tends to be sporadic and seasonal. Often, for an area to draw a sufficient number of ecotourists to generate income, it needs to contain large mammals that can fairly easily be seen by tourists. Thus, eastern Africa’s savannahs tend to attract many more tourists than rainforest areas.

Moreover, success in bringing an alternative income to potential poachers depends also on the number of potential poachers. It is one thing to employ twenty hunters (like in the Seram example) and quite another thing to bring employment to several thousand people who may reside in or near an ecologically-sensitive area and can become poachers (as well as illegal loggers). The number of jobs generated by ecotourism is often far lower than the existing local needs for employment and the number of illegal poachers, illegal loggers, and pastoralists who encroach on forests. Moreover, whether such ecotourism takes the pressure off poaching is also dependent on whether eco-lodges and ecotourism companies capture the vast majority of profits or whether local communities do in fact get a sufficient cut from the profits.

Note that the above discussion has not taken into consideration whether or not the influx of humans through high-impact ecotourism generates even greater environmental damage than the previous hunting and more profoundly disturbs the entire ecosystem, rather than just particular species.

Income generated by non-ecotourism alternative livelihoods efforts, such as converting hunters into producers of ethnic crafts or honey and other renewable wildlife products, rarely does better than ecotourism alternative livelihoods. Mostly, such alternative economies generate incomes too paltry and sporadic to be attractive to local communities to sufficiently wean them off poaching. Success of such efforts mostly tends to be lower than even the infrequent success in converting illicit crop farmers to farmers of legal crops. In the case of wildlife poaching, legal agricultural production can sometimes reduce hunting – though once again, the question is whether the required land conversion and deforestation will ultimately devastate the entire ecosystem even more. Just as in the case of alternative livelihoods for illicit drugs, success is predicated on well-enforced property rights, the availability of microcredit, good infrastructure, and other structural factors. Crucially, it also depends on well-established value-added chains and assured markets, neither of which are developed easily in remote areas where forests or biodiversity-rich savannahs still exist. Thus on Indonesia’s Flores island, one of the sensitive land and marine areas, there may well be first-rate avocados, but because of a lack of infrastructure and value-added chains, farmers often feed them to pigs instead of exporting them. Flores’s four kinds of mangoes could well be successfully sold in many international markets, but those markets have not yet been developed. And if one day they are, it is critical that they do not generate new deforestation to clear the way for the mango trees, compounding the pressures on already devastated natural forests of the island.

In the Komodo National Park area, for example, inducing local people to switch from dynamite-fishing that decimates the area’s biodiversity-rich marine ecosystems to carving wood crafts for tourists has met with some successes. However, the former fishermen got used to taking wood from the park’s mangroves, replacing one negative ecosystem impact with another. Persuading them to use jackfruit timber instead has become the new imperative. Similarly, seaweed farming in the Komodo area and around Sulawesi has become a popular alternative to fishing, and one that currently has a thriving international market. But careful assessments as to whether the seaweed farming – and of what particular seaweed species and through what precise methods – is fully compatible with coral conservation have yet to be made.

Scuba diving tourism is thriving in the area, bringing with it a variety of positive spillovers for the local economy, such as new restaurants, lodges, and markets. But it is mostly concentrated in Labuan Bajo, not benefiting all parts of Flores equally and many not at all. Moreover, most hotels and dive companies are not owned by local people, with much of the profit leaving for Jakarta or abroad. And only very few of the dive masters are local people.

Improved Law Enforcement

Without alternative livelihoods in place or the ability to change the structure of incentives for the many types of actors who participate in the illegal wildlife trade – as well as without reducing demand for wildlife products — law enforcement is rarely a sufficient answer. But it is a critical and inescapable component of such efforts.

In Indonesia, enforcement of wildlife regulations has a long way to go. The problem starts with the laws themselves. With few exceptions, such as in the case of kingfisher species which are not allowed to be hunted, Indonesian law does not prohibit the killing and trapping of wild animals in general, only those protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Unsustainable legal hunting, often poorly monitored to assess its true environmental impact, thus devastates species in Indonesia, with Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies having no interest or means to counter it. Even for wildlife protected by CITES, the Indonesian law sets as the maximum penalty five-year imprisonment or a ten thousand dollar fine. But poachers and wildlife traffickers rarely face law enforcement action, frequently bribing their way out of punishment in Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt courts. If they are sent prison at all, it is usually for a few weeks at most.

Nonetheless, improvements in Indonesia’s wildlife protection enforcement are under way. Many new commitments, efforts, training, and better practices are stimulated by ASEAN’s Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN) and its international government and NGO partners. The United States government is actively supporting those efforts; and INTERPOL has also elevated wildlife trafficking on its list of priorities. In turn, the importance of acting against wildlife trafficking has also risen for Indonesian law enforcement agencies, though it still retains a much lower priority than drug trafficking, for example, and hence rewards (such as promotion in rank) are not come easily earned for interdiction of wildlife trafficking. Such increased law enforcement efforts are very important and welcome. Setting quotas for the minimum of wildlife cases Indonesian law enforcement officers must catch is hardly the optimal law enforcement approach but, arguably, it shows at least an increased awareness of the issue.

Yet as is the case with law enforcement against all kinds of illicit trade, sometimes increased law enforcement only makes the markets more hidden. Certainly in Indonesia, sales of more politically and legally-sensitive species, such as monkeys, that are either sold outright illegally or whose trapping generates strong criticism from environmental NGOs, has been driven from public view. Nonetheless, behind closed doors, these species are usually available in many of the country’s big wildlife trading places. When in the huge Jatinegara wildlife market in Jakarta, where supposedly any animal, no matter how endangered and enigmatic can be bought, I tried to pull out my camera, I was met with a great deal of hostility and protests from local sellers and was essentially chased out of the market. One representative of an Indonesian environmental NGO, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that tiger parts, rhino horns, or alive orangutans and Komodo dragons can all still be obtained in the Jatinegra market and from Indonesia’s other wildlife traders. Illegal pet shops in Jakarta boast that they can deliver any species within a week – and often the transaction is made over the internet.

Nonetheless, there have been some genuine successes in Indonesia’s law enforcement. In Bali, for example, the enforcement of the ban on catching sea turtles has been greatly strengthened. Used in traditional Balinese ceremonies, turtles had been caught at a rate many times surpassing the 1000 specimen catch per year allowed under local regulations. In 1999, 27,000 turtles, for example, were slaughtered. Profauna encouraged zero-catch quotas and pushed for greater law enforcement by the police and other law enforcement agencies, such as the Forestry Ministry. The fact that police units on Bali have a reputation for being less corrupt than elsewhere in Indonesia, and with greater international presence to help  in the monitoring, the police confiscation of turtles increased significantly and the illegal catching decreased by 80 percent since.

The intensification of law enforcement interdiction in Indonesia has been critically enabled by the increase in animal rescue shelters. In the past, the Indonesian police often used the small number of available animal shelters as an excuse for not undertaking interdiction raids, claiming that they could not care for the rescued animals. Indeed, according to a very impressive young female Muslim veterinarian in Bali who has supervised some of the rescue shelters, about 95 percent of animals confiscated in wildlife markets or private collections are too sick and damaged to be returned to the wild. With few releases possible, because they might introduce new diseases that could devastate the wild populations, most of the recovered animals will have to be treated at the shelters for the rest of their lives or euthanized. Unfortunately, rehabilitation shelters in Indonesia have depended almost exclusively on foreign funding. Several important international donors have been disappointed with Indonesia’s performance in cracking down on the wildlife trade and have not renewed their donor commitments, leaving some of the shelters struggling to operate.

Challenges in Cracking Down on Illegal Fishing

To some extent, improvements have also been registered in Indonesia’s efforts to combat illegal domestic fishing in protected areas. The Komodo National Park provides an example. Fifteen years ago, dynamite and sodium-cyanide fishing, both extremely destructive to the marine ecosystem, were prevalent and perpetrated by local communities around the park and by fishermen from the eastern parts of Flores as well as other islands, such as Sulawesi and Sumbawa, as already mentioned above. When confronted by local communities trying to prevent the destructive fishing, fishermen from the eastern part of Flores and surrounding islands would often admit that the reason they were coming to fish in the Komodo National Park was the lack of fish available in their home areas, where local stocks were depleted as a result of the destructive fishing.

Pressure from international NGOs and intergovernmental agencies, such as UNESCO, on law enforcement agencies operating in and around the Komodo National Park stimulated better law enforcement action and diminished the dangerous illegal fishing practices. The fact that the Komodo National Park, including its extraordinary marine ecosystem, obtained high international visibility, and hence international pressure for protection, critically helped.

Surprisingly, because the issue can be construed as one of national security and certainly of national sovereignty, Indonesia has been far less capable of cracking down on illegal fishing by foreign fishing fleets, including Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Philippine, that invade its waters. Some of the Indonesian fishermen I interviewed about international illegal fishing in their waters maintained that they were afraid to confront the foreign fleets because the foreign fishing ships were presumed to be armed. They believed that the presence of guns on the fishing ships also deterred action by Indonesia’s coast guard. Some of the fear can perhaps now be offset by the creation of a community patrol “coastal watch” effort run by the Ministry of Fisheries, for which the U.S. government has installed a communications technology that allows the fishermen to report the presence of illegal fishermen in real time and thus enables a heftier law enforcement response.

Most of the interviewed fishermen, however, believed that the lack of robust law enforcement action had to do with large amounts of corruption money sloshing around in the international fishing industry which could easily buy off Indonesia’s naval and coast guard patrols. Church and NGO activists in Labuan Bajo, Flores, for example, recounted how they suspected that local police and navy officials were involved in the smuggling of the endangered Napoleon wrasse (also known as humphead wrasse), the trade in which is prohibited by several countries and whose possession in Indonesia requires special permits from the government. Nonetheless, the species is highly sought after in Taiwan, China, and other East Asian markets. Repeated tipoffs to local Labuan Bajo police and navy units regarding the illegal catching and smuggling of the wrasse fell on deaf ears, with the law enforcement agencies demanding proof from the activists before they would take any kind of law enforcement action against the identified smugglers. The activists thus invited local media to the port where the wrasse smuggling was taking place, and “by accident” spilled one of the boxes transporting the smuggled wrasses, forcing the police to acknowledge in front of flashing cameras that illegal fishing was taking place there. Nonetheless, a visit to the Chinese market in Labuan Bajo in October 2012 revealed Napoleon wrasse on sale. The trade in other exotic fishes, even if not necessarily protected species (CITES only prohibited the trade in some sharks and manta rays in March 2013), was thriving there. Local buyers were eagerly haggling with fishermen over lips from parrotfish, manta ray parts, and sharks fins.

Lessons from Indonesian Anti-Piracy Efforts for More Robust Law Enforcement Action against Illegal Fishing and Wildlife Trafficking

The anti-piracy efforts in the Strait of Malacca and around Indonesia can provide insight into the factors which can stimulate better law enforcement action by Indonesia. Before the frequency of maritime piracy spiked around the Horn of Africa and West Africa, pirate attacks on ships at sea in Strait of Malacca amounted to almost half of the world’s piracy incidents. Out of the more than 250 yearly attacks in the Strait and around Indonesia during the first half of the 2000 decade, the majority originated in Indonesia.[2] Indonesia’s archipelago provided many safe-haven opportunities for pirates, while law enforcement action against them both on land, such as on the Riau islands, and at sea was sporadic and limited at best.

As the frequency of pirate attacks kept growing, it came to present a threat to Singapore’s economy – critically dependent on the safety of its seaborne commerce and accessibility of its port, with more than 50,000 vessels carrying 40% of world’s trade passing through the Strait yearly. Backed by the United States, Singapore pressured Indonesia to take more robust action against the pirates and delivered a variety of financial incentives– delivering technologies, patrol assets, and ultimately paying for much of the anti-piracy effort Indonesia mounted. Anti-piracy intelligence sharing among Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, previously inhibited by traditional rivalries, also increased, even though many of the proposed “joint” patrols among the three navies really amounted only to “coordinated” patrols. In the latter part of the 2000 decade, piracy in the Strait fell off by about three-fourths – even though the actual number of interdiction operations on the seas remained very small. Just the greater deployment of patrolling assets and importantly actions by Indonesia against the pirates on land created a robust deterrent effect.

The fact that Singapore mounted strong pressure on Indonesia is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that ultimately Singapore had to back up the pressure by extending various modes of assistance to stimulate greater law enforcement action against the pirates. What is more interesting is that in the case of maritime piracy, unlike in the case of its many other large-scale illicit economies, such as illegal logging and mining, Indonesia was able to overcome the corruption that has long plagued its law enforcement apparatus and undermined the interdiction and deterrence efforts. In other words, it was pressure from Singapore, underwritten by material assistance from that city-state, that stimulated Indonesia’s resolve to go after the pirates. But what accounts for Indonesia’s improved capacity to carry out the law enforcement effort? 

To a great extent, the answer appears to lie in the low profits and un-institutionalized form of corruption surrounding maritime piracy in the area. Unlike in the case of piracy off the Somalia coast, the profits from piracy around Indonesia were fairly low, with attacks often amounting more to robberies on the seas and in ports, rather than to long-term hostage and cargo seizure with ransom payouts in the millions of dollars. (Indeed, the “pirate” attacks around the Indonesian archipelago that have taken place over the past three to four years remained mostly thefts and robberies when ships are anchored in Indonesia’s ports.) Consequently, the bribes from piracy paid to either Indonesian coast guard or navy officials or to local government officials on land in areas that the pirates used as safe-havens were not very large, nowhere on the scale of the bribes paid by illegal logging or mining companies. Nor have the Indonesian law-enforcement agencies become addicted to the piracy bribes for their institutional budgets, unlike in the case of bribes and problematic profits from natural-resource extraction on which Indonesia’s military and law enforcement agencies have come to depend for sustaining their operating budgets.[3] The political costs Jakarta had to absorb to make law enforcement agencies act against the pirates and the muscle it had to exercise to corral local officials into compliance were far lower with respect to piracy than the political costs would be for Jakarta to enforce compliance with resource-extraction regulations. The number of political and institutional actors with a vested interest in perpetuating piracy (because of the rent payouts it generated) was also much smaller than in illegal logging and mining, and the management problem for Jakarta therefore also much simpler. The resolution of secessionist militancy in Sumatra’s Aceh region, after the 2005 peace deal, is sometimes also put forward as a factor enabling the more robust law enforcement action against the pirates.[4] But there are limitations as to how far this explanation carries, given that most of the pirate attacks did not originate from Aceh and the area was not a prime safe-haven area for the pirates. (The fact that many of the former Free Aceh Movement combatants continue to be unemployed and economically-frustrated could easily make them an easy recruitment pool for pirate businessmen. Other illicit economies, such as marijuana cultivation, have in fact been thriving in the region.)

For combatting wildlife trafficking and illegal logging in Indonesia, the anti-piracy story has two implications. On the positive side, in the case of wildlife trafficking, the vast majority of the conservation actors and Indonesian government officials I interviewed agreed that corruption surrounding wildlife trafficking was not institutionalized. Nor was it believed to generate large off-budget income for the law enforcement institutions, like logging and mining. Tackling individualized corruption, as difficult as it is, is still far simpler than weaning entire institutions of illicit budgets.

On the negative side, the bribery profits from illegal fishing for Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies are considerably higher than those from piracy. For some agencies, such as the coast guard and the navy, the bribes may well constitute corruption payoffs akin to that from mining and logging that go beyond individual bribes. That is bad news for developing more robust law enforcement action.

The barriers to international cooperation against illegal fishing are also far higher than against piracy. Major fishing offenders such as China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam would have to take on their domestic fishing industries — a high-cost political action they have not been willing to mount, just as Indonesia has not been able to effectively take on its logging industry, for example. Vietnam and Indonesia have announced joint anti-illegal fishing patrols, but whether these will amount to more than window dressing by Vietnam yet remains to be seen.

Beefed up law enforcement action against wildlife trafficking and illegal fishing is critical. Providing effective alternative livelihoods for poor hunters is a policy that enhances human rights and human security as well as greatly facilitates law enforcement. Unfortunately, alternative livelihoods efforts are rarely effective, with auspicious circumstances mostly lacking and structural problems difficult to overcome. Ultimately, there are great limits to what even much more effective law enforcement and much more effective alternative livelihoods can accomplish unless demand for wildlife products around the world, and particularly in East Asia, is rapidly reduced. So far, demand reduction efforts in the region for bushmeat and Traditional Chinese Medicine have registered thinner, even if somewhat improving, results than demand reduction efforts to reduce the consumption of illicit drugs. But time is running out for Indonesia’s magnificent biodiversity –both on land and in the sea.



[1] For details, see Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Disappearing Act: The Illicit Trade in Wildlife in Asia,” Working Paper No. 6, The Brookings Institution, June 2011, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/6/illegal%20wildlife%20trade%20felbabbrown/06_illegal_wildlife_trade_felbabbrown.

[2] “Piracy Down 3rd Year in Row: IMB report,” Journal of Commerce Online, January 23, 2007; and Pirate attacks Up 14 Percent Worldwide in Jan-Sept Period, Maritime Watchdog Says,” Associated Press, October 16, 2007.

[3] See, for example, International Crisis Group, “Indonesia: Natural Resources and Law Enforcement,” Aseia Report No, 29, December 20, 2001, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/indonesia/Indonesia%20Natural%20Resources%20and%20Law%20Enforcement.pdf; and Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Indonesia Field Report III – The Orangutan’s Road: Illegal Logging and Mining in Indonesia,” The Brookings Institution, February 7, 2013, http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/02/07-indonesia-illegal-logging-mining-felbabbrown.

[4] Michael Shuman, “How to Defeat Pirates: Success in the Strait,” Time, April 22, 2009.

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