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Indonesia's Persistent Illegal Turtle and Tortoise Trade

A recently published report shows the extent of the country's ongoing problems with the black market sale of animals.
An Indonesian activist from ProFauna displays a placard that reads Stop Killing Sea Turtles during a demonstration in Denpasar on Bali island on June 19th, 2013. The activists were protesting the illegal sea turtle trade in the local market.

An Indonesian activist from ProFauna displays a placard that reads Stop Killing Sea Turtles during a demonstration in Denpasar on Bali island on June 19th, 2013. The activists were protesting the illegal sea turtle trade in the local market.

The sale of some of the most threatened tortoise and turtle species from around the world continues to flourish at stores and exhibitions across Jakarta, highlighting longstanding concerns about the illegal animal trade in the Indonesian capital.

A four-month survey by the wildlife-monitoring group TRAFFIC in 2015 found that 4,985 individuals from 65 different tortoise and freshwater turtle species were on display for sale at pet stores, animal markets, tropical fish markets, and reptile expos in Jakarta.

Fifteen of the 65 species observed during the survey were native to Indonesia, only three of which were included in the country's list of protected animals, according to the report published on March 26th.

The rest of the surveyed species were identified as endemic to countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Madagascar, the report said.

It added that nine species observed, only one of which was endemic to Indonesia, were currently listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), for which commercial international trade is prohibited.

"[This means] at least eight of these species were likely to have been illegally imported," John Morgan, from TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and lead author of the report, wrote.

Two of these non-native species are the ploughshare tortoise and the radiated tortoise, both native to Madagascar and listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, or a step away from being extinct in the wild.

The study also identified an increase in the sale of non-native species of tortoise and freshwater turtles from previous surveys, in 2004 and 2010, which documented 26 and 35 non-native species, respectively.

Growing demand for these species, coupled with Indonesia's lax enforcement of customs regulations at international ports of entry and an outdated conservation act, have allowed the illicit international animal trade to grow, TRAFFIC said.

The report also showed that non-native species were significantly more expensive overall than native species. Some of the non-native species were being offered at $1,535 a head, and the native species at $83 a head.

In 2008, Indonesia began to require import permits for all CITES-listed freshwater turtles and tortoises entering the country. Countries of origin must also notify Indonesian authorities before issuing an export permit.

However, existing national regulations—the 1990 Conservation Act and 1999 government regulation on flora and fauna management—fail to prescribe any protections for non-native species. While Indonesia is a signatory to CITES, it has not ratified the convention by legislating it into law.

"This legal loophole hampers any law enforcement to counter illegal trade in these non-native species," Morgan wrote. "Furthermore, existing laws covering native protected species are seldom enforced effectively, and traders are rarely prosecuted to the full extent possible under the law: thus illegal trade continues largely uninhibited given the lack of regulation and deterrence."

Indonesia's parliament and government are currently working on a revision to the existing national laws and regulations on conservation and animal protection.

Morgan suggested the revision of the conservation law should include legal protections for non-native CITES-listed species, as well as for threatened native species that are not listed as protected by the government. Examples of the latter include the Sulawesi forest turtle, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

The wildlife group also called for more stringent monitoring of the markets, pet stores, and expos in Jakarta and across the country by the government, non-governmental organizations, and researchers, in order to document and assess the extent of any illegal trade.

"If this trade and the open markets that sell species illegally are not made a priority for law enforcement action, many of the currently threatened species will be pushed closer to extinction," said Kanitha Krishnasamy, acting regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

According to a 2008 report by TRAFFIC, the supply and demand of freshwater turtles and tortoises appears to be increasing throughout Southeast Asia.

"Indonesian authorities should increase communication and co-operation with countries known to be source locations or transit points for smuggled animals entering the Indonesian market, such as Madagascar, the USA, Thailand, Malaysia, and China to disrupt international trade chains and focus law enforcement efforts on key traders and species of concern," Elizabeth John, senior communications officer at TRAFFIC, told Mongabay in an email.

More than 50 percent of the world's 356 known species of tortoises and turtles are currently threatened with extinction, or are nearly extinct, a new report warns. Loss and degradation of habitat; hunting for meat and eggs, or for traditional medicines; and the pet trade, both legal and illegal, are largely driving the decline of these reptiles.

"There are many species at risk from trade, but tortoise and freshwater turtles are one group of species that do not receive the same attention as other more high-profile or iconic species," John said. "Jakarta has been regularly shown to be a hotspot for trade in these species over the last decade."

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