#ShockWildlifeTruths: Massive illegal tortoise trade in Indonesia rears its ugly head

2018-03-29 10:40 - Saara Mowlana
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Cape Town - The sale of some of the most threatened, exotic and rare tortoises flourish on the market in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

The wildlife-monitoring group TRAFFIC conducted a four-month survey on the matter of illegal tortoise trade in Jakarta, and the stats rearing its head from the shell are shocking.

The survey found that in 2015, 4 985 individuals from 65 different tortoise and freshwater turtle species were on display and for sale at pet stores, animal markets, tropical fish markets and reptile expos in Jakarta. Nearly half of these were threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

It was also uncovered in the latest TRAFFIC report published on Monday, that 15 of those 65 species studied were native to Indonesia with only three of which were included in the country's list of protected animals.

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The remaining 50 species studied were identified in the report as being endemic to countries from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America and Madagascar.

The report also mentioned that out of nine species observed, only one was endemic to Indonesia, and is currently listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This means that, for that species identified, 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 the identified species were recognised as the ploughshare tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora) and the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) - both of which are endemic to Madagascar and listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, or dangerously close to being extinct in the wild.

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TRAFFIC said that the reason for the growth in illicit animal trade is a combination of its growing demand, the legal infrastructure of Indonesia and border control issues. These factors along with a rather outdated conservation act have allowed a space for illicit animal trade to grow and fester. 

Non-native species were also found to be significantly more expensive overall than native species, with some being offered at $1 535 (about R22 284 @R11.80/$) a head, and the native species at $83 (about R1 204) a head.

However, in 2008, Indonesia started to require import permits for all CITES-listed freshwater turtles and tortoises entering the country. The country of origin was also requested to notify Indonesian authorities before issuing an export permit.

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

"This legal loophole hampers any law enforcement to counter illegal trade in these non-native species," writes Morgan. "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."

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

Morgan suggested that 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, but listed as protected on other lists. Examples of the latter include the Sulawesi forest turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi), listed as critically endangered by the IUCN.

The wildlife group also called for the monitoring of the markets, pet stores and expos in Jakarta and for the government to be more stringent across the country, as well as NGOs and researchers, in order to document and assess the extent of any illicit animal 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.

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new report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition warns that more than 50% of the world's 356 known species of tortoises and turtles are currently threatened with extinction or are on the brink of being extinct. The loss and degradation of habitats, hunting for meat and eggs, or for traditional medicines; and the pet trade, both legal and illegal, are largely responsible for being the driving force of the decline of these species.

"This report is a wake-up call — a call to action if you will — for everyone who cares about the future of this iconic group of animals," says Rick Hudson, president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, in the statement.

"We must double down on our commitment to protect them, and though we've made impressive strides in the recovery of several species, others are still at risk of slipping through the cracks. Turtles and tortoises face many serious threats today but none more insidious than the illegal wildlife trade."

Keep an eye out for any upcoming CITES conferences and events here.