Study Finds Illegal Trade in Turtles and Tortoises Thriving in Indonesia

Malayan Snail-eating Turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga).  Twenty of these CITES Appendix II-listed individuals were observed for sale in Jakarta in 2010.
Malayan Snail-eating Turtle (Malayemys subtrijuga). Twenty of these CITES Appendix II-listed individuals were observed for sale in Jakarta in 2010.

A disturbing report published by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC reveals that an alarming number of protected and endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles are openly for sale in Indonesia.

Although Indonesian laws to combat illegal wildlife trade have been strengthened, and an increased number of airport seizures and market raids have been conducted, the effectiveness of these efforts continues to be hampered by corruption, according to the 2011 report.

Ploughshare Tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora). Photographed at a reptile expo in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 10, 2010.
Ploughshare Tortoise (Astrochelys yniphora). Photographed at a reptile expo in Jakarta, Indonesia on December 10, 2010.

Endangered species and discrepancies

Researchers found 49 different species of tortoises and freshwater turtles during observations made at animal markets, reptile expos, and pet stores.

Of these 49 species, more than 60% (30) are considered threatened by the IUCN.

Six of these 30 species are Critically Endangered, another six are Endangered, and 18 are Vulnerable.

Many of the specimens lacked import documentation, and discrepancies were also found within the UNEP-WCMC CITES trade database records.

Young softshell turtles, photographed at a market in Southeast Asia.
Young softshell turtles, photographed at a market in Southeast Asia.

Corruption

Reptile dealers were found to be operating without fear of being punished – even though they are “fully aware” of the law.

Enforcement officers frequently tip off dealers about market raids, and if dealers are caught, they are rarely penalized.

If arrested, dealers receive low fines which are considered “an acceptable cost of doing business.”

This is particularly troubling, as it suggests that despite ongoing training and capacity building efforts made by Indonesian authorities and NGOs (including TRAFFIC), wildlife laws are not enforced.

Young Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) observed at a reptile expo in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 2010.
Young Indian Star Tortoise (Geochelone elegans) observed at a reptile expo in Jakarta, Indonesia, December 2010.

‘Status symbols’

TRAFFIC noted that the confiscation of illegal specimens from traders is not a deterrent, as they are back in business almost immediately.

It was recommended that the individuals found dealing in these animals be punished to the fullest extent of Indonesian law, which is the strongest of any ASEAN country.

This includes both financial penalties and prison sentences.

Without consistent enforcement of wildlife trade laws, this dire situation is quite likely to become worse.

Protected species are coveted as status symbols in Indonesia; the fact that an animal is “illegal” is often used as a selling point.

Unfortunately, as long as buyers are willing to pay high prices for these increasingly rare status symbols, dealers will continue to be lured into the illegal wildlife trade.

Download the entire report: The Trade in Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Jakarta, Indonesia Revisited

Photos © O. Caillabet/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia; courtesy of Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia


Originally published on Planetsave on August 21, 2011.

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Rhishja Cota-Larson

I am the founder of Annamiticus, and I work as an independent Wildlife Trade and Communication Design Consultant. I have journeyed to the streets of Hanoi to research the illegal wildlife trade, and to the rainforests of Sumatra and Java to document the world’s rarest rhinos. I am a Co-Chair of the SSN Pangolin Working Group. At CITES meetings, I collaborate with colleagues from around the world to lobby in favor of protecting endangered species. I am a Wildlife Trade and Trafficking Consultant for the upcoming documentary The Price, the host of Behind the Schemes and author of the book Murder, Myths & Medicine. I enjoy desert gardening, herping, reading, designing, and walking with my dogs.