Update on the pangolin trade situation in Indonesia.

I. Introduction

a. Overview of the pangolin trade in Indonesia

Indonesia, renowned for its rich biodiversity, has been a critical hub in the illegal wildlife trade, notably for pangolins. Pangolins, often described as the world’s most trafficked mammals, are in grave danger due to their high demand in the black market. The trade, driven by demand for their scales for traditional medicine and their meat as a luxury item, has put immense pressure on pangolin populations.

In Indonesia, the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), has been heavily targeted. Historically, these nocturnal creature roamed freely in Sumatra, Java, and Kalimantan (Borneo), but rampant poaching has dramatically reduced their numbers, especially. In Sumatra and Java,n pushing them towards critical endangerment.

The Indonesian archipelago’s strategic location has made it a pivotal point in the pangolin trafficking network. The trade routes often span across multiple countries, making the tracking and enforcement challenging. Despite pangolins being protected under Indonesian law (Law No. 5 of 1990), Critically Endangered Species under IUCN Red list category, and Appendix I in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), enforcement has been a continuous struggle.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the illicit pangolin trade in Indonesia operated through well-established networks, mostly utilizing both land and sea routes. These networks were adept at evading law enforcement through sophisticated methods, including the use of concealed compartments in vehicles and ships or fake shipment documents. The demand was primarily driven by markets in China and Vietnam.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a significant shift. The pandemic, believed to have originated from a wildlife market, led to a global outcry against the wildlife trade, impacting the pangolin market as well. Indonesia witnessed changes in the modus operandi of these illegal trades, adapting to the new global dynamics and restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, conservation efforts continue. Various NGOs, along with the Indonesian government, are working tirelessly to protect pangolins. These efforts include strengthening law enforcement and raising public awareness. However, the battle against the illegal pangolin trade is far from over. The need for a concerted international effort, specifically to source and market countries, to curb the demand and provide effective protection to these unique creatures is more critical than ever.

b. The Impact of Covid-19 vs wildlife trafficking The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 had profound and far-reaching impacts on many aspects of global society, including the wildlife trade. The potential link between COVID-19 and wildlife markets led to heightened global awareness about zoonotic diseases – illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to humans. This awareness raised critical questions about the safety and regulation of wildlife trade. Governments, environmental organizations, and the public began scrutinizing these practices more closely, leading to calls for stricter regulations. In response to the pandemic, several countries, including China, temporarily closed wildlife markets and imposed bans on the trade of certain wild animals, especially those considered high-risk for disease transmission. These measures aimed to reduce the immediate risk of zoonotic spill over and address public health concerns.

The restrictions on movement and increased law enforcement scrutiny during the pandemic lockdowns impacted the illegal wildlife trade. Traffickers were forced to alter their routes and methods, with some turning to online platforms and postal services to continue their operations. This shift highlighted the adaptability of illegal trade networks and the challenges in enforcing wildlife trade laws. The pandemic also sparked renewed efforts in conservation. There was an increased emphasis on the need for a One Health approach, recognizing the interconnectedness of the health of people, animals, and the environment. This led to greater collaboration between conservationists, scientists, and public health experts.

II. Background

a. The Sunda Pangolin Species: An Overview

The Sunda Pangolin, scientifically known as Manis javanica, is one of the eight existing species of pangolins and is native to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. This elusive and primarily nocturnal mammal is distinguished by its unique physical and behavioural characteristics, playing a significant role in its ecosystem. The Sunda Pangolin is easily recognized by its full body armor of large, overlapping scales made of keratin – the same material as human nails and hair. These scales cover most of their body except for the face, inner sides of the limbs, and the belly. When threatened, they can roll into a tight ball, using their scales as protection against predators.

Adult Sunda Pangolins typically measure between 40 to 65 centimetres in body length, with a tail almost as long as the body. The species inhabits a variety of forested environments, including primary and secondary forests, gardens, and plantations. They are found from lowland areas up to mountainous regions, displaying a preference for forest habitats rich in ants and termites, their primary food source. Sunda Pangolins are specialized myrmecophages, feeding almost exclusively on ants and termites. They use their strong sense of smell to locate prey and their long, sticky tongues to capture them. Unlike other mammals, they lack teeth, relying on their gizzard-like stomach to grind the food, assisted by small stones they ingest. Sunda Pangolins are solitary and only come together to mate. Females typically give birth to one offspring at a time, after a gestation period of around 120-150 days. The young are born with soft scales, which harden after a few days. The lifespan of Sunda Pangolins in the wild is not well-documented but is believed to be around 10-20 years.

b. Historical Context of Pangolin Trade in Indonesia

The trade of pangolins in Indonesia, has a complex and long-standing history, deeply intertwined with cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Historically, pangolins have been used in the local communities in some provinces in Indonesia for meats and cultural rituals. In some Indonesian cultures, pangolins were also seen as symbols of good luck and protection. On a small scale, preserved pangolins (taxidermy) are used as home ornaments. The pangolin trade in Indonesia dates back centuries, initially driven by local demand. The meat, scales, and body part (such as tongue) were valued commodities within local communities. As pangolins were relatively abundant, their trade was not seen as a significant threat to their population.

With the globalization of trade, demand for pangolin products expanded beyond Indonesia’s borders. By the late 20th century, international demand, particularly from countries like China and Vietnam, escalated dramatically. This surge was fueled by beliefs in traditional medicine and the status associated with consuming exotic wildlife meats. The first case of pangolin trade that shocked the Indonesian government and public was the uncovering of a pangolin smuggling warehouse in Palembang (South Sumatra) in 2008, where the perpetrators were about to smuggle 13.8 tons of pangolin meat and scales to China. The amount of pangolin meat was equivalent to at least 2,600 individual pangolins[1]. The transition from small-scale, subsistence poaching to large-scale, commercial trade marked a turning point in the fate of pangolins in Indonesia. Poaching became more sophisticated and destructive, and the scale of capture and trade grew exponentially. There’s even a belief that when poachers got a pangolin, it’s likened to finding black gold.

Initially, the legal framework in Indonesia regarding illegal wildlife trade offering little protection to pangolins on international trade. Furthermore, in the 2000s era, many law enforcement officials and members of the community were not familiar with pangolins and did not realize the extent of illegal trade in this species. After the arrest of 14 perpetrators and the seizure of 13.8 tons of pangolin meat and scales in Palembang, South Sumatra, the issue of pangolin trade has begun to receive the Indonesian government attention.  As the threat to pangolin populations became evident, Indonesia, was eventually ‘forced to agree’ to include pangolins in CITES Appendix I, providing them with a high level of protection on international trade. The decision to include the Sunda Pangolin in Appendix I of CITES during the 17th CITES COP in Johannesburg was made through voting, where Indonesia, as a country suffering from massive exploitation of its pangolins, ironically opposed including the pangolin in Appendix I.

Despite these protections, the illegal trade of pangolins continued, driven by high profits and demand in the market. The lack of crime prevention, enforcement, corruption, and the involvement of organized crime and other criminal activities such as drugs in the network of perpetrators have posed significant challenges in curbing this trade. The relentless poaching and trafficking have led to a drastic decline in pangolin populations in Indonesia. Unfortunately, although it is believed that there has been a drastic decline in the pangolin population in Indonesia, with poachers increasingly struggling to find pangolins, efforts to assess the pangolin population in Sumatra, Java, and Kalimantan up until 2023 have not yet been published.

III. Pangolin Trade Before the Pandemic

a. Scale and Scope of the trade Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of pangolin trade globally was alarmingly high, making pangolins one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. It’s estimated that over one million pangolins were trafficked in the decade prior to the pandemic. This figure, however, might be an underestimation given the secretive nature of the illegal wildlife trade. While Asian pangolin species were heavily targeted initially, as their numbers dwindled,

traffickers increasingly turned to African pangolins[1]. This shift indicated a global expansion of the trade network. Traffickers used various modus operandi to smuggle pangolins and their parts. These included hiding scales in shipments of other goods, fake shipping documents, using private and commercial shipping routes.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade of pangolins in Indonesia was a significant part of the global illegal wildlife trade, with the country being both a source for pangolin trafficking. The trade before pandemic involved large-scale smuggling operations. Although exact numbers are hard to determine due to the clandestine nature of the trade, it involved thousands of pangolins being captured and killed annually. The trade was facilitated by local poachers and middlemen in Indonesia, who supplied pangolins to larger international smuggling networks. These networks were responsible for transporting the pangolins, or their parts, to other parts of Asia.

b. Common Methods and Routes

The initial step involved the poaching and collecting of pangolins from their natural habitats. Pangolins, being nocturnal and solitary, were typically poached at night. Poachers used methods like setting traps or directly capturing them using dogs or manual tracking. Once captured, pangolins were sold to local traders or middlemen. These individuals played a crucial role in consolidating small catches into larger batches for international smuggling. Pangolins were often transported in cramped, inhumane conditions, leading to high mortality rates. This modus operandi is almost always found in the smuggling of live pangolins through fishing boats rented by the traffickers to transport pangolins from the east coast of Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula. For concealment, they were hidden in bags, boxes, or concealed compartments in vehicles. Pangolin scales were frequently dried. Large shipments were usually sent via sea routes, where the smugglers often used shipping containers, falsely declaring their contents or hiding pangolin scales among other legal goods to evade detection. Countries like Hongkong and Malaysia often served as transit points where goods were re-packaged and documents forged to conceal their origins before being sent to final destinations. The primary destinations for smuggled pangolins and their parts were China and Vietnam, where the demand was highest due to traditional medicine and luxury food markets.

c. Demand Drivers for Pangolin Products

The demand for pangolin products, particularly in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia, was primarily driven by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and luxurious food for meat. Pangolin scales were a key ingredient in various TCM preparations, believed to have medicinal properties. Pangolin scales are also used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to enhance breast milk production (lactation)[2].  Despite the removal of pangolin scales from the official list of raw ingredients for TCM by the Chinese government in 2020, the demand for these products persisted, as pangolin scales continued to be used in patent medicines. This was evidenced by the listing of pangolin scales as an ingredient in several medicines in China’s 2020 pharmacopoeia, a reference book for TCM practitioners. Furthermore, licensed hospitals and pharmaceutical companies were legally able to obtain pangolin scales to produce and sell these medicines.

IV. Impact of COVID-19 on Wildlife Trade in Indonesia

a. Response to Wildlife Trade Amid the Pandemic

There have been mixed impacts on illegal wildlife trade due to the pandemic response. Initial measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as restrictions on movement and tighter border security, temporarily reduced the transportation of illegal wildlife products. it’s noteworthy that the pandemic has affected wildlife trade dynamics in Indonesia. For example, increased border security during the pandemic have led to stockpiling by traders of items like pangolin scales and Helmeted hornbill beaks.

Conservationists noticed a shift in strategies by traders who moved to online platforms like Facebook, Tokopedia, Shopee, and WhatsApp to continue their activities, which have been harder to monitor. Small-scale pangolin scale trade (less than 100 kg) is commonly conducted using social media and e-commerce, and carried out by low-level traffickers[1]. For perpetrators who have access to foreign markets and have good financial resilience, they prefer to store the scales until it is deemed safe to smuggle them.

Despite efforts by platforms like Facebook to partner with wildlife monitoring networks and improve their team’s ability to identify illegal wildlife trade content, the move to less visible online spaces poses challenges for tracking and enforcement. Despite the lockdowns, authorities conducted many operations leading to wildlife seizures, indicating that illegal trade activities continued albeit with new strategies to circumvent mobility restrictions.

b. Shifts in Consumer Behaviour

The pandemic has caused significant changes in consumer behaviour worldwide, with potential effects on illegal wildlife trade. Although it is felt that the issue of zoonoses has not yet received much attention from the public in Indonesia, lockdowns and travel restrictions may have disrupted supply chains, possibly leading to changes in trade patterns, including for pangolins. These shifts could impact Indonesia as a source country by either reducing poaching due to lower demand or causing traders to stockpile, as seen with other wildlife products. The traffickers will wait for the right moment to smuggle the pangolin scales, considering that pangolin scales can be stored for many years.

c. Impact on Illegal Trade Networks

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted illegal wildlife trade networks in various ways, including in Indonesia. With the onset of the pandemic and the increased restrictions on movement and border security, there has been a noticeable shift in how illegal trade is conducted. The restrictions initially led to a reduction in the transportation of illegal wildlife products into key markets such as China. Reduced ranger patrols, potentially increasing local poaching activities as a source of income  due to the economic fallout. Interestingly, the trade has adapted by moving more into the digital sphere, with online platforms becoming a significant venue for the sale of illegal wildlife products. Platforms like Facebook or Tokopedia while having policies against such trade, have been used to advertise and sell endangered species. Efforts have been made to better equip reviewers to identify and remove violating content related to wildlife trade.

Another adaptation by illegal traders during the pandemic has been stockpiling. For example, in Indonesia and Vietnam, large quantities of pangolin scales were stockpiled, likely in anticipation of shipping them once border restrictions eased. This shift to stockpiling and potentially moving trade bases to more remote areas has been noted as a strategy to adapt to the increased enforcement activities during the pandemic.

While the pandemic has disrupted some traditional trade networks, it has also given rise to new challenges and modus operandi within the illegal wildlife trade, demonstrating the resilience and adaptability of these illicit networks. The long-term impacts of these changes remain to be seen and will depend on continued enforcement efforts and the evolution of consumer attitudes towards pangolin scale and meat in the post-pandemic.

V. Changes in Modus Operandi During the Pandemic

a. Adaptations in Trafficking Techniques

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the modus operandi of the illegal pangolin trade in Indonesia. With increased movement restrictions and enforcement at physical markets, traders have moved to social media and other online platforms to buy and sell illegal wildlife products, including pangolins. This shift has made it more challenging for authorities to track and intercept illegal trade. Due to uncertainties in transportation and increased border controls, there has been a reported tendency among traders to stockpile wildlife products. This means that large quantities of pangolin scales and other parts have been accumulated to be sold when the opportunity arises, especially once restrictions are lifted. 

The pandemic has led to increased surveillance and enforcement activities, so illegal trade networks have had to adapt their strategies. This might include changing transportation methods, using less monitored routes, or employing more covert ways to conduct transactions. Some traders have shifted their operations from traditional trading hubs to more remote areas to avoid detection, for example, using the river routes in East Aceh before heading to the Malay Peninsula. This includes potentially moving out of capital cities to countryside locations that are less scrutinized.

b. Use of Digital Platforms and Online Marketplaces

As movement restrictions and lockdowns were implemented, traffickers increasingly shifted their operations to online platforms and social media. This transition allowed them to connect with buyers while circumventing some of the challenges posed by physical trade restrictions. In Indonesia, which has a high number of social media users, platforms like Facebook became central to the wildlife trade, including the trafficking of pangolins. Despite efforts by Facebook to curb this illegal trade through policy enforcement and collaboration with wildlife monitoring networks, the challenge persists. The use of social media and online marketplaces for such activities poses a significant problem, as it is difficult for law enforcement to track and control.

Moreover, traffickers adapted their strategies in response to the pandemic. For example, there was a noted increase in the stockpiling of pangolin scales in Indonesia. This indicates that traffickers were preparing to resume or scale up their operations once restrictions eased.

c. Changes in Transportation and Distribution Methods

The pandemic has led to increased global scrutiny over the trade of wildlife, including pangolins. Countries like Indonesia may have faced international pressure to strengthen their wildlife trade regulations, leading to stricter enforcement measures. Travel restrictions and border closures would have made it more difficult to transport pangolins, both within Indonesia and to international markets. This might have temporarily reduced the trade but also could have led to increased prices in the country market in China to scarcity[1]. The traffickers have shifted to online platforms for conducting business. The pandemic has seen a rise in digital platforms for various trades, and wildlife trafficking is no exception. In Indonesia, local communities involved in the pangolin trade might have been impacted by the pandemic. With reduced ability to trade pangolins and other wildlife, these communities could have faced economic hardships, potentially leading to a temporary decrease in hunting and trading activities.

Traffickers have adapted their methods in response to the pandemic. This could include finding new routes, methods of concealment, or times for transportation to evade increased scrutiny and enforcement.

VI. Post-Pandemic Scenario

a. Current State of the Pangolin Trade

As of 2024, the pangolin trade in Indonesia continues to be a significant issue, posing a high risk of extinction for these animals. Despite efforts by Indonesian authorities to combat this illegal trade, the situation remains critical. Indonesia has been identified as a major source country for pangolins, primarily functioning as a supply point in the illegal trade network. Significant seizures of pangolin scales have been reported, indicating the ongoing scale of this illicit activity. For example, a recent operation by Indonesian authorities resulted in the seizure of 223 kilograms of pangolin scales, underscoring the severity of the issue[2].

The illegal trade of pangolins in Indonesia post-pandemic is driven by demand for their scales, which are valued in traditional medicine. The primary destinations for these trafficked pangolins are countries like China and Vietnam. Additionally, locations such as North Sumatra, Riau, and Aceh have been identified as hotspots for this trade, with connections to smuggling networks in Malaysia, Hongkong and Singapore. Despite the substantial number of seizures and arrests, the volume of pangolins traded illegally remains high. Indonesia’s role as a source country and the involvement of organized criminal networks highlight the challenges faced in curtailing this trade.

b. Emerging Trends and New Challenges

Post-pandemic, several emerging trends and new challenges have become apparent in the context of the pangolin trade in Indonesia. These trends are influenced by various factors, including changes in enforcement, market dynamics, and broader environmental and social issues. With the widespread adoption of digital platforms due to the pandemic, there has been a noticeable shift towards the use of online marketplaces and social media for illegal wildlife trade, including pangolins. This digital shift poses a significant challenge for law enforcement, as it requires different strategies and technologies to monitor and intercept illegal online activities.

The traffickers are continuously adapting their methods to evade detection. This includes changing routes, using more sophisticated concealment methods, and possibly exploiting disruptions caused by the pandemic, such as changes in transportation and border control protocols. The economic impact of the pandemic may have varying effects on the pangolin trade. On one hand, economic hardship could lead to an increase in poaching activities as individuals seek alternative income sources.

In response to the ongoing crisis, there may be increased efforts to strengthen wildlife protection laws and enforcement measures. This could include more rigorous patrols, enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies, and harsher penalties for wildlife crimes. The pandemic has heightened awareness of the link between wildlife trade and zoonotic diseases. This awareness could lead to changes in consumer attitudes and reduced demand for products derived from pangolins and other wild animals. Although zoonotic issues have not yet received much attention from the Indonesian public, efforts to socialize about zoonosis should certainly not diminish.

c. Impact of Increased Awareness and Regulation

The pandemic has highlighted the risks associated with offline markets such as bird markets. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, wildlife markets in Indonesia have experienced reduced foot traffic. Interestingly, the decline in visits to bird markets and wet markets by the Indonesian buyers is not because they are more aware of zoonosis, but because they are afraid of contracting diseases from other visitors.

While specific regulations in Indonesia may not be as severe as some other countries, there are several important alternative solutions to be implemented, including: For instance, to encourage vendors to sell alternative meats like chicken and beef instead of wild meats in North Sulawesi, reducing market operating hours in bird markets, increasing sanitation practices, and establishing surveillance at province and national sea and land borders to control the movement of certain animal meats. Additionally, there’s been a reported decline in the sales of wild animals at markets due to both social distancing policies.

VII. Conservation Efforts and Law Enforcement

Local and national NGOs in Indonesia, such as WCS Indonesia Program have played a critical role in responding to COVID-19 and addressing issues such as wildlife trade, including the trade of pangolins. They’ve engaged in educational efforts to correct misinformation about the virus and partnered with various stakeholders. Their response integrates local cultural perspectives with public health imperatives, such as the people of North Sulawesi who have a habit of eating meat from wild and pet animals.

The Indonesian government has recognized the dual threats of wildlife trade: the risk it poses to biodiversity and the potential for zoonotic disease transmission, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While Indonesia has been a high-ranking country in the legal wildlife trade, there are concerns that this may mask the illegal trade, especially in species like pangolins which are highly sought after for their meat and scales.In response, the government has taken steps to better regulate wildlife trade, including promoting captive breeding for species that typically may not be removed from the wild. However, conservationists have noted that such measures might provide opportunities for traffickers to launder illegally caught wildlife by passing them off as captive-bred. This occurred in a case at a legal pangolin breeding facility in East Java that was uncovered by the Criminal Investigation Agency, The National Police, where they claimed to have sold captive-bred pangolins. In fact, the pangolins sold were taken from the wild.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Indonesia has faced both success stories and challenges in its enforcement against the pangolin trade. There have been significant enforcement actions demonstrating the government’s commitment to addressing the problem. For instance, TRAFFIC’s research found that between 2010 and 2015, Indonesian authorities seized an equivalent of 35,632 pangolins in 111 enforcement cases, indicating proactive efforts to combat the illegal trade. Moreover, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Wildlife Crimes Unit in the past has been instrumental in assisting Indonesian law enforcement, resulting in the arrest of traffickers and seizure of pangolin scales and live pangolins, signaling the government’s strong commitment to protecting the country’s natural heritage.

The challenges are underscored by the sophisticated nature of the wildlife trafficking networks that resemble those involved in the drug trade, indicating the need for continued and enhanced monitoring, investigation, and international cooperation. This includes increasing awareness among the prosecutors and judges, to ensure that captured traffickers are properly punished to serve as a deterrent. Additionally, continuous awareness about the prohibition of poaching pangolins and other protected wildlife, including the consequences of receiving punishment, needs to be carried out to the public. The potential for economic improvement for communities with low income needs to be highlighted in order to reduce their desire to poach pangolins. Loopholes for poaching must be addressed as much as possible, and the certainty of punishment must be enforced, so that the community and professional traffickers understand that there is no room for them to commit wildlife crimes.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/opinion/coronavirus-china-pangolins.html

[2] https://tribratanews.polri.go.id/blog/hukum-4/polisi-berhasil-bongkar-sindikat-perdagangan-223-kg-sisik-trenggiling-ilegal-67608

[1] https://medan.kompas.com/read/2023/10/18/162514978/jual-sisik-trenggiling-di-marketplace-2-pemuda-asal-sumut-divonis-1-tahun

[1] Sarah, et.al. (2016). Where did all the pangolins go? International CITES trade in pangolin species

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7386206/pdf/main.pdf

[1] https://yogyakarta.kompas.com/read/2008/08/27/13390138/puluhan.ton.trenggiling.dimusnahkan

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