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Why wildlife meat trade in Beriman market, Tomohon city, continues amid the pandemic

Activities at the Beriman Wiken wildlife meat market, Tomohon City, North Sulawesi, July 28, 2020. Photo: Budhy Nurgianto.

September 21, 2020

This story was first published on Majalah Tempo on 1 August 2020 and Barta1.com on 9 September 2020 in Indonesian.

Oleh Budhy Nurgianto

The clock was pointing at 06:45 a.m. when Imelda Lasut, a 48-year-old resident of the Kolongan urban ward in Tomohon City was already on her way to a nearby market. he hopped on the back of a motorcycle and it took her no time to reach the market that is known as the Beriman Wilken Market.

“I normally already have to be at the market by seven in the morning. If I come later, there would be no more fresh meat left. They would already be sold out. Especially in a time of Corona like this, many people miss eating rat, snake and bat meat,” Lasut said on Saturday, June 18, 2020.

That morning, Lasut had planned to buy wildlife meat to cook and serve during a weekend lunch. Before the pandemic hit, she and her extended family, including from nearby Manado city, Bitung and Minahasa district, would gather once a month on a Saturday at her home in Tomohon.

These routine gatherings have been a tradition since 1997 and Lasut always cooked various wildlife meat, including wild boar, rat, snake and fish. One lunch usually would take about four to five kilograms of meat.

For Lasut and her family, the consumption of wildlife meat is an old tradition and their own way to protect the tradition of the Minahasan people. The consumption of wildlife such snakes, bats, and rats is believed to be able to provide enough protein for the human body. Lasut believes that the meat of wild animals have high protein content.

“Up until now, we still eat snake meat and rats. And we are still healthy. It just feels incomplete if we do not lunch with dishes made of wild boar, rats, snake, and fruit bats meat cooked with spices,” she said, with a light grin on her face.

In the hilly town of Tomohon, North Sulawesi, the trade in wildlife meat is nothing new. Wildlife meat is mostly sold at the Beriman Wilken Market, adjacent to the town’s terminal.

This market is the largest market in North Sulawesi that trades in wildlife meat. Sitting right at the town’s center on a plot of some 1,5 hectare, the market is regularly visited by people from various regions in the vicinity including from other areas in Tomohon district, from Bitung and Manada and the district of Minahasa. Some 83 sellers trade in various wildlife meat daily.

The market that is also known as “the Extreme Market” not only deals with wildlife meat but also a variety of agricultural, and fishery commodities and products as well as various household goods. The Beriman Wilken market is usually busiest on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Saturday is when it is usually most packed and the day when the largest variety of goods are on sale.

Entering the area where wildlife meat is sold, one could not escape the particularly strong stench, that is a mixture of the smell of burned fur, fresh meat and blood. People could easily see beasts – wild board, huge rats, dogs — being skinned by burning off the fur and hair with what looked like a gas-fueled hose.

Among the wild animals freely sold for their meat are wild boards (sus celebensis), white-tailed rats (Paruromys dominator), fruit bats (Pteropus sp), pythons (python reticulatus), maccaques (Macaca nigra), monitor lizards (varanus salvator) even Anoas (Anoa sp), an endemic endangered and protected species. Cats, wild dogs and farmed pigs can also be found there.

Like the low-land Anoa, the Talaud Fruit Bat (Pteropus pumilus) and maccaques (Macaca nigra) are classified as protected species under the Environment and Forestry Minister Regulation number 106 of 2018 on the Types of Protected Animals and Plants.

The low-land Anoa is classified as Critically Edangered in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The white-tailed rat is a species of “Least Concern” on the list while wild boars are “Near Threatened”.

Weak supervision

A 2015 report by Profauna, showed that the reason such endangered animals could still be found sold for their meat in markets in North Sulawesi was the low level of knowledge of officials who are tasked with protecting them. This weakens supervision of the Gorontalo-North Sulawesi route where many of the traded wild animals go through.

At a number of guard posts along the Gorontalo-North Sulawesi artery, officials can hardly distinguis between protected and non-protected species. As a result, many suppliers take advantage of the officers’ lack of knowledge to circumvent the regulation by manipulating documents related to the types of animals being transported or sold.

A number of traders in Tomohon City say that in general they obtain their supply of wildlife from outside of Tomohon. From areas like Minahasa, Bolaang Mongondow, Kotamobagu, Gorontalo, Southeast Sulawesi, Poso, Makassar, and even as far as from Halmahera.

Bats, snakes and monitor lizards are usually specifically ordered from South Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi and Halmahera. While traders say they usually receive two deliveries in a month, where they receive them directly at the market.

“For bats and snakes, we get supplies from South and Central Sulawesi. Sometimes we also get from Halmahera. But because of Corona, the supply is for the time being disrupted. Even more so because the Tomohon City Administration has not yet allowed the free sales (of wild life meat) again,” said Arnold Parengkuan, a wildlife meat seller at the Beriman market to TEMPO on July 28, 2020.

Parengkuan added that wild animal meat was openly traded at the market under the supervision of officials from the Tomohon City Markets Agency.  Most of the wildlife meat traded at the market were deemed as pests by the local population and have long been part of the local daily diet for their high protein values and tradition.

As long as the meat is cooked through

The people of Minahasa seems undeterred by news reports about the spread of the Corona virus through the consumption of wildlife meat, including in Tomohon. They continue to  consume bats, snakes and rats, despite of the high Covid-19 infection rate in the area.

“It is a habit to eat snake, rat, wild boar and bat meats here. People already know how to cook them. Usually they are first boiled three time before the spices are added. So, even though there is Corona, there are still a lot of people placing orders for bat, snake and rat meat,” Parengkuan said

A research conducted by Ageng Wiyatno of the Bandung Institute of Technology in 2017 found that wild animals such as bats, had high virus content. There was a total of 61 types of viruses found in all existing bat species in the region. But by now, there were more than 248 viruses that have been isolated or detected in bats in the past 10 years and several of these viruses have high zoonotic potential, such as the virus from the Coronaviridae, Herpesviridae, Paramyxoviridae, Adenovirus, and Astrovirus families.

A triangulated survey on domestic animals in Sulawesi conducted in 2016 by the Maros Veterinary Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization Emergency Centre for Transboundary Diseases Indonesia, found that domesticated animals such as pigs could carry five virus families such as Influenza (HPAI, Human Flu, Paramyxovirus (Nipah, Hendra), Coronavirus (SARS, Mers Cov), Filovirus (Ebola), and Flavivirus (JE).

Under normal conditions, sellers at the Beriman market could sell up to 100 kilograms of wildlife meat per day. Snake meat sales could reach 100-150 kilograms per day.

But in times of the pandemic, the sales volume dropped by some 30 percent, especially since a number of regional administration implemented restrictions that led to the closure of transportation routes linking the provinces.

Sellers are claiming that they could only sell an average of 50 to 60 kilograms of meat. But as demand doubled during the pandemic, they said that supply could not meet the demand.

“Because the supply is limited, and there is a high demand. Especially for bat meat and that of rats, snakes and dogs. There are so many people placing orders, but because supplies from outside (the city) is still not yet running smoothly, the sales volume is limited. I predict that this condition would return to normal again,” Parengkuan said.

Temporary closure

Prices of wildlife meat in Tomohon City have spiked during the pandemic with wild boar meat now fetching Rp60,000 per kilogram, or Rp20,000 higher than the price under normal condition. The meat of the white-tailed rat, usually sold for Rp25,000 per animal, now can fetch Rp35,000. In a single day, traders at the market could sell up to 180 rats.

Fruit bats usually sell for Rp20,000 per kilogram and now at Rp 35,000 per kilogram and traders can sell up to 245 bats per day. Python meat now sells at Rp 55,000 per kilogram compared to the Rp35,000 during normal times. Traders said a total of up to 120 kilograms of python meat is sold at the market daily.

“And even that, the transaction is not done at the market. Since the pandemic, for three months, we were only taking orders through the telephone, then we would bring the meat to the buyer. Now, as the market has reopened, many have chosen to sell from their stall again.” Parengkuan said.

As Tomohon began to enter the new normal phase, the wildlife meat trade at the Beriman market has also regained life. Many traders are now back at the market selling wildlife meat, even though supplies remained limited. The Tomohon administration has allowed traders to open their stalls as long as the traders follow the strict health protocols, including maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and repeated hand washing.

Noldy Montolalu, who heads the municipal-owned company managing the Beriman market said that the wildlife meat trade has long been the main activity at the market. Montolalu added immediate closure of the market will be challenging as it concerns local consumption habit and tradition.

To reduce the volume of trade, the Tomohon municipal administration can only tighten checks on trucks transporting the wildlife to the market along the main transportation routes leading to the market.

“Another step is by educating the traders and the people about the consumption of the meat of wild animals. But I hope the public will not only support but participate.,” Montolalu said.

Prior to the new normal policy, the Temohon administration had been able to stop the trade in wildlife meat and even closed the market due to the pandemic. But the closure was short-lived as traders were only answering to the government request to stay at home during the pandemic.

“Now there are already people selling snake, rat and wild board meat. Although not that many. At present, we are only tightening access to the market. Everything must be checked. Hopefully, this can become the first step in temporarily halting (the sales of wildlife meat) during the pandemic,” Montolalu said adding that only the sales of domesticated pig that is allowed.

Role of wildlife in nature

Conservation activists in North Sulawesi believe that the trade in wildlife meat is difficult to stop quickly as it is closely linked to the consumption habits of the people of Tomohon city and the Minahasa district.

The belief that the meat of wild animals could cure a number of diseases and the perception that consuming wildlife meat is something to be proud of, make any effort to halt wildlife meat trade, extremely challenging.

“The government needs to be firm in this matter. At the very least to be consistent in educating the public. If necessary, enforce the law regarding the trade of protected species. If not, this problem will become more challening to overcome,” John Tasirin, a conservation activist who also teaches at the Sam Ratulangi University, told TEMPO.

Tasirin said that wildlife trade has a huge ecological impact to the stability of the environmental ecosystem. A number of the animals sold for their meat were endemic species to Sulawesi island which each had their respective place in the ecosystem and are irreplaceable. Each species in nature is also closely related to the food chain of other living beings, including humans.

“So, if one species is hunted down or its number is depleting, it would of course disturb the equilibrium in the natural food chain. And this is highly disadvantageous for us,” Tasirin said.

One of the species deemed important in maintaining the balance ecosystem and is often sold, is the fruit bat. This species plays an important role in the pollination of various types of plants and also contributed to the survival of a number of plant species, especially in their wild habitat. Although bats are known as virus carrier, including of the Corona virus, and is also believed to be the main sources of the SARS epidemic in 2003, they still hold a strategic position in maintaining the ecosystem.

A study conducted by the microbiology department of the Hong Kong University showed that bats of the horseshoe variation were very likely to be behind the spread of the COVID-19. While a research conducted by biologists of the Sunan Gunung Jati State Isalmic University in Bandung found the SARS-CoV-2 virus belongs to the Betacoronavirus (Beta-CoV) genus in the Coronaviridae family.

The SARS-CoV-2 genome has similarities with the Beta-CoV RaTG13 found in the horseshoe bat with a similarity level of 96.2 percent. The SARS-CoV-2 virus uses the Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2 (ACE-2) receptor to infect the host cell. Transmission from human to human was through droplets containing the virus. Bats are strongly suspected as providing a natural reservoir for the SARSCoV-2 but It could not infect humans directly.

Despite this, fruit-eating bats still have a role in spreading a number of fruit plant to a wider area. While bat manure serves as organic fertilizer for the growth of plants. Meanwhile, insect-eating bats play a role in controlling the population of insects because they could eat up to 50 percent of their weight. This consumption ability can help supress an explosion in the insect population.

“But at present the population of fruit bats is on the decline in North Sulawesi. Even though [fruit bats] are not yet extinct, but they have become harder and harder to find. I really worry that the bat population have now neared its ecological extinction and could no longer help in maintaining balance in the environment,” Tasirin said.

A survey conducted by Tiltje Andretha, a bat researcher from the Sam Ratulangi University in Manado has found that in a day, traders at three major markets in North Sulawesi could sell an average of 100- 200 bats per day, or in terms of meat is equivalent to 30-50 kilograms of meat.

Andretha said although there is yet a scientific report on the population and types of fruit-eating bats that are hunted for their meat in Sulawesi, there’s reason for great concern judging from the level of consumption by the society and the level of degradation of their habitat every year.

“Therefore, it is important there is an effort to control this trade in bats. Even more so because a number of fruit-eating bat species in North Sulawesi are now increasingly difficult to find and their number is depleting. This also explains why the bats sold in the markets in North Sulawsu come from South and Central Sulawesi and Gorontalo,” Andretha said.

The reporting of this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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