With protected animals widely available to buy online, some lawmakers want the wildlife conservation law urgently revised
Smoking pipes carved from elephant ivory, multi-coloured cockatoos, and an Australian frilled lizard: these are just some examples of wildlife and their products offered for sale online, illegally, in Indonesia.
They were among 996 adverts, posted by 421 social media accounts, logged in a survey conducted by Indonesia’s environment ministry and NGO the Wildlife Conservation Society between April 2021 and March 2022.
Parrots were the most frequently listed live animal, with 20 different species documented in the survey, while elephant ivory was the most recorded body part, representing 56% of all adverts logged.
“There is an indication of an increase [in online wildlife trafficking] during Covid-19,” Krismanko Padang, one of the survey authors, tells China Dialogue.
In January 2023, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry stated in a press release that in 2022 it had found 638 social media accounts selling protected wild animals. A total of 1,163 protected animals were being offered for sale on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as major e-commerce sites such as Tokopedia and Kaskus, the ministry stated.
Padang says that platforms generally respond to reports of illegal wildlife trade online by immediately taking down the offending account.
“But this is not effective because if one account is closed down, they can just set up another 10 new accounts,” notes Dwi Adhiasto, an independent consultant and expert in wildlife trafficking based in Bogor, West Java. Instead, he says, stricter punishment that is written into the law is necessary to tackle online wildlife trafficking.
Revising Indonesia’s widlife law
Indonesia’s House of Representatives is currently discussing a revision of the Law on Conservation of Living Natural Resources and their Ecosystems. This law, which came into force in 1990, prohibits trade in protected wildlife, and is still the legal basis for indicting wildlife traffickers, including those operating online.
Between 2007 and 2008, the then-Forestry Department (now known as the Ministry of Environment and Forestry) initiated a public consultation on updating the 1990 law. The conversation was only resumed in 2016.
In 2017, the lawmakers in the House of Representatives (DPR) released a bill on amendments to the law for discussion with the government. It aims to strengthen law enforcement, improve management and funding for conservation, and acknowledge Indigenous peoples.
Based on a draft wording of the law obtained by China Dialogue in April, some of the changes lawmakers proposed include:
- Sanctions for businesses and corporations operating within important ecosystems outside conservation areas
- Expanding the range of evidence admissible in court to include electronic information, electronic documents, and maps
- Additional fines to support ecosystem recovery, replanting, and preservation
- Including a definition of ‘Indigenous peoples’ and acknowledging their participation in protecting their customary lands
In 2018, the government decided to stop progress of the bill, saying a revision was not necessary and the existing law was still relevant.
However, lawmakers decided to continue the discussion, approving it as a ‘DPR initiative bill’ in 2022. Debate is now happening under Commission IV of the DPR, which oversees issues relating to the environment and forestry, fisheries, peatlands, mangroves and agriculture. At the time of publication, discussions between lawmakers and related stakeholders, including civil society groups and the environment ministry, are ongoing.
Daniel Johan, a member of Commission IV from the National Awakening Party, says it is important to revise the law because of the severe threat that illegal wildlife trade and poaching pose to biodiversity and ecosystems. “Hopefully it [a revised law] can target the main actors, not only the low-level trader actors in the field,” Johan says.
Conservation groups call for stricter punishment
Under the current law, those convicted of illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia face a maximum punishment of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100 million rupiah (US$6,426). Several conservation groups China Dialogue interviewed argue that this is not strict enough.
“We can understand that [the law] was made in 1990 and, probably at that time, that amount of money was a lot,” says Adrianus Eryan, a researcher at the NGO Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL). “But it is not relevant in current years, considering inflation, demand, and the value of these animals, which could be worth a lot more than that.” Eryan adds that, in practice, the maximum sentence is usually around two years rather than five.
“ICEL has been encouraging since 2005… a revision [of the law] and pushing not just criminal fines, but to look at the whole policy,” he says. “It would be worthwhile if perpetrators did not just serve time, but also paid for the recovery [veterinary treatment or rehabilitation] of these animals. The current law does not talk about recovery, and it is not cheap to feed the animals, care for their medicines, and deal with the release.”
If the bill is passed, the revised law would impose a minimum sentence of two to five years’ imprisonment, and a fine of between 600 million rupiah ($40,189) and 2 billion rupiah ($134,013), for cases involving the illegal trade of protected wild animals.
Article 21 of the 1990 law prohibits the capture, injury, killing, possession, transport and trade of any live protected animal, and the possession, transport or trade of any dead protected animal.
Krismanko Padang suggests that Article 21 should be amended to refer to online trading specifically. “I think it will be good to include the word ‘online’ in the revision. For instance, to say: ‘It is forbidden to trade protected animals through online media’.”
Padang explains that under the current law, authorities must expend significant effort to track down the seller in person and prove they are in possession of the illegal item. A revised law could allow electronic transactions to be used as evidence, he says.
“If we can just provide electronic proof as evidence and [that] there’s money paid for this transaction, compared to bringing the actual animals, it would make our jobs easier,” Padang says. “Once they post [on social media] and we can ensure that these animals exist, we can enforce the law.”
Adhiasto points out that the current requirement to have the actual animal as evidence is restricting authorities’ ability to apply the law to people higher up in the trade network. “The officials will try to meet [sellers] in person and bring the animals to the transaction. You can do this for the sellers, but not really with the actual organizer, financial backers, or even those managing the network,” he explains.
“We want to bring a deterrent effect to these perpetrators, because [at present] we find that one [perpetrator] can do the same crime at least three times. It means that there’s no deterrent effect,” Padang says, adding that a minimum sentence should be added to a revised version of the law. He also notes that punishment for online trading should be heavier, because such practice holds the potential for illegal cross-border trade that’s accessible anywhere – not just in Indonesia.
Eryan says that the conservation bill must be passed urgently to be able to effectively tackle online wildlife trading. “In terms of law enforcement, this [current] law is really weak. We cannot achieve anything if the foundation is not better.
“If they’re serious, a month is enough [to get the bill passed] because all the answers are there,” he says. “This has been going on for 33 years; there is plenty of research going around. This is just about political will.”