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Indonesia’s silent wildlife killer: hunting

Male orangutan tranquilized for a health check up in Sumatra
Male orangutan tranquilized for a health check up in Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

By and large, Indonesia is a peaceful country. In fact, on the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s list of homicide rates, Indonesia ranks number 10, making Indonesians one of the least murderous people on Earth. A ban on gun ownership probably helps, although obviously there are many other ways to snuff out another person. Maybe Indonesia’s general tendency to avoid conflict helps, too.

Whatever the reason why Indonesians are relatively unlikely to kill each other, such favors are not extended to Indonesia’s non-human wildlife. The relative safety of Indonesia’s people does not guarantee similar security for its animals.

Wildlife killing in Indonesia seems to be at an all-time high. In fact, a recent study published in the respected journal Conservation Biology indicates that on the island of Borneo, wildlife killing is now a bigger conservation threat than commercial logging.

Now such a statement is bound to generate a lot of derision. Many conservation organizations, scientists, as well as the government authorities will pooh-pooh the idea that hunting impacts are that disastrous. Why that is, I want to explore further.

But first, back to the study. The research, led by Jedediah Brodie of the University of British Columbia, deployed a series of camera traps across a gradient of disturbed areas to investigate direct and indirect impacts on wildlife. Although both hunting and new logging reduced the number of species in a given area, there was evidence that some wildlife eventually returned to selectively logged areas. This confirms analyses that my colleagues and I published in the Life after Logging book, several years ago.

The important finding is that the impacts of logging were relatively transient. Hunting pressure on the other hand was continual. Overall, hunting adversely impacted 87 percent of the species in the study.

Wild pig in a snare in Aceh, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

These findings resonate with other hunting studies that I have conducted over the years on Borneo.

First, our Borneo-wide interview surveys conducted in 2009 suggested that thousands of orangutans are killed every year. More than half of the killings resulted in the orangutan being turned into a tasty steak or orangutan stew. The killing of orangutans happens both deep inside forests and in areas that are being deforested. Especially in areas where orangutans co-occurred with nomadic hunting tribes, the orangutan went extinct ages ago. So for orangutans, the picture that hunting is a bigger threat than logging seems well supported.

To get a better idea of the number of animals that are commonly affected through hunting, I conducted another study a few years ago. Every month for one year we gave 18 households in a Dayak village in East Kalimantan a calendar on which they could mark – with stickers – the different types of animals they had caught. After one year this amounted to 3,289 animals with a combined weight of 21,125 kg. The majority were bearded pigs (81 percent of total weight), deer (8 percent) and fish (6 percent). That’s about half a kilo of wildlife or fish per head of the population per day.

Now the total amount is a pretty meaningless number. What really matters is whether or not the take-off levels are sustainable. That is, can people keep harvesting at this level without species populations going extinct?

Problematically, almost no one is studying this. We can, however, get some idea about the answer when we talk to local communities. And their answer is pretty gloomy.

Pretty much any species they mention is considered to be in decline. There are fewer pigs, fewer deer, fewer monkeys, fewer orangutans, fewer fish, fewer snakes. Everything is going down. People are concerned about this, because today their meat is a free resource, but when that is gone they will have to start shopping in markets and for that they need cash. But despite their worries, no one is doing anything to change hunting habits.

Ever since I started talking to people in Kalimantan in the early 1990s about their hunting habits, I have been rather baffled by the fact that so few conservation-minded people in Indonesia show any interest in the topic, unless it concerns big conservation icons like tiger or rhino. If hunting is indeed such a big conservation problem, why are we not doing anything about it?

Cuscus being sold as meat in the Wamena market in Indonesian New Guinea. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Part of the explanation is a belief held by many conservation advocates that the ‘traditional’ people of Borneo and other tropical forest areas somehow understand the concept of sustainable hunting levels. Trust me, they don’t.

If we want to maintain fish, bird and mammal populations that are big enough to feed people in perpetuity, they will have to change their hunting and fishing habits.

Laws about killing and harvesting endangered and commercially valuable species need to be enforced. Zero-hunting zones have to be established where wildlife populations can grow. Similar no-fishing zones have proven to be very effective, if indeed enforced rigorously.

And importantly, as long as wildlife is considered a resource owned by everyone, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ will apply: no one will bother to manage the resource because nobody feels ownership or responsibility.

The empty forest syndrome – standing trees without wildlife – is staring Indonesia into the face in pretty much all forests. Which conservation organizations and government authorities have the guts to stand up and do something about it?

Surely, for such apparent non-violent, non-confrontational and chilled-out people like Indonesians, it shouldn’t be too much of a burden to also extend that peace and love to its wildlife, right? After all, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based conservation scientist.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe and has been reprinted here with the permission of the author.

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