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Indonesian ex-soldier among three jailed for illegal trade in Sumatran rhino, tiger parts

The state conservation agency in Medan confiscates a hacked Sumatran rhino tusk from Suharto, a former Indonesian army member. Photo by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • A court in Indonesia has jailed three men for the illegal trade in endangered Sumatran rhino and tiger parts.
  • An ex-Army captain and a middleman were sentenced to two years for trying to trade in a rhino horn, while a similar sentence was handed down to a man convicted of trapping and killing a tiger and trying to sell it
  • While both the Sumatran rhino and Sumatran tiger are deemed critically endangered, or just a step away from being extinct in the wild, conservationists say enforcement of local laws meant to protect them remains lax.

MEDAN, Indonesia — A court in Indonesia has sentenced three men, including a former soldier, to two years in jail for illegally trading in body parts from a critically endangered Sumatran rhino and tiger.

The verdicts were handed down in separate cases at the Medan District Court on Jan. 4 and 8. In the latter ruling, the court found Suharto, a former captain in the Army Special Forces, or Kopassus, guilty of possession of a horn from a Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) — a species on the brink of extinction, with possibly fewer than 30 individuals left in the wild.

Herman, a middleman to whom Suharto tried to sell the contraband, was also found guilty. (The defendants, like many Indonesians, go by just one name.) The pair were also fined 100 million rupiah ($7,000) each.

The Medan District Court hand down two-year sentences and fines of $7,000 each to Suharto and Herman for attempting to trade a Sumatran rhino horn. Photo by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

The two men were arrested in August last year in a sting carried out by local authorities. The horn seized in the operation was found to have been partially carved into an ornamental globe, measuring 15 centimeters (6 inches) in height and more than twice that in circumference at the base. It weighed an estimated 400 grams (14 ounces).

Suharto claimed to have obtained the horn from an acquaintance as collateral for a loan of just $150 — a steep discount on the estimated street value of around $9,600 for a piece of rhino horn weighing that much.

The ex-captain also claimed ignorance of the natural resources conservation law under which rhinos are protected, and which could have seen him jailed for up to five years.

Just days earlier, the same court handed down an identical sentence of two years in prison and 100 million rupiah in fines to Ismail Sembiring Pelawi for trapping and killing a Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) in the Mount Leuser National Park with the intention of selling it.

Ismail Sembiring Pelawi received a two-year prison sentence for killing and trying to sell a critically endangered Sumatran tiger. Photo by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Asked for comment after the ruling, Ismail expressed his regret and said he did not mean to trap a tiger.

“I only meant to catch wild boars, but one of my snares caught the tiger,” he said. “I barely had the chance to offer it for sale when I was arrested. I will never do it again.”

Police arrested Ismail last August and seized the body of the tiger from his home in Langkat district, North Sumatra province.

The Leuser ecosystem is one of the last refuges of the Sumatran rhino and tiger, and the only place on Earth where these two rare species coexist alongside the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and elephant (Elephas maximus sumatranus). All four species are categorized as Critically Endangered, or just a step away from being extinct in the wild.

Tigers and rhinos are frequently targeted by poachers, their body parts sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine and for ornamental uses.

The Indonesian government has rolled out policies to strengthen existing protections for these species, but critics say the measures and their lax enforcement has failed to get to the root of the problem.

The national parliament is currently drafting a bill that would strengthen the existing 1990 legislation on natural resources conservation, following mounting calls from conservationists who are seeking tougher sentences for offenders and an expanded definition of wildlife trade to include the growing online commerce in animals and animal parts.

The verdicts this past week highlight the relative leniency that local courts adopt when it comes to prosecuting wildlife crimes. Under the charges against them, the three defendants could have faced up to five years in jail. As it was, prosecutors sought only three-year sentences, and the court wound up giving just two-year terms.

The body of the female Sumatran tiger trapped and killed by Ismail Sembiring Pelawi in Mount Leuser National Park. Photo by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published here and here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 7 and 9, 2018.

Banner image: Conservation officers seized this partially carved Sumatran rhino horn from Suharto, an ex-Special Forces captain. Photo by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay-Indonesia.

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