Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Trader in rare species flourishes in Sumatra

By John Aglionby  /  THE GUARDIAN , JAKARTA

Irwan Subrata's business card is appropriately vague for a man who spends only a tiny proportion of his working day in legitimate activities to provide cover for his myriad criminal dealings.

Alongside pictures of a lizard, beetle and cobra, it states his name, mobile phone number, half his address in a medium-sized town in southern Sumatra and the ambiguous title Purchaser of Various Animals.

"If anyone comes asking I can prove that I'm a genuine trader," Subrata says, pulling out of a cupboard a flimsy file of dodgy- looking receipts, invoices and orders for an assortment of reptiles. "I act as the agent for this company in Jakarta. I send them live reptiles to order," he says.

What the talkative, poorly educated dealer would not show a curious inspector or police officer are the contents of the cheap plastic bag stored next to the file. This would expose him for what he really is, a small-time criminal dealer in threatened species who cares little for the law and less for the fate of his environment.

The bag's browny-grey contents are scales from a pangolin, an endangered mammal that looks like a lizard-shaped pine cone and weighs about 9kg. Its scales and the meat are considered crucial ingredients in many Chinese medicines. All trade in the species is banned.

"I've got plenty of this, why don't you take some?" Subrata says.

He is clearly keen to impress me after I tell him that I'm a London art dealer touring Sumatra to buy endangered species for a rich Arab sheikh.

When Subrata -- his name has been changed to protect the anti-trafficking organizations that use his loose tongue to catch hunters and other dealers -- realizes that I'm not interested in pangolins he quickly moves on to other species. Within 15 minutes he has insisted that he can get hold of tigers, leopards, elephant tusks, cockatoos and snakes; within a few weeks he would help me to get enough rare animals to start a creditable zoo.

"You just check with your client what he wants and we'll go from there," he says. "The police are not too much of a problem at the moment because they're focusing on ensuring the election campaign goes smoothly."

Subrata and the dealers like him across Indonesia rarely go into the forests themselves. They mainly act as middlemen between the hunters, who are both professionals working to order and opportunists, and the more specialist dealers based in big cities.

These would include both Indonesians and foreigners; there is, for example, a well-known Russian syndicate based outside Jakarta that illegally exports reptiles to Europe.

Dealers rarely ever own any animals, they usually facilitate deals between the hunters and the buyers and take their cut, which can be anything from 10 percent to several hundred percent.

"The price of an animal can go from a few dollars to a few thousand in just a few trades," says Chris Shepherd, the southeast Asia program officer for Traffic, an organization that monitors wildlife trade.

As Subrata is closer to the lower end of the chain, he needs a comprehensive network of hunters he can turn to.

"Look, if you want to go into the forest I can arrange it," he says. "For tigers we'll go to one place, leopards another and so on. But it would be easier to bring the animal out to you and then you can decide if you want it. Then you wouldn't waste your time and it would also reduce the risk."

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