Obsolete law is costing Indonesian wildlife

As long as the law does not recognise it as transnational organised crime, the illegal trade of wildlife will continue to flourish in Indonesia.

Indonesia's laws aren't effectively cracking down on rampant animal trafficking
Indonesia's laws aren't effectively cracking down on rampant animal trafficking. Image: Julien, Flickr Credits CC BY 2.0

When Indonesian prosecutors went after the leader of an illegal wildlife syndicate operating near the Malacca Strait, they relied on the country’s then relatively new 2019 Quarantine Act to seek a prison sentence. After being connected to the illegal smuggling of four lion cubs, a leopard, and 58 species of Indian Star tortoises from Malaysia to Indonesia, Irawan Shia received a four-year prison sentence and fine of IDR 1 billion (USD$65,468). If the fine is not paid, the replacement is three months imprisonment.

The sentence was the biggest ever handed out, but falls far short of what it could have been had Indonesia brought its laws in line with global conventions.

Illegal trading of wildlife is rampant in Indonesia, from bird species and orangutans, to coral specimens. Wildlife traffickers using online platforms have found a new marketplace. Environmental crime is the world’s third largest illegal trade, according to INTERPOL. It’s worth more than USD$20 billion a year but remains overlooked and under-prosecuted. In Indonesia, illegal trade of wildlife costs the economy an estimated USD$852,4 million every year, and according to INTERPOL it’s growing at between five to seven per cent per year. Despite the numbers, Indonesia is falling short in its response to wildlife trafficking.

Observers have called for better criminal investigations and more suitable punishments for the offenders as well as an upgrade to the legislative frameworks tackling these criminal activities. Due to its lucrative nature and extensive markets, it is almost impossible for criminals to act individually when trafficking wildlife. Similar to drugs and human trafficking, illegal trade of wildlife requires a multitude of criminal networks with individuals holding various duties in committing the crime. Poachers, brokers, intermediaries, exporters-importers, wholesale traders, and retailers are all present in the chain of criminal enterprises.

The involvement of organised crime actors, other crime groups, officials, authorities, and militias in the different stages of wildlife trafficking complicates the state’s intervention to tackle an offence considered a nested complex crime. Because of this, the illegal trade of wildlife is generally considered to be transnational organised crime, requiring a matched response. For example, the United Nations Conventions against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), in tackling transnational organised crime enables governments to criminalise participation, introduce liability for legal persons, undertake special investigation techniques and cooperate internationally.

There are programmes for law enforcement agencies to effectively collaborate in combating these crimes, such as collecting, exchange and analysis of information on the nature of organised crime and training and technical assistance. But Indonesia has yet to adopt these initiatives in its own regulations.

Despite ratifying UNTOC in 2009, the primary foundation of Indonesia’s response to illegal trade of wildlife lies in its Conservation of Biological Natural Resources and their Ecosystems Law. This more than 30-year old law is not suited to combating today’s rampant wildlife trafficking. For instance, the maximum criminal sentence of five years’ imprisonment and fines of up to IDR100 million (USD$6,548) are far too lenient compared to the harm caused by the illegal wildlife trade. Indonesian law fails to regulate the involvement of corporations in the illicit trade of protected floras and faunas as it only criminalises individual offenders. Subsequently, it does not equip law enforcement agencies with the necessary powers to investigate and prosecute if such crimes have cross-border characteristics and involve syndicates.

The possibility of using technology to stop wildlife trafficking is yet to be regulated. Even though the government’s claims that Indonesia has succeeded in replenishing and restoring endangered species, the law remains insufficient to comprehensively react to the evolving nature of wildlife trafficking. Despite being recorded as the biggest verdict of a wildlife-smuggling case, Shia’s prison time does not even reach the maximum term under the 1990 Conservation Law, which various observers considered too lenient. The Quarantine Act is not specifically designed to combat wildlife trafficking as it demands the complete documents for fauna coming to Indonesia. If the offenders could provide such paperwork, the possibility of prosecuting traffickers using this law would be off the table.

Being unable to consider it an organised crime, law enforcement agencies rarely proceed with wildlife trafficking cases until the very top of its business chain. Even though the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommends a complete analysis on the potential money laundering risks relating to the illegal wildlife trade, convictions haven’t gone beyond the leaders and their couriers.

The fact that money laundering and other high-ranking corrupt officers were never present in Shia’s trial reiterates the fragmented strategy of pursuing wildlife trafficking syndicates.

Indonesia’s approach to legislating against wildlife trafficking is threatening its ambition to remain a biodiversity hotspot in Southeast Asia as more endangered species come closer to extinction. 

Anugerah Rizki Akbari is a PhD Candidate at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance, and Society, Leiden Law School, Universiteit Leiden. He also holds a non-permanent position as lecturer at Department of Criminology, Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Indonesia.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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