JAKARTA — Indonesian authorities have arrested seven suspected members of a trafficking ring believed to have used Facebook and other social media to sell at least 40 Komodo dragons and other protected species.
Police are holding five of the suspects in Surabaya, in East Java province, and two in Jakarta, the capital, according to Wiratno, the head of conservation at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The suspects were found in possession of six baby Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis), bearcats (Arctictis binturong), a type of civet, and various endangered birds, including cockatoos and cassowaries.
Though the suspects were arrested separately in February and March, Wiratno told reporters on April 2 that they were believed to be part of the same trafficking network.
“I think this is quite an extraordinary incident,” he said, adding the group was known to have sold at least 41 Komodo dragons, a species found only in Indonesia, to buyers in the country and abroad in the past three years. Wiratno said the dragons, the world’s biggest lizard species, are in high demand as exotic pets.
The suspected network sold the dragons for around 500 million rupiah ($35,000) each to buyers across Southeast Asia, via Singapore, police in East Java told reporters on March 27.
Indonesian authorities have launched an investigation to go after the poachers of the dragons, which are found only on the northern coast of the island of Flores and within the small archipelago that makes up Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wiratno said a preliminary investigation based on genetic tests showed the baby dragons seized from the suspects didn’t come from the park, a protected area, but from the Flores habitat. He added there was a known genetic variation between the two populations.
The animals are currently in a healthy condition and being cared for by the East Java Conservation Agency, Wiratno said. They are being assessed by wildlife experts and veterinarians before a possible release back into the wild, he added.
“We are also assessing the best locations for where to release them,” Wiratno said.
The Komodo dragon is protected under Indonesian law. The illegal possession, trade or killing of a protected species carries a prison sentence of up to five years and fines of up to 100 million rupiah ($7,000).
Adi Karya Tobing, a director with the police’s special crimes unit, said the recent arrests marked the first time suspected Komodo dragon traffickers had ever been captured in the country. He said it was also the first alleged wildlife trafficking case where the suspects used a joint bank account, which investigators are now looking into to identify the buyers.
Adi said the Komodo dragons were sold over Facebook, highlighting the growing prominence of social media platforms in facilitating the illegal wildlife trade. He said 98 percent of the trade of protected species in Indonesia took place online. Adi said his team of investigators had been monitoring this particular group’s online activities for about two months before moving to arrest its members.
Some of the posts advertising the animals for sale were blatantly transparent, while others were more secretive in their wording, he said.
“Most [wildlife trafficking] transactions now take place on social media, but the Conservation Act doesn’t cover such crimes,” Adi said, referring to the legislation passed in 1990.
At least 40 percent of illegal wildlife traders in Indonesia relied on online platforms such as the WhatsApp messaging service to carry out their transactions since 2011, according to a 2017 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a U.S.-based NGO that assists Indonesian authorities in pursuing traffickers. The group also estimates the value of this illicit animal trade at13 trillion rupiah($913 million) a year.
Adi called for more stringent punishment to serve as a deterrent effect, and for an expansion of the law to include the online wildlife trade. Last year, a conservation bill submitted by Indonesian legislators made its way to the government for approval. However, critics said it was still weak on wildlife crime. The bill was eventually rejected by the government, which said the current legislation remained adequate for addressing wildlife crimes and other conservation issues.
“We need to revise the conservation law to help officers better monitor and target the wildlife trade so that we can achieve our conservation goals,” Adi said.