Friday, November 11, 2011

My New Roommate: A Story of Poaching at Kerinci Seblat National Park

The picture to the left is Pem, the slow loris (Nycticebus coucang) that's been keeping me company in Sungai Penuh for the past few days.  Pem was confiscated by forest rangers attached to Kerinci Seblat National Park during routine patrolling activities.  She couldn't be immediately re-released into the wild because she had been neglected by her "owner" and was in pretty bad shape.  My friend that works with the rangers asked me to care for Pem for a few days while she was out mitigating a human-tiger conflict in a remote village.  At first we had to work pretty hard just to get Pem to eat.  Slowly we nursed her back to health, and now she's about ready to be released.

As Pem recovered from her poor treatment she got really active and hungry.  I started by feeding her crickets and chopped up bananas, but her favorite food is geckos, known locally as "cicak".  Crickets and bananas are easy to get here, but when Pem got healthy enough to eat geckos I was confronted with the dilemma as to where to get them.  I tried catching them myself, but I had little success (jangan kuatir, Luke).  Evidently the word got out amongst the local gecko community that a new predator was in town, and the ones that normally patrol the house I'm staying at made themselves scarce.  I tried to trap them, using a jar baited with crickets as a trap.  I smeared cooking oil down the sides of the jar thinking that if the geckos went after the crickets it would be to slippery to crawl back out.  As it turns out, though, cooking oil is like nerve gas to crickets, and they all died within seconds.  I suppose it must interfere with their breathing.  Then I stumbled on a plan: why not outsource the gecko hunting?  Soon after I circulated the word amongst the kids of the neighborhood that I was willing to pay 2000 rupiah (about 23 cents) per gecko I was awash with little lizards.  To the right is a picture of my new friend Ego (pronounced like the waffle), who caught 5 geckos inside 30 minutes to become the gecko capturing champion of Sungai Penuh.  The geckos are in the plastic bottle.

Lorises are nocturnal primates that forage during the night and sleep during the day. They move along slowly (hence the name), but rather than being a weakness their deliberate movement enables them to travel through the canopy without disturbing the vegetation, which keeps them out of sight of would be predators.  Slow lorises are also able to produce a toxin, and so when they bite with their razor-sharp teeth they tend to hold on so that the maximum amount of toxin is transferred to the enemy.  Slow loris bites tend to swell up and get infected easily. 

Though slow lorises are protected species (meaning that it's illegal to trade them)(1), they are heavily trafficked, with hundreds being poached and smuggled out of the national parks of Sumatra every year.  As "cute" as Pem looks, she's doesn't make a good pet.  In addition to this, slow lorises bite and are said to be carriers of rabies.  My friend asked me to make a video of Pem devouring a gecko in hopes that the scene might dissuade notions that lorises are "cute, cuddly creatures".  Below you can see the world premier of Slow Loris Vs. Gecko Parts I and II.  The clips are pretty graphic, so if you have a weak stomach you might want to skip them.  In part I we see Pem trying to figure out the glass jar I used to maintain my distance from the loris while preventing the gecko from escaping.  Then in part II (the sequel) we see the grizzly end of the gecko (2).

Slow lorises are not the only species susceptible to poaching at Kerinci Seblat National Park and other protected areas on Sumatra.  A 2009 study of markets found that 183 protected species were being traded in villages around the park.  The Sumatran Tiger has long been a target for poachers, who hunt and kill the tigers for their skins as well as for their bones, internal organs, and reproductive parts, which are all believed by some (misguided) folks to have medicinal properties.  From time to time a poaching syndicate is uncovered in the areas around the park.  Birds are another heavily-trafficked animal commodity.  In a recent article in Inside Indonesia (3)
Photo from Inside Indonesia
Anton Lucas describes the economics behind the bird trade.  In his fieldwork he interviewed several people engaged in the illegal bird trade.  Small groups of villagers go into the forest for a week at a time and bring back as many songbirds as they can carry.  Here in Indonesia there is a ready market for songbirds, and the more exotic the better.  "Raising" songbirds is a major hobby, and there are even competitions for singing birds (4).  "I work as a causal laborer, and for ten months of the year I'm lucky to get ten days work a month", explained one of Dr. Lucas's informants.  "They pay me 30,000 rupiah (US$3.50) a day; that's 300,000 rupiah a month.  In the [dry] season that's the most work I can get.  During the coffee harvesting season I can get 20 days work a month".  According to the villager, this isn't enough to meet the needs of his large family.  However, for a one week bird-poaching expedition the villager can make 400,000 rupiah.  Thus there is a clear incentive to poach birds.  This is exacerbated by the fact that it's hard to patrol the borders of the park.  In addition birds are quite easy to smuggle because they are so small. 

Unfortunately there is no easy solution to this problem.  In many cases villagers aren't very supportive of enforcement efforts, and the socio-economic conditions that contribute to the poaching industry are very hard to address.  But you can do your part...the next time you see a slow loris for sale, leave it be.

References and for further reading...

Read Anton Lucas's article here


(1)  All 5 species of slow loris are listed as vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN. 

(2)  I had to upload the videos to youtube and then embed them in the post because blogger sucks so terribly. 

(3)  Thanks to my friend Luke for alerting me to this article.

(4)  It should be pointed out here that not all songbirds are endangered species and that in some cases songbird associations are strong supporters of protected areas. 

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