Feature Story

A race against time: combatting the illegal trade of endangered species in Indonesia

May 9, 2019

In Northern Sumatra and Sulawesi, boasting some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth and possessing staggeringly high numbers of unique plants and animals, the race to preserve these iconic species is now underway.
In Northern Sumatra and Sulawesi, boasting some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth and possessing staggeringly high numbers of unique plants and animals, the race to preserve these iconic species is now underway.

Unrestricted exploitation of wildlife has led to the disappearance of numerous animal species at an alarming and increasing rate, impinging on earth's biological diversity and upsetting its ecological balance.

And we are standing on the precipice of losing one million more species.

Nature’s emergency is our emergency.

In Indonesia, the race is on to halt the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and stop the loss of globally significant biodiversity throughout East and South-East Asia.

With great value comes great responsibility

Indonesia is one of the top 10 megadiverse countries — a designation reflecting its high total number of species and significant percentage of endemic species. Indonesia is also a large source, destination, and transit point for smuggling and laundering of wildlife from Africa to East Asia.

In fact, Indonesia has become the largest supplier of wildlife products in Asia, both legal and illegal. 

The global illegal trade in fauna and flora has been estimated to be worth USD$7-23bn annually, and the value of the illegal trade in Indonesia alone is estimated at up to USD$1bn per annum.

In Indonesia the illegal wildlife trade is the pre-eminent threat to numerous critically endangered and endangered species – particularly charismatic megafauana, including Asian elephants (Endangered), Sumatran rhinos (Critically Endangered; remaining population 100-120 individuals), Sumatran tigers (Critically Endangered; remaining population 650 individuals), and Sunda pangolins (Critically Endangered).

Stopping extinction

In Northern Sumatra and Sulawesi, boasting some of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth and possessing staggeringly high numbers of unique plants and animals, the race to preserve these iconic species is now underway. 

With Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the Indonesian National Police, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, and strong community involvement, this Global Environment Facility (GEF) financed, UNDP-supported project is working to reduce the unsustainable wildlife trade and the rate of biodiversity loss by:

  1. Improving the national framework for managing the wildlife trade – and rendering it more effective through the enhancement of co-ordination and support,
  2. Enhancing enforcement capacity at the local, national, and international levels, and
  3. Strategically scaling-up enforcement at key trade ports.

While the legal framework for wildlife protection and regulation of wildlife trade is relatively well developed in Indonesia, smugglers have found a number of loopholes which are facilitating or enabling the continuing illegal trade of legally protected, and otherwise threatened species in Indonesia. This project is working to address these issues.

Asian elephant
At stake is the preservation of Indonesia’s remaining Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran elephants and Sumatran orangutan populations, and in northern Sulawesi the singular Babirusa (known as a deer-pig), Anoa (also known as the midget buffalo) and the beautiful Black-crested Macaque.

Protecting global wildlife

This project, Combating Illegal and Unsustainable Trade in Endangered Species in Indonesia, is part of the GEF Global Wildlife Programme led by the World Bank and implemented in 19 countries in Africa and Asia.

Collectively, these 19 countries make up an incredible repository of biodiversity and potential for sustainable development. Across these 19 countries, these efforts are aligned with national governments, Ministries of Environment and Forestry, and Departments of Wildlife and Protected Areas. 

For people and planet

The solutions to maintain and enhance biodiversity need to be backstopped by mainstream science, and complemented by existing stores of indigenous knowledge among peoples who have been managing their own unique diversity for a long time around the world.

That’s why in this project, local communities are an integral part of the solution.

Working closely with local communities to create employment opportunities, conduct trainings, and provide much-needed monitoring equipment, local community members are now working to protect their biodiversity and working as community rangers, informants, and wildlife conflict negotiators.

In addition, this project directly benefits local people disadvantaged by the wide range of corrupt practices that forestall development and progress. Combating wildlife crime reduces insecurity and crime in rural areas and strengthens the infrastructure for effective law enforcement that can address both wildlife crime and other offences against rural communities. It will ensure that species and their habitats are better managed and more resilient, thus creating the conditions for communities to continue to coexist with their natural resources – understanding that their unique ecosystems also function as a socio-economic safety net. 

Co-ordination and co-operation

To bolster the protection that can happen at the local level, enhanced co-ordination at the national and international level is imperative.

The future of these species depends on our ability to take a co-ordinated approach. 

In 2015 Indonesian law enforcement agencies also carried out at least 26 arrests involving 37 perpetrators with the assistance of the WCU, with cases including 5 tons of pangolins from Medan; over 1 ton of manta ray bone and gill plates, 6 tiger cases, ivory cases, over 500kg of oceanic whitetip shark fins, and the conviction of an orangutan trader.

Supporting enhanced cooperation and effective enforcement, Gakkum – the Directorate General of Law Enforcement on Environment and Forest - is a national level agency under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Gakkum is an agency dedicated to improving law enforcement and protection of these singular ecosystems.

From 2018-2019, effective enforcement in Sumatra and Sulawesi increased 25% in the annual number of IWT seizures, investigations leading to arrests, and successful prosecutions at project sites.

Slow loris receiving care. Photo: IAR Indonesia.
Thousands of slow lorises are poached from the wild and illegally sold on the street or in animal markets, but these images show how the project is supporting the rescue, rehabilitation, monitoring and release of slow lorises. With IAR Indonesia, local communities are integral in these activities. Engagement of local communities also increased patrolling, market surveillance, and local informant networks. Photo: IAR Indonesia.

Partnerships are powerful

By facilitating collaboration among organisations, institutional capacities have improved both jointly and severally. WCS provided technical assistance to Gakkum and scaled-up lessons learnt from 10 years of operating the Wildlife Crimes Unit (established by WCS in 2003).

These efforts have helped to greatly improve the systemic institutional and capacity barriers that have limited effective national-level action on illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia and the region.

In addition, an overarching communication strategy coupled with social marketing campaigns to increase awareness on Illegal Wildlife Trade is being implemented at national and regional scales. Training materials were accredited by at least 5 agencies (Director General on Law Enforcement, Indonesia National Police, Attorney General’s Office, Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Customs, Aviation/Ports authorities, and quarantine). At least 200 enforcement staff - including judges – now demonstrate improved knowledge on the IWT, and there is a much higher amount of public awareness and direct engagement.

Parade to protect wildlife in Ciamis Regency, Indonesia. Photo: IAR Indonesia.
On National Flora and Fauna Day and the National Primate Day, IAR Indonesia collaborated with students and youth in the Ciamis Regency to participate in a parade through the streets carrying posters encouraging people to care more about the welfare of animals, especially those in illegal trade, and the protection of their habitats. Photo: IAR Indonesia.

Toward a richer future

This project is supporting efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, this project supports progress on achieving SDG 14 on life below waterSDG 15 on life on land,SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions, and SDG 17: partnerships for the goals, while concurrently contributing to SDG 8: ensuring decent work and economic growth for communities.


The project is also working to achieve global biodiversity goals. The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, includes 5 goals, 20 targets - a set of 20 ambitious yet achievable targets.

Specifically supporting strategic Goal C of the Aichi Targets: To improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, Target 12 sets the ambition that by 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.

This project is working to make this target a reality - turning ambition into action.  

For more information on the project, please visit the project profile.

For more information on the Global Wildlife Programme, please visit here

This story was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Biodiversity. Photos: UNDP Indonesia, IAR Indonesia, WCS, and Dr. Peter Schmidt.