Chapter 6: Indonesia

Cash transfers suggest sophisticated criminal network

Criminal syndicates in Africa and Asia are working together — and competing — to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for pangolins in China and other markets. Over the last nine months, over 30 journalists across 14 countries and territories investigated how illegal pangolin trafficking is leading the species to become extinct.

Today, we’re sending you our dispatch from Sumatra, Indonesia.

You can find our global report here:

Pangolins: Trafficked to Extinction

Seized pangolin scales and meat. Money transfers. Shipments to China. Tip-offs.

These are the hints that point to a network of pangolin smugglers in Indonesia. Denials. Silence. Lack of direct evidence that could turn unusual coincidences into bulletproof evidence. These are the challenges faced by law enforcement, and us as we investigated the pangolin trade in Indonesia.

A review of court records, dozens of interviews with poachers and the police have provided the clearest indication yet that the pangolin trade in the archipelago nation has professionalised. It has become so sophisticated that it reminds experts of the drug trade.

In Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan, pangolins provide an essential balance to the ecosystem, feeding on pests which affect plants such as the oil palm. However, syndicates in these areas “hunt on a massive scale during the transition from rainy season to dry season,” Sustyo Iriyono, the official at the Environment and Forestry Ministry in charge of fighting the illicit pangolin trade, said in an interview.

Here, investigators typically aim for the poachers and then try to work their way up the syndicate through vendors and middlemen. Rarely do they get very far.

The premiums on the trade leave plenty of room for middlemen. In Indonesia, a poacher might get around $20 for a kilogram of pangolin meat. The same meat could sell for up to $1,200 elsewhere. The value of pangolin scales multiplies 30-fold along the supply chain.

Sustyo estimates that Indonesia is the world’s largest illicit exporter of pangolin meat and scales, even though pangolins in Indonesia cannot compete with the African subspecies in terms of size. Shipments mostly go to China, sometimes through Vietnam and Hong Kong.

A Malaysia-bound baby pangolin that was rescued by police in Medan, Indonesia. Dozens of pangolins seized in the same bust were later released into the wild. Others were given to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences for research. Credit: Tommy Apriando / Tempo, Mongabay

Asked about the smuggling routes, he said that the trade networks have become “well organised.”

“In the past, smugglers used cargo planes,” he said. “After this was discovered, they began altering the manifests of shipping containers. Pangolins are hidden among export commodities such as dried squid and fish. Some evade detection by going through small ports, where fishing boats are involved.”

We retraced some recent seizures near Medan, Sumatra’s largest city, and found indications of an extensive trade network.

The port city is already known as a major smuggling hub. Police Brigadier General Dedi Prasetyo, a national police spokesman, told us that Medan in northern Sumatra, Surabaya in eastern Java and Pontianak in western Kalimantan are the most significant transit locations for pangolins. They are often concealed in frozen fish, squid and oysters, Dedi said.

Several seizures and court cases point to a network linked to a man called Robert Ongah. Also known by the nickname Atiam, he could not be reached for comment despite several attempts.

“I represent Pak Robert,” said an employee of an alcoholic beverages maker in Jakarta, using a deferential term. “He has no comment, and all of the questions in the interview request are wrong.”

Ongah is the owner of Tetap Jaya, a frozen fish export company, with an office in Medan, among other ventures. He also controls other enterprises, including the brewer, where we reached an employee in Jakarta. Police officers told us that they traced at least 50 billion Indonesian rupiah, or about $3.5 million, of transfers from suspected intermediaries to him.

More than half of these funds were traced coming from Ongah’s accounts going to the account of one Edy Soerja Susanto, police said. These funds then reached wildlife dealers who were later arrested.

It is unclear whether Edy is being investigated. Reached by phone, he denied involvement in the pangolin trade. “I don’t know Robert Ongah,” he said, before ending the call.

The network appeared even wider and tied to other, more sinister, crimes, investigators told us. Dian Ediana Rae, the deputy chair of the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, said some transactions linked the network to the notorious convicted drug lord Togiman.

Togiman has been sentenced to death twice, in 2016 and 2017, for various narcotics cases, including for continuing his operations behind bars. His bank account balance: 6.4 trillion rupiah, or $458 million.

On Saturday, we’ll send you a report from Palawan, Philippines.

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