To Buru Island: A Journey to the Dark Side of Indonesia’s Past

to buru island a journey to the dark side of indonesias past - To Buru Island: A Journey to the Dark Side of Indonesia’s Past

Mars Noersmono has a story he’s determined to tell. It’s deeply disturbing — a tale of horror and courage, despair and resilience.  

Although primarily about Indonesia’s bloody and brutal past, it’s also a sober warning against authoritarian governments everywhere that ignore the rule of law and create civilian panic against mythical monsters to justify violence and maintain power.

The illegality and human suffering is strong enough, but this is also a first-person account of a nation’s shame.

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In September 1965, a coup was allegedly staged in Jakarta. Six generals and a lieutenant were murdered, but no uprising followed. General Suharto took control of the military and placed blame for the coup on the Communist Party of Indonesia, the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI). Three three years later Suharto would supplant President Sukarno and became president himself. The rule of his authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) administration would last 32 years.

Shortly after the alleged coup attempt, in October 1965, the PKI was banned and the slaughter started – not of invading foreigners or armed revolutionaries – but unarmed ordinary citizens who had been peacefully (“though not uncritically,” said Noersmono) supported Sukarno’s anti-colonial rhetoric. An estimated half-million died, their bodies thrown in rivers and mass graves.

The regime change was much welcomed by Western governments. While aware of the killings, they failed to protest. Official documents only recently released in the United States and Australia showed diplomats reported the events back to their bases in Washington, London and Canberra.

In 1965, the Cold War was at its height. U.S. and other troops, including Australians, were fighting a losing war in Vietnam to stop the southward spread of communism; the abrupt and dramatic lurch to the right in Indonesian politics was seen as an end to the Red Tide.

In mid 1966, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt reportedly told the Australian-American Association in New York that “with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.”

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was less callous. In 1968, a secret report claimed the killings “rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.”

Thousands of others were arrested and jailed. They were never charged or given the chance to plead in court. Nor were they told what crimes they’d allegedly committed.  

The brightest, perceived by Suharto to be the most threatening, were not violent men but rather academics, teachers, writers and artists — the people essential to build a new society. These people were exiled to remote Buru Island, 2,700 kilometers northeast of Jakarta. Among the 12,000 was Noersmono.

Noersmono has now added his voice to the call for justice with Bertahan Hidup di Pulau Buru (A Prisoner’s Life on Buru Island), which he started to write when Suharto fell late last century and Indonesia became democratic.

Writing was the easy part.

Noersmono spent 15 years searching for a publisher prepared to face the wrath of the government and the many powerful forces determined to stop revelations of their involvement, or their relatives’ role in the massacres. These include the army, the police and religious organizations.

Only Bandung publisher Ultimus was prepared to take the risk, but few copies landed on mainstream bookshop shelves.

“I wrote the book because I want the younger generation to understand the truth, and pay respect to those who did not survive,” Noersmono said. “We are asking for recognition before we all die – is that too much?

“Writing has also lifted the burden I’ve been carrying for so long, and that’s a relief.  My dreams are now not so bad.”

For a moment the frail 79-year old broke down: “It’s only the second time I’ve cried – the first was in Yogyakarta (Central Java) when I was telling students my story.

“It has taken so long for me to get to this point because I’ve been afraid to be wrong. The brutality of Buru destroyed our confidence. We feared something bad would happen if we spoke out. We were totally powerless.”

Noersmono’s account is not a pity-me tract in a cheap printing, but a well-written and detailed 358-page history of the vile years and the torture, how the men lived, worked and found ways to adapt.

The book includes pictures of the prisoners drawn by the author, who among his many talents is also a fine draughtsman. Only a few blurred and grainy photos have survived; most prison buildings on the island have been torn down, so Noersmono’s sketches are invaluable.

Now back on Buru after spending the past few years with relatives in the East Java city of Malang, he has started sketching again in the hope that his pictures can be exhibited to keep the story alive.

Noersmono’s journey to jail started when he was 25, an undergraduate in his final year of engineering at Bandung’s prestigious Institute of Technology. Before heading to the West Java capital he’d studied art in Jakarta and had taken courses in architecture.

His father had been educated in a Dutch Catholic school and was the head of the nation’s Post and Telecommunications Service. Though staunch nationalists, the family often spoke Dutch in their large Jakarta home. They also owned a brickworks.  

Noersmono was the youngest of four and expected to manage the company after graduating.

“It was a happy family,” Noersmono said. “We were always talking about politics.  During the campaign against the Dutch after Sukarno’s 1945 Proclamation of Independence my father sent secret coded messages to the revolutionaries fighting in Surabaya.”

Like students worldwide, Noersmono was involved in discussion groups. The most popular was Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia (CGMI Indonesian Student Organization). It held a congress in Jakarta in late September 1965, which Noersmono attended just before the coup attempt took place.

“It was a frightening and chaotic time,” he said.  “We didn’t know what was happening.”

Noersmono’s eldest brother, Zochar, who worked as a translator of Chinese texts and was a leader in the CGMI, had a tip-off or premonition.  He fled to the Dutch Embassy with his young wife and was flown out of the country, first to China and then the Netherlands where he became a pharmacist.

On October 17, two members of the local militia came to the family home. “We knew them, they were neighbors,” said Noersmono. “They were reasonably polite and asked us to follow them to an office, but we heard of shootings so were getting nervous.

“A few days later my parents and I were arrested. The CGMI was banned. My Dad was to spend 18 years in prison, my mother three. My sister and brother fled Jakarta and weren’t caught.”

After spells in Jakarta jails, in 1970 Noersmono and 500 others were shipped to Buru. The voyage took five days and they were never told where they were heading; by then they’d heard of the mass killings, so were in great fear.

The government line has always been that the killings were spontaneous reactions by outraged pious peasants who hated the godless Marxists and could not be stopped.

This story has by now been well buried by overseas academics like Australian Dr. Jess Melvin – who state categorically that the slaughter was carefully organized by the army.

Her certainty is based on original documents she was given in Aceh by the military.  

It has long been suspected that the papers exist, but the young doctoral student trounced all senior academics just by asking at an army office for them.  Her book about the find, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide, published last year, has rocked historians in Indonesia and overseas.

The genocide was engineered through a secret police unit with the Orwellian title Kopkamtib (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban – Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.)

The men swinging the machetes and firing the rifles supplied by Kopkamtib weren’t all Muslims – Christians were also involved, particularly on Flores and islands further east.

The killings are often described as “executions,” which sounds swift, legal even. But many prisoners were viciously tortured, women mutilated and raped. How could such things happen in a culture of respect and conservative values?

Some participants look back with guilt and regret; others justify their actions by saying the times were so turbulent and the issues were black and white – for us or against us. Suharto’s propaganda unit had created an environment dense with hate. It coined the ominous term Gestapu for the coup and wrongly claimed the generals’ bodies had been mutilated.

Once on Buru the men, who had already been stripped of their civil rights, suffered further indignities. Noersmono’s shirt was stenciled number 493. With a few basic tools they were ordered by armed guards to clear the forest and build a barracks.

“For the first two months we had nowhere to live except the open air,” he said.  “We lived on rice porridge and whatever protein we could catch or gather.”

The prisoners were labeled tapol, an acronym for tahanan politik – political prisoner and held for up to 13 years.

The tapol have never been compensated for their wrongful imprisonment. Their plight has still to be officially recognized. Present President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who originally pledged to open discussions, visited Buru in 2015 but used the opportunity to urge farmers to improve rice yields. He said there’d be no inquiry.

Noersmono’s son Dwinura agreed – though with bitterness. “This is not South Africa,” he said. “There’s no Nelson Mandela driving the airing of history.

“I’m proud of our father and we want his good name restored. He didn’t hurt anyone or steal anything – so what did he do to end in prison? I want recognition of the wrongs done to so many who committed no crimes. The army stole Dad’s land in Jakarta; there’s been no compensation.There’ll be no reconciliation, no national apology as in other countries like Australia. This is Indonesia.”

Dwinura and his two brothers were born on Buru in the 1980s after his father married the daughter of another tapol and stayed on the island after release. About 200 others also remained.

“There was nothing left for us back in Java,” Noersmono said. “Our ID cards included the code ET identifying us as ex tapol. This ensured we were shunned by employers, friends, and neighbors – and sometimes by relatives who feared guilt by association.”

The tapol were only partly free; they were kept under surveillance, had to report regularly to the police and were denied property rights and work in the public service.

Once the camps were closed the Orde Baru government started a transmigration program moving poor farming families from overcrowded Java to Buru where they were given land to grow crops.

The newcomers took over the jungle clearings opened up by the tapol, accessing their homes on roads cut into the interior by the former prisoners who received nothing.

Noersmono became a contractor using the skills he’d learned at university and built his own house. He also designed and supervised the construction of a Rehoboth Presbyterian Church named after a pioneering chapel established in the U.S. state of West Virginia in 1786. The Buru church was fire-bombed by Muslim mobs during the 1999 nationwide ethnic and religious riots following the fall of Suharto the previous year. Funds were raised, and its renovation is underway.

The prison camps were closed in 1980 after pressure from overseas governments.  Change was also hastened following the publishing of The Buru Quartet.

The novels, banned until recently in Indonesia, were written by the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was held for 13 years on the island. Pramoedya died in 2006 and is the only Indonesian writer to ever be nominated for a Nobel Prize. He was sent to Buru for having “Marxist-Leninist thoughts.”

Although forbidden to write and denied pens and paper “Pram” still managed to produce his fiction set in the Dutch East Indies at the start of the 20th century. The books are about a young man named Minke and his growing awareness of colonization; nowhere is “Indonesia” mentioned.

He composed and memorized his works and kept them fresh by reading aloud to fellow tapol at night. When he eventually got access to paper friends helped smuggle the manuscripts to Java where they were printed in clandestine workshops.

The Buru Quartet was also secretly translated into English by Australian diplomat Max Lane and became internationally famous. Pram kept writing once back in Java; his later books further exposed Indonesia’s dirty war against dissenters.  

Buru should be a journalist’s heaven. The isolated island, 13 times larger than Singapore but with less than 200,000 residents, bristles with stories of tragedy and inspiration, saturated with politics. The custodians of the tales are keen to speak, have their photos taken and give their real names.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Diro Oetomo. “I want the world to know.”  He also stayed on Buru, married and opened a shop. The man would be a tobacco company’s pin-up boy, a heavy smoker all his life, but still fit at 83.

“We made cigarettes from papaya leaves and lit them by rubbing dry sticks together to make fire. I’m whispering because walls have ears. After you’ve gone someone will come round and ask what I’ve said.

“Did we ever hope for release? Never. All we thought about was when and how we would die.”

Hundreds perished of starvation or killed themselves, usually by hanging or drinking pesticides. After a particularly brutal guard Pelda Panita Uma was murdered in 1972 by a tapol, 42 were killed in retaliation, said Noersmono. There’s a memorial to Umar, but no recognition of the tapol.

In the Savana Village cemetery are 150 graves. A few have headstones but most are unmarked mounds. More than 300 names of the dead were collected by Pramoedya and published privately, but many more remain unknown.

Despite almost two decades of democracy and the abandonment of oppressive rules governing the ET’s rights, intimidation persists. It’s no longer “the pointed finger as powerful as a pistol” as Oetomo said, but it’s still sinister and it starts at the island’s Namlea airport.

This is served by a 30-minute daily flight from the regional capital Ambon to the east and capital of the Maluku Province. These islands, long plundered by the Dutch for cloves, sit just under the equator. They have long and bloody histories going back centuries, but today are a peaceful part of the Republic.

However the Namlea terminal has more than airline staff; it’s thick with police, soldiers and Intel (intelligence service) plain-clothes officers. They ignore Asians but focus on white arrivals, questioning motives, gathering documents, reporting back to their superiors and distressing the visitors’ local hosts in their private homes.

In this intimidating environment it takes courage to be seen with reporters. The ETs no longer care but their families do. No parents want their children teased at school for having big black combat boots on the porch. The Red Bogeyman still stalks the land.  During this year’s Presidential election campaign Jokowi’s rivals suggested with no proof that his late father, Widjiatno Notomiharjo, had been a PKI member.

In Indonesia discussion groups about Buru and the killings have been closed down by the police. U.S.-born British director Joshua Oppenheimer’s films about the killings, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have been shown openly abroad and won awards. In Indonesia they’ve only been screened covertly.

While Indonesian authorities try to keep Pandora’s box well locked, arguing that release will inflame community tensions, the story has already escaped, largely helped by activists. They took Indonesia to the International People’s Tribunal at The Hague, which found Indonesia “responsible for, and guilty of, crimes against humanity.”

The verdict was flicked away by the government. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reportedly responded: “Why listen to foreigners? Foreigners should listen to Indonesia.”  

Locally, Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia (the National Commission on Human Rights) Komnas HAM, doggedly persists in publishing reports and reminding politicians that the stain on the nation remains, but most deep scholarship comes from overseas.

Last year Canadian Geoffrey Robinson published a potent account of the time titled The Killing Season. The Financial Times ranked it as “one of the best books of history in 2018.”

Robinson describes Buru as a “concentration camp” and “penal colony”; The New York Times had previous called it Suharto’s Gulag.” The government’s terms were  “resettlement project” for “political rehabilitation.”

Robinson, now a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was a student of the late Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey at Cornell University.  They were the first to question the Indonesian army’s account of the coup and killings.

Their analysis, which came to be known as the Cornell Paper, was discredited by the Indonesian government and its authors banned. This pushback ensured their views got an even wider audience.

Robinson has maintained his mentors’ fire: “I am still sickened and outraged — all the more so because the crimes committed have been all but forgotten and those responsible have not yet been brought to justice.”

Attempts were made in 2015 (the 50th anniversary of the coup) by academics, journalists and the victims’ families to ventilate the history and begin a process of reconciliation. That has largely not happened.

That year police threatened to close down the internationally-famous annual Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali if it promoted books about the coup and killings.  Participants were outraged, the foreign organizers modified their program to appease, but discussion continued.

“I still don’t know why I was arrested,” Noersmono said. “You ask them. Was I a Communist? I don’t understand Communism – are you talking Russian, Chinese or Indonesian?”

Noersmono is a Protestant. He says his faith helped him through the ordeal. Another factor may have been his lively mind, observing and recording everything, and his curiosity in local technology, like crude stills to make eucalyptus oil.

“There was no support from Indonesian congregations,” he said. “We were not executed because the churches overseas were concerned with the human rights abuses and broadcast our plight. Gradually curbs were relaxed.” Eventually the men’s families were allowed onto the island.

Once free, Noersmono married Nursilah whose father was a tapol  “If I hadn’t been sent to Buru I would not have met my beloved,” he said.

“I’ve always tried to be cheerful and see the positive. But I cannot forgive Suharto – not just for what he did to us, but for the way he destroyed the spirit and character of our nation that had been built up by Sukarno.

“As historians say – if we don’t know our past we are doomed to repeat the mistakes. I have seven grandchildren. I never want this to ever happen again to them or my country –or the people of any other nation.”

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist living in Indonesia.

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Celebrating Sulawesi: An Exuberance of Indonesian Biodiversity

By Matthew Linkie

Indonesia is a megadiversity country, but even by its exceptionally high levels of biodiversity, Sulawesi stands out for its bewilderingly rich, charismatic and, at times, quirky species. The island, whose shape resembles a hyper-extended letter K, is the 11th largest in the world.

Sulawesi’s shape and rugged terrain were forged by the collision of land masses from Asia and Australasia that brought with them their own unique flora and fauna, which subsequently went into evolutionary overdrive as rapid speciation ensued.

Sulawesi is a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring biodiversity that inhabits the island’s rugged and lush forest landscapes. WCS and MoEF are working together to document these species and fully protect them for future generations.

There are a staggering 127 mammal species in Sulawesi, of which 62 percent are endemic just to this island. If bats are removed from this list then the number of endemic mammal species rises to almost 99 percent. Among the 233 species of birds, more than a third are Sulawesi endemics.

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Sulawesi contains seven endemic species of macaque, including the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

To document this vast array of poorly understood wildlife as a first step in identifying and prioritising areas for protection, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF)—with support from the UNDP/GEF EPASS project, Rainforest Trust, and Fondation Segré—have just completed the first ever systematic camera trap campaign for Sulawesi.

Over the course of a year, WCS-MoEF-community field teams surveyed two of the island’s flagship protected areas: Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park and the Tangkoko Forest Management Unit. The findings offer invaluable scientific data and rare insights into Sulawesi’s little known species, including the first ever photographic record of arguably Sulawesi’s most elusive bird.

Here, we highlight some of the exciting discoveries.

Despite hunting threat to Sulawesi’s two wild pig species, our surveys found that, encouragingly, they still occur both inside and outside of the protected areas.

Babirusa and Sulawesi warty pig

Of Asia’s 11 threatened species of wild pig, two are endemic to Sulawesi. The babirusa, listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is an ancient species of pig that is hairless and has enormous tusks growing through its upper jaw.

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The babirusa, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, is one of two wild pig species endemic to Sulawesi. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

In stark contrast, the Near-Threatened Sulawesi warty pig has a jet-black coat and a white ‘war paint’ looking fur line across its face. Both species are hunted to supply the Christian food markets in North Sulawesi. Yet despite this threat, our surveys found that these species, encouragingly, still occur both inside and outside of the protected areas.


The Endangered lowland anoa and mountain anoa are dwarf species of buffaloes that more closely resemble deer. They have become flagship species for protection.

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The Endangered lowland anoa and mountain anoa have become flagship species for protection. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

As Lukita Awang Nistyantara, the Head of Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, put it, “The anoa is a Ministry of Environment and Forestry priority species and we’ve set a goal to increase its population size. So, we’re delighted with these new findings from inside the park because we’ve just established the first ranger patrol teams, which forms part of our site-level management implementation.” He continued, “We’ll now use these data to direct our teams to focus on protecting the critically important forest anoa habitat identified”.

Sulawesi’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet.

Sulawesi civet

On the nearby island of Sumatra, wild pigs and deer sustain populations of tiger, clouded leopard and dhole. Yet, even though Sulawesi has an equally rich and diverse prey base, this has not given rise to the island’s own large carnivore. Instead, the island’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet.

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Sulawesi’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

Weighing around 6 kg (13 pounds) with a diet of rodents, birds, and palms fruits, this largely arboreal mammal is one of the least known species from Sulawesi. Our surveys not only succeeded in obtaining the first island-wide records after a 20-year absence but also the very first records of the species from both Bogani Nani Wartabone and Tangkoko.

Endemic macaques

Sulawesi contains seven endemic species of macaque. Our camera traps reveal where two of these species—the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque and Vulnerable Dumoga macaque—have neatly separated their range. The surveys also captured another one of Sulawesi’s distinctive peculiarities with the first ever record of a pure white ‘black’ crested macaque!

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WCS camera traps have revealed that the Vulnerable Dumoga macaque (above) and the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque have neatly separated their ranges on Sulawesi. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

Agustinus Rante Lembang, Head of the North Sulawesi Natural Resource and Conservation Agency noted, “there may only be 9,000 black-crested macaques left in the wild, yet about 60 percent of these occur in Tangkoko. It’s only 84 square kilometers, but you see its importance for the species’s survival.”

To prevent maleo egg theft, WCS has been employing ex-bird poachers as nest guardians. Since 2001 they have overseen the release of 12,515 chicks in four key nesting grounds.


This unique but Vulnerable bird incubates its eggs in nests that are heated either by the sun on Sulawesi’s pristine beaches or by the warmth of underground volcanic activity at inland sites. Maleo eggs are roughly five times as large as that of a domestic chicken’s and, because of this, highly susceptible to poaching.

To prevent egg theft, WCS has been employing ex-bird poachers as nest guardians. Since 2001 they have overseen the release of 12,515 chicks in four key nesting grounds in and around Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, which has become a stronghold for the species.

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Sulawesi’s Vulnerable maleo incubates its eggs in nests that are heated either by the sun on the island’s pristine beaches or by the warmth of underground volcanic activity at inland sites. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

WCS’s Sulawesi Program Manager, Iwan Hunowu, who has been studying maleos for 12 years, noted that “the camera trapping showed maleos using new forest corridors connecting beach nesting grounds to the national park.”

Unfortunately, forest loss and fragmentation due to the encroachment of small farms threatens to sever vital linkages between these nesting sites and forest refuge inside the national park. “Because of this,” adds Hunowu, “we’re now working with local communities to fully protect these corridors through improved agroforestry schemes.”

WCS has recorded the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild.

Sulawesi woodcock

Perhaps the most incredible discovery of all was recording the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild. Previously known to inhabit high elevation forests over 1,700 meters, here it is recorded at 1,100 meters from the Duasudara mountain in Tangkoko—a finding that extends its distribution to the easternmost part of the island.

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WCS has recorded the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild. Credit: WCS Indonesia.

The significance of this exciting discovery was captured by WCS Indonesia’s Communications Manager, Tisna Nando. “I’m from Sulawesi and an avid birder,” she observed. “This is actually my dream bird. I’ve never seen one in the wild, only in guidebooks and 18th century paintings. Now we have this beautiful photo from Tangkoko!”

Sulawesi really is a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring biodiversity that inhabits the island’s rugged and lush forest landscapes. WCS and MoEF are working together to document these species and fully protect them for future generations. Who knows what surprises our future surveys will uncover?

Matthew Linkie is Terrestrial Director for the Indonesia Program of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Originally posted 2018-02-26 22:43:20.

Reducing Manta Ray Mortality in the World’s Largest Targeted Manta Fishery

By Hollie Booth

This Shark Week, take a moment to consider the manta ray. This much-loved gentle giant of the shark and ray (elasmobranch) family is a large, slow-growing and long-lived species, which makes it particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

Unfortunately, fishers have increasingly targeted mantas in recent decades to meet emerging demand for their gills in traditional Chinese medicine markets. This growth in demand is primarily the result of industry marketing, with the gills being peddled by practitioners as a cure for coughs and chicken pox, and for promoting respiratory health.

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Left: A tourist admires a manta ray in Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. Photo credit: Hollie Booth/WCS; Right: Indonesian law enforcement authorities seize an illegal shipment of hundreds of manta ray gills. Photo credit: Paul Hilton for WCS.

Indonesia is a global priority for manta ray conservation, as it’s the world’s largest elasmobranch fishing nation and a major supplier of manta ray gills to the world’s largest consumer markets. Indonesia is also home to what is thought to be—or at least was—the world’s largest targeted manta ray fishery: Lamakera.

Lamakera is a small coastal community in Eastern Indonesia made (in)famous by the 2015 Emmy-award nominated film documentary “Racing Extinction.” People in Lamakera have been hunting marine megafauna for centuries, but traditionally the catch was just for local consumption. However, in the early 2000s manta ray catch in Lamakera rocketed, transforming in to a commercialized industry.

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Map of Lamakera.

Around 2002, annual landings were as high as 1,000 individuals—a huge mortality rate for such a large, slow-growing species. Catch has declined ever since despite increases in fishing effort: a sure sign of an overexploited population.

Through a collaboration led by Reef Check Indonesia and Manta Trust, a manta conservation project was launched in Lamakera in 2013. This coalition led an intensive scoping and community consultation phase, laying critical foundations for future work by WCS Indonesia and Misool Foundation.

In 2014, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries declared manta rays a protected species. This was a huge success for elasmobranch conservation (one that provided a clear legal framework for protecting mantas) but a major challenge for implementation—particularly because manta ray fishing is an important part of the livelihoods and culture of coastal communities like Lamakera.

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A manta ray fisher expresses his livelihood concerns. Photo credit: ©Misool Foundation.

To address this complex problem, WCS Indonesia and Misool Foundation adopted a multi-faceted approach. We focused on improving enforcement of manta ray regulations while developing incentives for regulation compliance and adoption of sustainable marine management practices—a classic carrot and stick approach. Since then, we’ve been monitoring our data to assess our impact.

What have we achieved so far? Since 2014, WCS has conducted law enforcement trainings on detecting, deterring, and prosecuting marine wildlife crimes, while supporting collection of data on illegal trade and providing legal advice to enforcement officials. More than 20 suspects involved in illegal manta ray trade have been arrested since 2014, with an estimated 4,200 kg of manta ray products seized.

These have resulted in sizeable fines and jail time in the first-ever prosecutions related to protecting fish species in Indonesia. We found there has been a significant increase in average fines and prosecutions for illegal shark and ray traders following WCS trainings for government officials, which we believe is an indicator of improved awareness, motivation, and capacity to prosecute marine wildlife crimes.

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LEFT: The WCS and DKP East Flores patrol boat out on the water. Photo Credit: Hollie Booth; RIGHT: Graph by WCS.

Marine patrols were launched in 2016, and increased significantly in 2017, with the timing and location of patrol efforts strategically concentrated in areas and times of highest likelihood of hunting incidents.

On the community level, our partners at Misool Foundation established a sustainable fisheries cooperative. Of 63 members, twenty-two are ex-manta ray fishers committed to cease targeting mantas by participating in the cooperative. The benefits from participation are tied to compliance with manta ray protection regulations. An additional 13 local female manta ray traders have committed to developing non-manta ray livelihoods, and have received small business loans to do so.

Community monitoring of illegal fishing and by-catch incidents has significantly increased. Over the past year we’ve received 33 reports of illegal fishing and accidental by-catch of protected marine fauna, resulting in the apprehension of five illegal fishing vessels and release of 18 protected animals. Awareness of regulations has clearly improved along with local pride in marine megafauna.

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Building community pride in marine megafauna. Photo credit: Erma Normai/Misool Foundation.

Most importantly, we are already seeing a measurable impact on manta ray mortality—with a statistically significant decrease in manta ray mortality in 2016/17 we can connect to our dual ‘carrot and stick’ strategy.

Through concerted efforts across different levels of society, WCS and Misool Foundation are achieving a measurable impact on saving manta rays in Indonesia. Behaviour change required for effective conservation can be complicated. Encouraging people to reduce environmentally destructive habits (especially if they have limited options) requires a variety of approaches. Some people will respond well to carrots, and others to sticks.

Despite these successes, pressures, challenges and uncertainties remain. Demand continues to drive hunting of manta rays. The population is severely depleted and recent enforcement measures may have resulted in illegal activity moving to less well-monitored locations. Our successes so far are just the first steps towards achieving long-term meaningful change and holistic sustainable management of marine resources.

reducing manta ray mortality in the worlds largest targeted manta fishery 2 - Reducing Manta Ray Mortality in the World’s Largest Targeted Manta Fishery

Achieving success in the long-term is possible only with flexible, understanding donors and diverse and resilient partners. The financial support of  the Shark Conservation Fund and The Paul G Allen Family Foundation/Vulcan has been critical, just as we have relied on the skill and commitment of Misool Foundation, the East Flores fisheries authority, and the water police.

Establishing and maintaining change takes time (especially when there are strong a persistent drivers for illegal targeting and trade), but based on our success so far we feel confident that time is on our side in protecting these extraordinary species.

Hollie Booth is Sharks and Rays Advisor for Southeast Asia at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

Originally posted 2018-07-27 03:04:38.


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