Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Backlash against restriction on the turtle trade

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Around 200 fishermen of Tanjung Benoa village, some 30 kilometers south of Denpasar, vandalized the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) Wallacea Bioregion office here last Monday and lodged a strong protest against the issuance of the government decree on the prohibition of turtle trade.

The crowd arrived at the WWF office, located at Jl. Hayam Wuruk, around 10.00 a.m. local time. Led by Widji Zakariah, 45, also known as Wewe, reportedly one of the biggest turtle dealers on the island, they entered the office and demanded to talk to WWF Wallacea Bioregion deputy director Ketut Sarjana Putra.

While the meeting between WWF staff and representatives of the fishermen took place behind closed door in a room guarded by several police officers, the rest of the crowd expressed their anger against the staff by shouting dirty words.

Some of them vandalized the office by spray painting graffiti on the walls. Even worse, they repeatedly threatened to burn the office.

The police did nothing to stop the crowd.

"Fortunately, we had already evacuated some of our staff to the adjacent government office before they came," one staffer said.

On June 12 this year, the Bali Governor issued Decree No. 243 prohibiting the trade and exploitation of protected and endangered species including the green turtle (chelonia mydas).

The Decree terminated the previous 1990 Decree No. 22, which allowed a quota of up to 5,000 green turtles per year to be traded in Bali.

The protesters accused the WWF of being the dominant factor behind the government's changing policy on turtle trade. For years, the WWF has been the most active player in the campaign to protect the turtles in Bali.

The protesters demanded the quota be reinstated, and justified their demand by claiming that turtle's meat was among a significant element in Balinese Hindu rituals.

"It (the practice of using turtle meat) has been a custom and tradition for centuries," protester Imanuel Abdul Gani said.

After lodging their protest at the WWF office, the fishermen protested at the governor's office in Renon area.

They were accepted by the governor's first assistant, Made Suwendha. The meeting also involved Ketut Sarjana Putra of WWF and Widji Zakariah and Imanuel Abdul Gani, who represented the Tanjung Benoa fishermen.

The government agreed to hold another meeting to determine the precise number of turtles allowed to be traded for traditional and religious purposes.

"We always respect the customs and traditions of the Balinese people. But, we strongly urge that any quota must not place this endangered turtle in jeopardy," Sarjana Putra stated at the end of the meeting.

Citing a statement previously made by Hindu High Priest Ida Pedanda Gde Ngurah Kaleran of Sanur, Sarjana Putra said that Hindu rituals and Balinese traditional ceremonies would only require only 300-500 turtles per year.

He also underlined WWF's stance that any turtle with carapace length less than 60 centimeters, and more than 80 centimeters must not be caught, let alone be traded, or killed.

"Killing a turtle of that criteria will destroy its cycle of reproductivity," he stated.

A source, who refused to be named, disclosed that the protest was not all about custom and tradition, since many of the protesters were clearly not Balinese.

"It's definitely an economically motivated protest. Widji Zakariah is the owner of the largest turtle poaching fleet in Bali, with more than 15 ships. And the decree would endanger his turtle business," the source revealed.

It was one of his poaching ships that was detained by the police on Oct. 4. The police found 93 living green turtles in the ship. They were poached from the Northwest Sulawesi sea.

"Detention of the ship probably made him very angry, especially to WWF staff and the government's new policy," the source added.

Turtle trade is a profitable business for Bali's turtle dealers with the price of one turtle ranging from Rp 200,000 to Rp 500,000, and more than 10,000 turtles are sold each year.

A report released by a Malang-based Animal Conservation for Life (KSBK) estimated that in 1999 there were 28,254 turtles traded in Bali. (zen)