By Basten Gokkon

Police in Indonesia have arrested two Chinese men with the illegal possession of 200 kilograms of valuable turtle shells, believed to have been headed for China.

Acting on a tip from residents, officers in the city of Makassar, on the eastern island of Sulawesi, arrested Chen Jianyi, 25, and Zhong Qiushan, 31, at their home in the city late last month. The pair said they obtained the turtle shells from Sorong on the island of New Guinea, some 1,400 kilometers east of Makassar.

The trade in turtle shells has been banned worldwide since 1973.

Donna Briadi, the head of the Makassar Police’s special crimes unit, said officers seized dozens of shells from a range of turtle species, but did not elaborate. Under Indonesia’s 1990 conservation act, all turtle species in the country are protected. Poaching, habitat destruction or trade in turtles or their parts is punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to 100 million rupiah (US$7,000).

Donna said one of the men had been charged, while the other one was being treated as a witness. He did not specify whether it was Chen or Zhong who had been charged, but said police were looking into whether they were part of a larger trafficking syndicate. The seized shells had an estimated value of 180 million rupiah (US$13,200), according to police.

The seizure of the turtle shells, typically used in fashion accessories such as sunglass frames, is the latest wildlife trafficking bust in Makassar, the closest major city to Papua, as the Indonesian half of New Guinea is known. Papua is Indonesia’s least-developed region, and is home to a rich array of wildlife, including birds of paradise, exotic reef fish, and highly endangered sea turtles.

Traffickers moving wild animals and their parts out of Papua typically transit through Makassar, according to Andry Indryasworo Sukmoputro, an official at the Makassar field office of the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Most traffickers, he said, prefer moving their illegal cargo by boat to avoid scrutiny from airport and quarantine officers.

“And if the smuggling is carried out through the air, [they] do a deal with the airport officers,” Andry said.

The NGO Greenpeace has previously published reports on the illegal turtle trade in Makassar. One report, from 1984, showed that some 593 tons of turtle products, or more than half of Indonesia’s turtle exports, were shipped out of the city since 1978. A later report said there were 15 operators illegally exporting turtle shells from Makassar in 1990.

The trade in turtle shells has been banned worldwide since 1973, and much of the “tortoiseshell” in use today is synthetic or an imitation. Prior to that, the material came primarily from the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), a species listed by the IUCN as “Critically Endangered,” or nearly extinct in the wild. ProFauna, an NGO operating in Indonesia, says genuine turtle shells continue to be sold in the country for as little as 80,000 rupiah (less than US$6) per kilogram.

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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Mongabay, an environmental science and conservation news and information site.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston