By Tommy Apriando from Tempo & Mongabay, Indonesia.

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 professionalized. 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.

The Malacca Straits has become a hotspot for pangolin smuggling heading to Malaysia. An analysis of cases reported in the media reveals a consistent modus operandi: transporting live pangolins across the straits on smaller vessels.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Indonesian officials show pangolins confiscated from suspected smugglers during a news conference in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.

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 US$20 for a kilogram of pangolin meat. The same meat could sell for up to US$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.

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

“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.”


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

A pangolin curls into a ball as a Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) official holds it up before releasing it into the wild at a conservation forest in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, Indonesia, Friday, March 1, 2013.

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 US$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 US$458 million.

READ NEXT: China's Medicinal Demands Drive Pangolins to Commercial Extinction

This article is part of the global report “Trafficked to Extinction” released by The Pangolin Reports, a pioneering initiative by more than 30 journalists in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The joint investigation looks closely into the illicit trade of the pangolin, said to be the world’s most trafficked mammal.

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