Image Source: Pexels
November 2017
REGION: East Asia and the Pacific

In the commentary, Orangutan Trade, Confiscations, and Lack of Prosecutions in Indonesia, Vincent Nijman argues that a weak rule of law, specifically manifested in low rates of prosecutions and lenient sentencing for violations of protected species laws, hinders successful orangutan conservation in Indonesia. Moreover, he argues that a paradigm shift in the way people perceive and react to such crimes is necessary to improve conservation efforts.

Nijman identifies just and swift penalization of those who engage in illegal wildlife trafficking as a basic element of the rule of law, and asserts that the prosecution of such individuals serves as a deterrent to others by informing society what will and will not be tolerated, as well as the consequences of engaging in such actions.

Orangutans have been a protected species in Indonesia since 1931, and their keeping and trading became a criminal act in 1990 with legislation that mandated penalties of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to approximately US $7,600 (2016 exchange rates). Unfortunately, data indicate that these crimes often fail to result in prosecution. Nijman cites a report of a ten-year anti-poaching program in Indonesian Borneo that found that not one of 145 cases of orangutan poaching/trade reported to authorities or 133 orangutan rescues/confiscations resulted in prosecution.

In studying the extent of the trade and its contributing factors, Nijman found a noticeable disconnect between orangutan rescue, i.e., relocating trafficked orangutans to a wildlife rescue or rehabilitation center, and any legal proceedings. For example, between 1993 and 2016, over 440 orangutans were formally confiscated, and “hundreds more were ‘donated’ to the authorities when traders or owners were allowed to hand over their orangutans voluntarily, even up to the point authorities were about to seize the animals.” Of the 440 formal confiscations seven resulted in documented cases of prosecution.

Of the cases that did result in prosecution, the offenders tended to receive lenient sentencing. Fines, although increasing since the early 2000s, at which time they averaged 1-2% of the maximum, now range from 10-80% of the maximum, which Nijman argues is not commensurate with the value of the wildlife seized. Nijman asserts that these low rates of prosecution and lenient sentencing practices indicate that law enforcement fails to play an effective role in fostering orangutan conservation efforts.

Since the late 1990s, stakeholders and researchers have made various recommendations to improve wildlife conservation efforts such as revising legislation, emphasizing the importance of such legislation to both government officials and the general public, and providing educational programs to the judiciary. Nijman argues that these recommendations were either not implemented or ineffective, resulting in no tangible changes. Nijman argues that meaningful change in wildlife conservation will only result when the orangutan trade comes to be perceived as an economic crime that impacts all of society, rather than as a crime against an individual animal.

Nijman suggests that in addition to violating protected species laws, wherever appropriate offenders should be prosecuted for tax evasion, corruption, endangering public health, possession of weapons, or animal welfare and mistreatment, and if the crime involved smuggling animals out of the country, offenders should also be prosecuted under customs laws. Prosecution for these crimes allows for much harsher sentences, and thus, Nijman argues, would result in greater deterrence, and therefore a decrease in wildlife crimes. Nijman also recommends that conservation and animal welfare NGOs aid in law enforcement by initiating charges against those involved in the wildlife trade, and by ensuring that their rescue work with authorities reliably results in the prosecution of offenders.

Despite a clear desire and intent to decrease wildlife crime and improve orangutan conservation, stakeholders have failed to have any meaningful impact. Nijman proposes that strengthening the rule of law, specifically through increasing prosecutions of those involved in the wildlife trade, which he argues is only possible with a revolution in commitment and policy, will have a deterrent effect that will ultimately result in a decrease in such crimes and an improvement in orangutan conservation.

NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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