Raid Frees Whale Sharks Illegally Bound for Aquatic Parks
In the latest episode in a remarkable crackdown on illegal wildlife trafficking in Indonesia, law enforcement officers there have staged a nighttime raid on a major supplier of large ocean species to the international wildlife trade. The raid revealed a scheme to illegally catch whale sharks—the largest fish species in the world, with the potential to grow to 41 feet in length and weigh 47,000 pounds—and export them to Chinese aquatic amusement parks.
Agents of the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs found two whale sharks, each about 14 feet long, being held in submerged pens. Even fully grown, the sharks are harmless, slow-moving fish, typically swimming with mouths agape to filter-feed on plankton. Divers entered the pens and guided the sharks, which had been held for three months, back to freedom.
The raid was the result of a tip from Indonesia’s Wildlife Crimes Unit, a wing of the Wildlife Conservation Society. WCU had conducted an 18-month investigation of the target company in the case. It was Indonesia’s seventh marine law enforcement action to take place this year with WCU support. In addition to those cases, which involved illegal trafficking in manta ray body parts, seashells, and sea turtles, the WCU assisted this year in the arrest of two poachers trading the body parts of endangered Sumatran tigers.
The raid was also part of an extraordinary campaign against wildlife trafficking by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti, a former seafood entrepreneur. Indonesia has been notorious for being the scene of widespread illegal and unreported fishing, costing the country an estimated $20 billion per year in lost revenue and also causing severe damage to its coral reefs. Since Widodo and Pudjiastuti took office in 2014, the government has not only seized foreign vessels working illegally in its vast ocean territory but also blown up or sunk 170 of them, with 30 more scheduled for demolition.
The “sink the vessels” policy, though legal under international law, has caused concern in neighboring countries. But television coverage of these events has helped make the fiery Pudjiastuti a popular national figure.
The whale shark raid targeted facilities of Blue Aquatic Co. (also known as PT. Air Biru Maluku) on the island of Kasumba in East Indonesia. Workers there displayed a letter from the governor of Maluku province allowing them to collect ornamental fish. But the governor does not have the authority to grant that permission. In any case, whale sharks are a protected species in Indonesia and do not qualify by any stretch of the imagination as ornamental fish, a term generally referring to tropical fish for the home aquarium market.
Blue Aquatic Co. is owned by a mid-level Indonesian military official and a Chinese resident of Singapore, both now facing charges carrying a penalty of up to six years in prison and a $115,000 fine. “There is no excuse for catching whale sharks,” said Pudjiastuti in a press conference after the raid. “This is conservation. It has rules. Nothing can legalize what they have done.”
The WCU investigation in the whale shark case began in 2014 when an undercover contact provided a tip about live manta rays being shipped to a Chinese company called Zhuhai Chimelong Investment & Development. Chimelong had just opened Ocean Kingdom, the world’s largest ocean theme park, built at a cost of $5 billion, in Zhuhai, a coastal city in Guangdong province. Zuhai aims to become “the Orlando of Asia,” serving tourists from neighboring Macau, known as “the Las Vegas of Asia.” According to a source close to the investigation, evidence indicates that the whale sharks were also destined for display at Ocean Kingdom.
The South China Morning Post in 2014 reported “unanswered questions about the range of the animal attractions at Ocean Kingdom and the way they have been acquired.” The Post article included sharp criticism of Ocean Kingdom’s lack of transparency about its acquisition practices: “When people aren't acquiring properly, all it does is open a market for more people to do the same,” said the head of a rival ocean theme park in Hong Kong.
The Post also quoted a Hong Kong dolphin conservationist who lambasted Ocean Kingdom for “doing everything you don’t want them to do.” He noted that Ocean Kingdom is the largest of perhaps 50 ocean theme parks planned or operating in mainland China but added that it is impossible to do anything about use of wild-caught animals or other animal welfare issues there, because “you can potentially be put in jail.” A spokesperson for Zhuhai Chimelong previously declined to comment on such charges.
The whale shark case, with its extensive international implications, is evidence of the difference one individual can make against the wildlife trafficking epidemic. In 2003, Dwi N. Adhiasto was working on trade issues for the Wildlife Conservation Society when he came up with the idea for a wildlife crimes investigation unit. The WCU now has a staff of 19 people and a budget of just $400,000 (funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, among others). But it has helped bring 354 cases to trial and last year alone provided support in half of the 112 cases of wildlife trafficking prosecuted by Indonesia.
That work is also making Indonesia a model for what other hot spots for wildlife crime—notably South Africa, Tanzania, Vietnam, and China—could be doing to protect the wildlife and resources that are their national heritage.