The pangolin trade explained: situation in Indonesia

By Tommy Apriando, on May 2, 2019

What is Indonesia’s role in the illicit trade?

Indonesia is home to numerous protected wildlife, including one species of pangolin, namely Sunda pangolin or Manis javanica. This species can be found in Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan.

Sunda pangolin is currently listed as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species — down from “near threatened” in 1996, as it has experienced a drastic reduction in population due to illegal trade.

Indonesia has long been recognized as one of the most significant origins of illegal wildlife trade, targeting tigers, sun bears, various primates, sunbirds, and and of course, pangolins.

Indonesia is largely involved as a major source country for international pangolin trade. Its involvement can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, with records of large shipments from Java to China since 1925. Sunda pangolins have been protected in Indonesia since 1931, when Indonesia was a Dutch colony, but it didn’t stop the illicit trade.

After Indonesia’s independence, between 1958 and 1964, an estimated 25,000 pangolins transported from Kalimantan to Hong Kong to fulfill the demand for pangolin scales. During the 1990s, the demand shifted, pangolins were poached and trafficked for their leather to make products such as bags, wallets and other accessories.

Since the early 2000s, pangolin leather trade was replaced by more profitable trade in pangolin scales, sought after for their use as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as for meat and organs.

Although not much is known about the status of Sundanese pangolins in Indonesia, it is known that this species has an average lifespan of seven years, which makes the level of trade and hunting of these species likely to be unsustainable. It is believed pangolins have experienced a severe population decline in Indonesia.

How big is the estimated pangolin population in Indonesia? How many have been seized in recent years?

Although not much is known about the pangolin population in Indonesia, it is believed that the current level of trade and hunting is harming its sustainability.

According to the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, or TRAFFIC, over the six-year period from 2010 to 2015, a total of 35,632 pangolins were seized in 111 intercepted trafficking cases in which Indonesia was identified as a source country or a seizure country. It’s estimated only 2,884 pangolins were found alive, while 79% of the seizures involved dead specimens or pieces of body parts.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Indonesian law enforcement intercepted 23 trafficking cases from 2015 to 2018, seizing 3,369 pangolins.   

According to the 2010-2015 data, there were 55 seizures in Sumatra, followed by Java (26) and Kalimantan (11). The remaining cases were in six countries: China (including Hong Kong), Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, the United States and Vietnam.

Sumatra is the hot spot for the trade, with Medan, in North Sumatra province, is the nexus of illegal trade line between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Along with Medan, Riau province and the city of Palembang — both also in Sumatra — and Surabaya, in East Java province, have an important role in the pangolin trade involving syndicates from China, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Of these 23 cases dismantled in Indonesia, there were 15 cases with the conventional type of pangolin trade, 7 other cases were smuggled both domestically and abroad to China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Laos.

What is the major use of pangolins in Indonesia?

Pangolins are poached and trafficked to other countries in Asia, where their leather is used to make products such as bags and wallets, and their meat is served as delicacy. A major driver of pangolin trade is traditional Chinese medicine because many practitioners believe pangolin scales have medicinal properties.

Environmental and health expert at the University of Riau Ariful Amri said that pangolin scales are believed to contain the active substance Tramadol HCl which is an active analgesic substance to treat pain. They are also used as a substance binding agent in the production of crystal methamphetamine psychotropic drugs, popularly known as shabu-shabu.

Are there any laws that ban farming, poaching or selling pangolins? What are the penalties?

Sundanese pangolin is listed as a protected species under the Government Regulation No. 7/1999, which regulates the conservation of animals and plants.

According to Conservation Law No. 5/1990, which regulates the conservation of biological resources and their ecosystems, protected species are not permitted to be captured, injured, killed, stored, owned, maintained, transported or traded in either life or death. (Exceptions to these prohibitions are permitted by the government for research, science and/or species rescue activities.)

Violating the law can lead to a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah.  Therefore, it is illegal to capture and trade wild pangolins, whether they are alive or dead.

Indonesia ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1978. That means, it follows CITES’ total ban on international commercial trade for pangolins.

Has there been any actual prosecutions or court cases?

A total of 43 people arrested in the 23 cases of pangolin trafficking from 2015 to 2018 (see infographic); 36 of them were named suspects, put on trial and received sentences. They were charged with Law No. 5/1990 and their sentences ranged from 54 months in jail and a fine of 100 million rupiah (US$ 6,950) to three months in jail and a fine of 5 million rupiah (US$ 350).

The suspects were also charged with money laundering, and sentenced between 23 months in jail and a fine of 800 million rupiah (US$ 55,500), and 12 months in jail and a fine of 20 million rupiah (US$ 1,400).

Who are the people involved in the trade of pangolins? Whom do they sell the pangolins to and for how much?

Pangolin poachers are usually people living around the forest area. Poaching generally is coordinated by traders and collectors. In 2016, pangolin collectors in Curup, Bengkulu province, were reportedly to get one to two pangolins from local poachers and sold the animals through intermediaries in Medan. Live pangolins were priced around 350,000 rupiah (US$ 24) each, while pangolin scales reached 3 million rupiah per kg.

In addition, collectors in Muara Bahan, in Riau province, sold live pangolins, collected from local villages, to intermediaries in Medan and Padang for around 200,000 rupiah (US$ 209) per kg.

How can the public help?
In Indonesia there are a number of non-governmental organizations focusing on saving and protecting pangolins. They typically cooperate with the police, and the Environment and Forestry Ministry to make arrests and seized pangolins. Here’s a list of those NGOs:

Jakarta Animal Aid Network:
National Coordinator : Benvika
Address: East Kotok Besar Island, Panggang Island, Administrative Regency of Thousand Islands, Jakarta 14530

Phone: +62-813-1538-0038


Wildlife Conservation Society
Address: Jalan Tampomas No.35, Babakan, Bogor Tengah, Bantarjati, Bogor Utara, Kota Bogor, Jawa Barat 16151, Province: West Java
Phone: +62-251 834-2135


Directorate General of Law Enforcement
Ministry of Environment and Forestry
Address: Manggala Wanabakti Blok I lt. 2 Jl. Jenderal Gatot Subroto – Jakarta 10270
PO Box 6505, Indonesia 
Phone: + 62-21 573-0191, 570-5086

Email: pusdatin@menlhk.go.ig

Specific Crimes of the Criminal Investigation Body (Tipiter Bareskrim)
Republic of Indonesia National Police
Address: Jl. Trunojoyo No.3, South Jakarta, Special Capital Region of Jakarta 12110
Phone: + 62-21 721-8141
Fax: +62-21 721-8741

Tommy Apriando

Tommy Apriando was an investigative reporter based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He was a regular contributor for Mongaba…