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Busting Indonesia’s Manta Gill Trade

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

A mobula ray ( Mobula japanica ) is offloaded at the Tanjung Luar fish market, 27th September 2013, Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace.
A mobula ray ( Mobula japanica ) is offloaded at the Tanjung Luar fish market, 27th September 2013, Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace.

Writing this from a hotel room in Indonesia’s second-largest city, Surabaya, I realize that I am filled with trepidation as I wait for the phone next to me to ring.  When it does, the voice on the other end will tell me it’s go time; the culmination of many years of work towards ending the global trade in manta ray gills.

Worth up to US$30 million a year, this industry depends on the traders for its survival. Chief among them is a secretive local man, I’ve been calling Mr. Big. Working alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Conservation International (CI), and the Indonesian authorities, we plan to make today his last day in business.

Manta and Mobula gill on display at the dried seafood markets, Guangzhou, China, 06th December 2014. According to a new  WildAid report manta and mobula gills contain large amounts of arsenic far exceed the permissible limits of the World Health organization. Paul Hilton for WilAid.
Manta and Mobula gill on display at the dried seafood market, Guangzhou, China, 06th December 2013. According to a new WildAid report manta and mobula gills contain large amounts of arsenic that far exceeds the permissible limits of the World Health organization. Paul Hilton for WildAid.

Not much is known about Mr. Big, other than his standing in the industry, and that to take him out of the equation would be a major blow to it – not only internationally, but also to Indonesia which passed laws in February 2014 protecting the manta species. Arresting him would mark the first time in this country’s history that anyone has been brought to justice in a case of marine conservation. It’s also proof of the determination of Indonesian authorities to stamp out the killing of one of the country’s most serene and majestic species; one that attracts US$ 140 million dollars every year in global tourism.

Manta rays (Manta alfredi) swim through the plankton rich waters off the coast of Nusa Penida, where major ocean currents converge between the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
Manta rays (Manta alfredi) swim through the plankton rich waters off the coast of Nusa Penida, where major ocean currents converge between the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

The investigation has been arduous and lengthy. Even now, Mr. Big keeps changing our agreed location for the “sale” that’s about to take place. What was once a more open transaction of manta parts for money has now moved underground, thanks to the new legislation.

Although he appears furtive, Mr. Big was confident enough to tell us he currently has stock of 170 kilos of manta gills; the product of 24 animals – a number that is more alarming in the knowledge they produce a single pup every three to five years. Our “buyer” has agreed to purchase 50 kilos for US$144 a kilo, less than half its street value in China, home to the vast majority of manta gill consumers. Often believed to cleanse impurities from the system, there is actually nothing to suggest manta gills ever had a place in Chinese Traditional Medicine.

Once today’s deal is done, I will be documenting as the authorities descend, netting one of the biggest fish in the global manta gill trade. Though the penalty for his activities is still unclear, we can be certain Mr. Big’s absence from the scene will be a significant shock to all those who make their living from this destructive and wasteful enterprise.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

 8PM

Finally, it’s go time. The team, comprising officers from The Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, the WCS, alongside plain clothed police officers, and myself storm the warehouse, which is nestled among dried seafood stalls, and nondescript from the outside, skillfully hiding the illegal activities taking place within its walls.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society
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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

As we enter, the fisheries police present the ironically diminutive Mr. Big with a search warrant. He appears taken off guard and incredulous, looking on helplessly as authorities take only seconds to find the contraband in a back room. 50 kilos of manta and mobula gills are strewn across the floor, 19.5kg from large oceanic manta rays. Aside from the sad and pointless loss of marine life, the impact for Indonesia is also economic, with each member of the species generating US$1 million in tourism over its natural life.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society
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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

The new law protects only the two species of manta ray; the oceanic and the reef manta, both listed on the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which helped Indonesia, as a signatory, execute the legislation.  However, at this stage, it excludes the mobula ray, a close cousin.

With the raid in full swing, fisheries police quickly get to work, separating the gills of the various species. In the process, they also uncover 13 kilos of dried turtle meat, another protected species. The surprise seizure possibly originates from the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, which inhabits the inshore reefs of Indonesia.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society
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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

With the haul mounting, Mr. Big (who we’ve discovered is a local seafood restaurant owner named Suep, and one of Surabaya’s four leading manta traders) faces a maximum fine of US$ 25,000 for the sale and possession of manta ray gills. There’s also a likely US$ 10,000 fine for trading in turtle meat, as well as a possible prison sentence of five years.

A single kilo of large manta ray gills holds a street value in Surabaya of up to US$ 175 per kilo, while a kilo of sea turtle meat can fetch around US$40; a substantial sum in a country where the average monthly income is US$850.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

Under police questioning, Mr. Big claims he’s a sea cucumber trader, only receiving manta gills when requested, and pleading ignorance about the status of manta as a protected species in Indonesia. Interesting, since before the bust, he was only too happy to inform undercover agents that, not only does he specialize in manta gills and turtle meat, he was abundantly aware that his activities were illegal.

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Paul Hilton for Wildlife Conservation Society

Though our operation ultimately succeeded in its aim of capturing Mr. Big, the team couldn’t locate the other 120 kilos of stock he admitted to possessing. He did, however, reveal that the gills were coming from traders in Bali and East Java; yet more evidence of the continuing threat posed to oceanic species, and that our work to safeguard them must continue.

Mr. Big will appear in court in mid October, 2014, in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Manta rays (Manta alfredi) off the coast of Nusa Penida, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace
Manta rays (Manta alfredi) off the coast of Nusa Penida, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Comments

  1. Kenzo
    Vancouver,BC
    September 30, 2014, 10:28 pm

    Incredible work to everyone involved. I lived in Bali for 7 months in 2011 and we used to dive with the manta rays around Nusa Penida almost everyday. One day we noticed they suddenly disappeared and a couple weeks later a pictured surfaced with numerous dead mantas laid out on the beach around the dive site manta point. Maybe there is some sort of connection but regardless the Manta gill trade must be stopped before it gets out of hand like the shark fin trade. Keep up the fight, respect to all life on earth and in the ocean especially such a graceful and elegant animals like manta rays

  2. Antonio Oliveira
    Florida, USA
    September 30, 2014, 5:53 pm

    thanks for the cooperation of the authorities in getting interested in enforcing the law; it is a need to STOP the killing of species that are endangered and prevent the endanger of others…………..some where along the line some one need to understand that the Law is to b respected………….the job don’t stop here….there are others and they have to be STOPPED…Bali and East Java need to be STOPPED to. THANK YOU