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Shutting Down the Manta Trade

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

Text and photos by Paul Hilton, Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.
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 Twice in a one-week on the Indonesia island of Bali, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and local police officers have tracked down and arrested wildlife traders trafficking protected marine species.

Ms. Msl was arrested on October 31, 2014, in the tourist District of Kuta, Bali. She was operating a sea products store which was illegally displaying dried whale shark fins, critically endangered sawfish and offering for sale 15 kilos of sea turtle meat. 548A7886-watermarked

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On November 7, 2014, just seven days later, in the West coast town of Pengambengan a shark fin trader was arrested, after a tip off from a previous arrest in Surabaya, Java. Suhairi, a 60-year-old shark fin trader was apprehended with 103-kilo of large manta gill plates and 25 kilos of manta cartilage. This is the largest bust of manta gill plates to date in Indonesia, since enforcement efforts started in August by MMAF with the support of WCS.

The shark fin trader, was arrested with 103 kilo of dried manta gill plates on Friday, 07th November 2014, outside Negara, Bali.  Suhairi could face a maximum prison sentence of 6 years and fine of 1.5B IDR, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
The shark fin trader, was arrested with 103 kilo of dried manta gill plates on Friday, 07th November 2014, outside Negara, Bali. Suhairi could face a maximum prison sentence of 6 years and a fine, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

According to Suhairi the gills were collected over the last few months from Lombok and across Nusa Tenggara.

“The high seasons for catching the manta rays is from July to October each year. I couldn’t resist buying the manta gills after I was offered a rate of US$ 65.00 per kilo for a product that normally sells for twice that”. The declining local prices are thought to be a consequence of the increased local enforcement efforts by MMAF, which are driving down demand from traders. Now Suhairi could face a maximum prison sentence of 6 years and a fine of USD 125,000.

Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS
Ministry of Fisheries personal display confiscated manta ray gills at their offices in Negara, Jembrana, Bali, 10th November 2014. Photo: Paul Hilton for WCS

The gill plates are sold to China as a pseudomedicinal health tonic to treat a number of illnesses from chicken pox to measles. This is a recent trend, since the late 1980s, and is not formally part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The cartilage is used alongside shark cartilage in health products across the world to elevate joint pain, but to this day there is still no scientific evidence to support the medical properties of either gill plates or shark cartilage. Recently in Guangzhou, China, dry seafood traders say they are finding it harder to source manta ray products and demand seems to be dropping according to the NGO WildAid.

This collaboration between MMAF and WCS on theses ocean species focused arrests are part of an ongoing effort to investigate the illegal trade networks and take action against key manta ray traders. Indonesia declared manta rays as a protected species in February 2014, creating the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary.

As the Indonesian Government under the new leadership of President Joko Widodo and the newly appointed Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti comes down hard on wildlife traders the ripple affects are starting to be felt across the world.

The Indonesian Government law enforcement agencies are now fully aware of the importance of stopping the manta trade and are actively taking steps. Following these successful operations, on November 10, 2014, Indonesian Quarantine officials at Juanda Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second city and the major trading centre for marine products, confiscated the largest shipment to date of 226kgs of manta gills. The gills were being exported to Hong Kong on an AirAsia flight.

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Alex Hofford, Wildlife Campaigner, WildAid said, “We commend the Indonesian Government for stepping up their enforcement actions by clamping down on illicit manta ray poaching.

We also commend Air Asia for banning shark fin from their flights earlier this year, but think it’s a shame the airline’s shark fin ban does not currently also extend to manta rays.

However, we would like to think that in light of today’s bust by the Indonesian government, that the 26 shark-free airlines around the world will be looking to tighten their cargo policies – if only to avoid embarrassment – by also banning manta rays for their cargo holds.

The hope is now that all Indonesian air carriers, (including Air Asia, Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air), will quickly resolve to take the issue as seriously as the Indonesian government.

We call on those three airlines in Indonesia to close existing loopholes in their cargo policies that allow for an international trade in manta ray body parts to China and Hong Kong – for use in bogus traditional Chinese medicine.

Manta rays are two recently protected species on the CITES endangered list, and it is an embarrassment to Hong Kong that an illegal trade in these iconic species is allowed to flourish on the streets of this city.

We solemnly request that all airlines cut the supply chain of manta rays to China and Hong Kong in order to protect and preserve the marine ecology of the region.