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Javan rhino poacher gets 12 years in record sentence for wildlife crime in Indonesia

A court in Indonesia has sentenced the head of a rhino poaching gang, Sunendi, to 12 years in jail for killing six rhinos, as well as stealing camera traps and illegal possession of firearms.

At trial, it was revealed that Sunendi tracked down the rhinos after drawing up a map of their likely locations based on the data from the stolen camera traps.
The sentence is the longest ever meted out in Indonesia for wildlife crime, and conservationists say they hope it will act as a determent.
However, the loss of so many Javan rhinos — Sunendi’s and another gang claim to have killed a combined 26 rhinos, out of a population of 70-odd — puts the species closer to extinction than it has been since 2012.

A court in Indonesia has sentenced a man to 12 years in prison for poaching six critically endangered Javan rhinos, in what’s been hailed as the harshest punishment handed down for wildlife crime to date.

Poaching carries a maximum sentence of five years under Indonesian law, and prosecutors had sought this figure in the case against Sunendi, 32, along with a 10 million rupiah ($616) fine. However, the defendant also faced additional charges of theft and of illegal firearm possession, the latter of which carries a maximum penalty of death.

The presiding judge in the case, Joni Mauludin Saputra, said it was the gun possession charge that “carried the most weight” in the court’s decision to hand down the 12-year sentence and 100 million rupiah ($6,160).

“This case [is] clearly the biggest jail-time punishment for wildlife crime in Indonesia,” said Timer Manurung, the founder and director of the local NGO Auriga Nusantara, which last year published a report warning that poachers were operating with impunity in the park.

The Javan rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet and is found only in Ujung Kulon National Park, at the western tip of the island of Java.

The International Rhino Foundation (IRF) praised the sentencing, noting that it was “particularly surprising considering most Indonesian court sentences are less than what the prosecutors recommend.”

Sunendi was found to have killed six rhinos as the leader of a poaching gang from 2019-2023, slaughtering five male rhinos and one female, the court found. He has a week to decide if he will appeal the sentence. Interestingly, the killings highlight the sexual imbalance in the park. Conservationists believe there are about twice as many male Javan rhinos as females, putting the species at increasing risk.

But Sunendi’s gang wasn’t the only one operating in the park for years. Another gang, allegedly run by a man named Suhar, was also out there killing rhinos. Based on statements from a dozen alleged poachers arrested in recent months, law enforcement has announced that a total of 26 rhinos were slaughtered by the two gangs since 2019. If verified, this would mean poachers have killed around one-third of all Javan rhinos on Earth in four years — an incredible loss for conservationists and the Indonesian government.

A camera trap image of a rhino and its calf in Ujung Kulon National Park. Image courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Rhino patrol in Ujung Kulon park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Indonesia hasn’t released a population census of Javan rhinos since 2019, which claimed 72 rhinos in the park. The 2023 report by Auriga Nusantara found that officials were counting numerous rhinos that hadn’t been spotted on camera trap for years, including some that were known to be dead.

Given the number of killed rhinos and recent births, it’s possible there are now fewer than 50 Javan rhinos left on our planet. If accurate, this puts Javan rhino conservation back more than a decade: in 2012, officials counted 40 rhinos.

“This punishment won’t bring back the poached rhinos, but it sends a strong message and should act as a deterrent to anyone considering wildlife crime in Indonesia,” Nina Fascione, executive director of the IRF, said in a statement. Police have also arrested two middlemen for fencing rhino horns allegedly for sale to China.

Sunendi’s trial uncovered a sophisticated poaching operation that exploited the park’s network of camera traps set up for conservation purposes. The theft charge he faced pertained to four camera traps that he stole from the park. From these, the court found, he extracted data of rhino sightings dating from 2020-2023 and used that data to draw up a map of where the animals were most likely to be found. He also had a map of park patrol routes, which he and his gang used to evade capture.

In the end, though, it was also a camera trap that was his undoing: Sunendi was apprehended last November after a camera trap photographed him illegally in the park with weapons. According to the court, he was also in possession of a Javan rhino skull and various rhino bones.

Since the confirmation of poachers in the park last year, officials have increased security, including closing the park to tourists.

Timer said he’s grateful to government officials who took this case seriously, including the current staff and head of Ujung Kulon National Park, as well as the prosecutors and the judges who pushed for a longer sentence. But there “is still [a] long way to go,” he said, and called on police and prosecutors to treat upcoming cases as they would organized crime, in order to “punish the mastermind and all its enablers.”

“It will take time to undo the damage done by these criminals, but we have brought Javan rhinos back from the brink of extinction once, and we can do so again,” Fascione said. “We know that despite this poaching activity, Javan rhinos continue to breed and have calves, so if stronger protections are put in place, and we put an end to poaching, they’ll rebound again. This strong sentence is a significant step to ensuring no one tries to poach a rhino in Indonesia again.”

Still, questions remain. Chief among them: how could poachers operate so easily in the park for four years without capture, especially given the number of rangers protecting rhinos and the level of monitoring with camera traps?

by Jeremy Hance on 7 June 2024



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