Where Bats Are Still on the Menu, if No Longer the Best Seller

Indonesia’s wildlife markets are “like a cafeteria for animal pathogens,” but they have resisted efforts to close even as China has shut its own markets over coronavirus fears.

13 Mei 2020

BANGKOK — Six days a week, the butchers of Tomohon gather at Indonesia’s most notorious market and cut up bats, rats, snakes and lizards that were taken from the wilds of Sulawesi island.

Some of the butchers also slaughter dogs — many of them pets snatched from city streets — causing an outcry from animal rights activists.

For years, animal lovers and wildlife activists have urged officials to close the bazaar, boastfully known as the Tomohon Extreme Market. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is giving them another reason to pressure officials to finally take action.

“The market is like a cafeteria for animal pathogens,” said the lead expert for Indonesia’s coronavirus task force, Wiku Adisasmito, who has urged the government to close the country’s wildlife markets. “Consuming wild animals is the same as playing with fire.”

The earliest cluster of coronavirus cases in the global outbreak was linked to a market in Wuhan, China, where live animals were kept close together, creating an opportunity for the virus to jump to humans. The SARS virus, which killed 800 people worldwide, is believed to have originated in bats before spreading to civets in a wildlife market in China, and ultimately infecting people in 2002.

China ordered the closure of all its wildlife markets after the Wuhan outbreak in December. Now, Indonesia’s Tomohon market is one of the region’s largest to sell wildlife for food. It is one of only a handful of such markets — seven by one count — in the country.

Most of the wild animals at Tomohon are slaughtered before they reach the market. It is mainly dogs that are kept alive in cages and killed on the spot for customers who say they prefer the meat fresh.

“It is like a time bomb,” said Billy Gustafianto Lolowang, manager of the Tasikoki Wildlife Rescue Center in the nearby town of Bitung. “We can only wait until we become the epicenter of a pandemic like Wuhan.”

Local residents believe some animals have medicinal properties, including bats, which are said to cure asthma. In North Sulawesi, the largely Christian province that includes Tomohon, bush meat is such a big part of the local diet that snake and bat meat are often sold in supermarkets.

“Before the virus, bats were the most popular, followed by rats and pythons,” said Roy Nangka, 40, who has worked as a butcher in Tomohon since 1999. “Now people mostly buy the meat of pigs and boars.”

Indonesia, which has the world’s fourth-largest population, was slow to acknowledge the threat of the coronavirus and lags far behind other nations in testing. As of Wednesday, Indonesia had recorded 15,438 cases and 1,028 deaths, the second-highest number of fatalities in East Asia after China.

On Tuesday, a coalition of animal rights groups called Dog Meat Free Indonesia urged the nation’s president, Joko Widodo, to close wildlife markets to prevent the possible emergence of a new pathogen.

“If we do not act, the question is not whether another similar pandemic will emerge, but when,” the group said in a letter.

Any decision to shutter Indonesia’s wildlife markets is the responsibility of local officials, said Indra Exploitasia, director of biodiversity conservation for Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry. She said the ministry had encouraged local officials to close them.

Her office identified seven large markets on the islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali and Sulawesi that sell wildlife for consumption. Activists say smaller markets also sell wildlife meat.

Many of the markets are best known for selling birds taken from the wild in a thriving illicit trade that strips Indonesia’s forests of an estimated 20 million songbirds a year.

At Depok Market, a popular bird and wildlife market in the city of Solo, local authorities ordered the culling of nearly 200 bats over coronavirus fears. The Depok Market remains open, but no longer sells bats.

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