- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 7, 2003

DENPASAR, Indonesia — The turtle butcher had little hesitation about revealing his occupation.

“Come back tomorrow at dawn and you can have as much meat as you want,” Wayan Budha said, handing his business card: Bali Catering Service. To the left of the name, a large stenciled image of an endangered sea turtle made clear the nature of his illegal business.

Mr. Budha’s fly-ridden shop is proof of a bloody trade on this tropical Indonesian resort island, better known for sparkling beaches, friendly people and intricately sculpted Hindu temples.

Three years ago, consumption of sea turtles was decreasing owing to a police crackdown and a campaign by local animal rights activists.

But the practice is on the rise again. Earlier this year, police raided three boats carrying more than 250 turtles destined for Bali from other parts of Indonesia — a sign, conservationists say, of the increasing demand for the meat.

Turtle traders are fighting back. In June, about 50 people armed with spears and machetes punched and kicked a group of conservationists as they tried to research the trade on Bali.

Mr. Budha’s shop was one of two in Denpasar, the island’s provincial capital, where a reporter inquiring about turtle meat was offered the illegal product. Neither had signs, and both were set back from the road. Butchery goes on late at night to avoid the police, Mr. Budha said.

While all six species of turtle found in Indonesian waters are on the United Nations’ endangered species list, the green sea turtle, which lives for 100 years and can measure almost three feet in length, is the only type eaten on Bali.

Decades of hunting the animal and rapid development of the island’s coast mean it is now rarely found in Balinese waters. Bali-based businessmen send boats elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago to catch the turtles.

Most of the animals arrive on Bali though they harbor at Tanjung Benoa, a poor district on the southern tip of the island where turtle meat is still available at street-side eating houses.

Although as recently as three years ago the boats unloaded their cargo in daylight, they now do so at night, said a former turtle fisherman, Wayan Putra.

Mr. Putra stopped fishing for turtle for fear of being caught, but he still eats the meat. He says it is good for stamina and he defends the right of Balinese to dine on turtle.

“It’s been in our culture for years,” he said. “People should stop telling us what to do.”

Turtle flesh is skewered and barbecued at parties and religious gatherings on the island.

The turtles are slaughtered by turning them on their backs and prying flesh from their shells while still alive — a process that enables the butcher to peel meat off easily.

Bracelets and trinkets made from the turtle’s carapace, or upper shell, are available in towns throughout Indonesia. This trade is illegal, too.

Turtles are also used in religious ceremonies on Bali, where most people are Hindus — unlike the rest of Muslim-majority Indonesia. After lobbying by priests, local officials agreed to permit a limited number of turtles to be killed each year for use as offerings in religious ceremonies.

Those who want to purchase turtle must have written permission from village chiefs and Bali’s Conservation Department, but animal rights activists and some Hindu priests says the system is widely abused.

“The trade these days has nothing to do with Hindu ritual or tradition,” said a Hindu elder, Ida Pedanda Ngurah Kaleran. “It’s just not true if they say it is for religion. The meat is for consumption.”

Mr. Kaleran said a maximum of 300 turtles a year, and normally many fewer, would be enough for sacrifices at prosperity ceremonies. He said turtles are not essential for the success of the ritual and could be substituted easily with offerings of flour, rice and cookies.

The trade in turtle meat is not the only danger facing the animals.

They are also under threat in Indonesian waters and elsewhere in the world from industrial fishing and from the consumption of turtles eggs and the destruction of beaches where turtles nest by waterfront development.

Despite pockets of affluence, most of Bali is poor like the rest of Indonesia. The terror bombing in a nightclub district badly last year affected the island’s tourist trade, putting thousands of people out of work.

A large green turtle sells for more than $50, making the business attractive to impoverished villagers.

‘It’s like the drug trade,” said Wayan Wiradnyana, who works with the local conservation group ProFauna Indonesia. “The traders are like a little mafia.”

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