Wildlife Watch

Investigation Leads to Rescue of Whale Sharks

In this week’s crime blotter: freed whale sharks, Tiger Temple monks arrested, and parts taken from a dead bear in Los Angeles. 

See two whale sharks—rescued by Indonesian authorities from traffickers—before they return to the wild.

An 18-month long investigation. A bust. The discovery of illegal goods. It wasn’t a drug sting or a gun-running operation bust. It was the rescue of two whale sharks, which were being held illegally in underwater cages off the coast of an island in eastern Indonesia.

The 12-foot long sharks, which may grow to be the size of a school bus, were immediately released into the ocean. They were lucky—an investigation from the Wildlife Conservation Society, a New York-based nonprofit that assisted Indonesian authorities with the raid, found that the pair were likely destined for the illegal wildlife trade either in China or somewhere else in Southeast Asia.

China in particular has a track record with whale sharks. In 2013, activists exposed a slaughterhouse in China that butchered about 600 whale sharks and basking sharks each year. Those animals were likely provided by an international network of poachers, the activists’ report says. The meat and fins stay in China to be sold for food, and the skin and oil are usually shipped abroad to make handbags and fish oil supplements.

It’s unclear why no one has been arrested yet. The investigation by the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries and the Wildlife Conservation Society found that the facility where the sharks were found is managed by a company called PT. Air Biru Maluku, owned by an unidentified Indonesian military officer. It’s also unclear what exactly the company does, but it does hold a permit to trade in ornamental fish—which a whale shark certainly is not.

Whale sharks are protected under Indonesian law and international law.

The company has also applied for a permit to become a conservation organization, according to a press release from the Wildlife Conservation Society. That would allow them to legally capture, breed, and export whale sharks, manta rays, and dolphins.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and confiscations around the world announced this past week:

TIGER TEMPLE: Three Buddhist monks were arrested at Thailand’s Tiger Temple after authorities raided the facility and began confiscating tigers. One monk was allegedly trying to flee the scene with tiger skins, teeth, and amulets containing bits of tiger skin in his truck. He and the two men who helped load the truck are charged with violating Thailand’s wildlife protection laws, Reuters reports. For more on the Tiger Temple and the raid, see our full coverage.

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In addition to arresting three monks at Thailand’s Tiger Temple, authorities seized 40 frozen tiger cubs and numerous jars filled with dead cubs. 

TORTOISE TAKERS: Forest officials in Kerala, a southern state in India, arrested four people accused of attempting to smuggle an Indian star tortoise, the Times of India reported. The illegal trade in the tortoises, which are found in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, has skyrocketed. They’re not considered endangered, but conservationists say they’re on their way to “vulnerable” status.

A DARK TRADE: Two Chinese men were sentenced to prison after police found them with more than $367,000 worth of abalone, a valuable and edible sea snail, according to South Africa’s the Times. A day before they were sentenced, South African police raided an illegal abalone processing facility in Cape Town. Poachers now steal about seven million South African abalone a year, up from four million a year in 2008.

SANDALWOOD SMUGGLING: A task force arrested three men in southeastern India for smuggling endangered red sandalwood, according to the Hans India, but another 40 or 45 smugglers managed to escape. The tree is prized by furniture makers for its rich, red color.

BEAR PAWS: A maintenance crew in Los Angeles County found a dead bear by the side of the road missing its paws and gall bladder, the Los Angeles Times reports. The bear had apparently been hit by a car, and investigators say it was likely a crime of opportunity. Bile from a bear’s gall bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and bear paws are a delicacy in China.

BAG OF IVORY: Two employees of the Zimbabwe’s Civil Aviation Authority and a third suspect were arrested after a coworker at the airport spotted a suspicious-looking bag that turned out to be filled with ivory jewelry, the Herald reports. The bag contained about 35 pounds of ivory bangles and other goods.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

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