Indonesians are no amateurs when it comes to mass murder and genocides. They managed to slaughter with their bare hands, between 1 and 3 million people in 1965/66, mainly those who belonged to the educated class, and of course the Communists, teachers, artists and members of the Chinese minority.
They butchered and tortured to death around 30 percent of the inhabitants of what is now Timor-Leste. And they have already exterminated at least 150,000 men, women and children in Papua, in an ongoing and totally hushed up genocide that allows Western countries to access its natural resources. 150,000 corpses is, of course, one of the lower estimates…
One could say that with such a record and such an absolute lack of compassion even towards their fellow human beings, the fate of the animals killed regularly all over Indonesia, should not come as something surprising or shocking.
In Indonesia, every creature of any commercial value is poached mercilessly and has virtually no protection. Even the few remaining elephants of Sumatra, whose habitat has essentially been ruined already, are regularly tortured and killed.
But what is happening right now in Surabaya, the second largest city of Indonesia, is shocking by all standards. Here, massacres in the local zoo do not involve ‘just a few animals’, but half of their entire population.
The magnitude of this crime against defenseless and captive animals is symbolic and in sync with other similar crimes that have been committed for decades against human beings. And as expected here, those responsible also enjoy full impunity.
In Indonesia, basic ethics have collapsed. The nation went truly bananas following the officially encouraged (and orchestrated by the West) and glorified to this day, orgy of bloodshed and rapes of 1965/66.
Here, killing, crime, looting and violence, pay. The only victims are: the great majority of impoverished Indonesian people, as well as creatures big and small, are still barely surviving among those black clogged streams, deforested mountains and poisoned seas. Here, both, people and animals were robbed of everything.
“Originally there were some 4,400 animals in the Surabaya zoo”, explains Ms. Sybelle Foxcroft, Founder and CEO at Cee4life (‘Conservation & Environmental Education 4 Life’ located in the Melbourne Area of Australia). “Now there are only approximately 2,100 of them left…”
We are facing each other, sitting at the table of a restaurant in a bizarre and moderately kitschy ‘Art Café’ in the city of Surabaya. Sybelle is a scientist but also a former Medical Sergeant in the Australian Army. I have been a war reporter for many years. We understand each other very quickly and intuitively: she came here to save tigers, turtles and many other fantastic and endangered creatures. My duty is to shame those who are murdering them. It resembles a theatre of war. The genocides, misery, and total destruction of the environment – all these Indonesian realities are actually nothing else other than warzone scenarios.
I tell Sybelle that this country left Asia, psychologically, a long time ago: it resembles the Democratic Republic of Congo or at least Uganda. We both know Africa well, and she understands what I am saying.
Just recently, Sybelle finally met the mayor of Surabaya, Ms. Tri Rismaharini:
“We had to push the mayor to bring professionals… this is ridiculous… The media put pressure on the Mayor… it was all totally political. I know that the zoo will be there for at least two more years. Some say that mayor cracked the deal with a foreign developer…”
She continues after a while:
“They have this zoo where the animals are dying left and right, and there is no help for them? They cannot help them? At times it was if they did not want to help them? Now people like us, from outside, are helping… building an elephant enclosure for those poor creatures that are in chains, scarred!”
So what is really going on? Peter Dickinson, the owner and editor of Zoo News Digest in the UK, wrote:
“The real problem about Surabaya Zoo today is its location. This is prime development land. Its city central ‘green’ location has big business salivating in anticipation of the zoo failing. They want it to go. Every opportunity to muddy the Zoo’s reputation is taken… There is corruption and big money at stake here.”
Are animals being murdered to give space to developers? It is not pronounced publicly, but said over and over again behind closed doors.
Many had been criticizing the Mayor of Surabaya, and the critics included Dr. Tony Sumampau, the renowned director of Taman Safari Indonesia (a private safari park in West Java, with two other branches in the country), who was forced to leave his job at the Surabaya Zoo in June 2013, allegedly because he was actually trying to improve the conditions of the animals.
The accusations against the mayor have ranged from the inadequacy of her response to the crises at the Zoo, to allowing a deal with a foreign-based developer, which will within two years; effectively liquidate this historic zoo that was founded in 1916.
As always in Indonesia, there is no transparency. The Mayor and others are pointing fingers at each other.
The English language newspaper, the Jakarta Globe wrote on January 20th, 2014:
“In response to the criticism, the mayor said she planned to report the Surabaya Zoo case to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) over the alleged embezzlement of the funds overseen by the temporary management team.
She also said the transfer of 483 animals out of the zoo was highly suspicious…”
…Rismaharini claims that some of the animals were traded by zoo officials for money or other items, including cars.
“Trading the animals for cars or motorcycles is illegal. You can only exchange animals with animals…””
Sometimes, when translated from Bahasa Indonesia, some sentences and arguments sound simply weird, who knows why?
What is described in the pages of local newspapers, does not of course reflect the true nightmare of the extermination of half the population of the entire zoo.
Sybelle lists the horrors:
“A giraffe dying with a 20kg bag in her stomach… Bear covered by sores… Malani, that wonderful Sumatran tiger, skin and bones from eating poisoned meat… another tiger that died a terrible death: Chandrika – dying in agony, with no anesthesia or pain relief… Animals failing constantly and all around: skinny and starving creatures! Animals from the Zoo and animals from outside: dead cats hanging from the walls… Every animal here has either Hepatitis or TB.”
“We thought, ‘where does this come from’? I was informed by an Indonesian professional that 15 people/staff were tested for the diseases and 11 of them had TB and hepatitis. After that any further results were hidden…It’s unknown which way the disease was passed, but it was passed on and many are suffering from disease. Even a hippo died from hepatitis here!”
The list is endless:
“Green turtles, sea turtles, endangered ones, were found by us in the fresh water pond, with color changed and covered by fungus… In January 2014 someone told me that one turtle ‘looked sick’. It sure was sick! It was dead. From the skin coloration it had been already, for 5 days! With a plastic bag sticking out from its mouth…choking it to death. Here, animals die under grotesque and unnatural circumstances.”
Our several visits to the Zoo have been also truly Kafkaesque. With an untrained eye it is obvious that something has gone terribly wrong.
One animal after another was dying, and those that were alive, camels, giraffes, apes and reptiles, even tigers, looked desperate, starving and resigned.
Once, we stopped an intern, Ms. Perina Thenesia, from Airlangga University, as she was throwing some food into the cages.
What does she think has been happening here recently?
“I think what happened…” She looked at us phlegmatically. “It is because the weather and the environment…”
“Were animals murdered?” I asked a keeper, without insisting that he identifies himself.
He does not say yes or no. Not for a while.
“Do you believe animals were killed?”
We approach several employees, hiding from the rain. We ask again and again.
“Ask Pak Agus” we are told.
But there is no Pak Agus, anywhere around.
Do they have any opinion?
Then one of the keepers utters: “We don’t want to talk. If we say something wrong, it could cause us a problem.”
His pal nods his head in agreement: “It has all been already taken care of by the management.”
We go everywhere, but what we get is total silence. Ms. Penta from the data center suddenly has no data on how many animals are supposed to be in the zoo, how many were recently born and how many have died. It appears to be a top secret, a war and peace situation. There is only one portion of information that Ms. Penta happily shares with us: “Since July 2013, there is a regulation that forbids us talking to the press. Talk to Pak Agus…”
Several days later, we manage to locate Pak Agus, a spokesperson of the zoo:
“One Nilgai antelope was recently found dead and a Baboon died yesterday,” Agus Supangat said it was a natural death because of age. “That Baboon was the last one Surabaya Zoo had… Now there is no Baboon anymore.”
He refused to get more philosophical.
Again, on May 14th, 2014, I visited the Zoo. One would think that after all those campaigns and international coverage, things would have improved. But I saw again, the same bears covered with sores, I saw the babies of Komodo Dragons and Orangutans in horrifying conditions, and everywhere I went, there were empty cages.
“You want to see baby Komodo?” One of the keepers offered. He led me to a beat up wooden box. He unlocked it and let me peek in. There were some ten tiny and adorable creatures, crammed, clinging to each other.
“Here, look!” said keeper. He took long wooden stick and began poking into confused and scared dragons, some of the most endangered species on earth.
And everywhere I went, keepers were sitting in groups, doing nothing, just smoking and chatting.
How on earth could all this happen, in the 21st century, and in Asia?
How could be animals fed with rot penetrated with formaldehyde?
But then you think: in Jakarta and in fact in every city in Indonesia, there are constant reports of people, even children, being fed and poisoned by the same think. Formaldehyde, rat meatballs… Poisonous chemical drinks sold to children near schools…
Of course this was part of a much larger issue; Surabaya Zoo does not exist in a vacuum.
Indonesia has already collapsed, and only survives from the plundering of its own natural resources. The fourth most populous nation on earth is producing nearly nothing. The education level has hit the bottom.
“One Vet here asked me: how do we treat a tiger?” says Sybelle in disbelief. “This was a Vet! They had no idea a blood test was required, and did not want to anesthetize the tiger, nothing!”
Then she continues:
“I am teaching against racism… I am also teaching about rights… people, animals… You know, in Indonesia I have to start from the very beginning: I have to tell my students that animals can also feel pain, that they have emotions…”
I face a black bear, with some fungus near its mouth, covered with sores all over its body.
I don’t know why, but as the bear and I stare at each other, I suddenly remember all the horrors that I have witnessed around the archipelago: the aftermath of rapes in East Timor, being tortured for exposing them, Papua refugee camps, killings in Ambon, Aceh… horrors and horrors that I have described in my fiction, and non-fiction books… testimonies that I collected for my films…
“Look”, I tell the bear. For some reason I speak to it in Russian, although it is definitely not from there. “It is all screwed up… but we will try to do something… to save your skin, so to speak…”
The bear pretends that it understands. It actually gets up on its two legs and grabs the bars. It is bigger than me. It is beautiful, beautiful creature, but they made him look like shit – defeated, broken, sick…
I want to scream, to run away from here, fast and far… to Venezuela or Chile… to places where fascism has been defeated… to those places where we have won. To that part of the world where there is, once again, light and kindness, and compassion.
But I stay. I know that the bear trusts me. And so do a few people in this collapsed nightmarish fascist country.
More than 2,000 creatures have died, in a terrible massacre. Hopefully their deaths will help to explain conditions in this country, which was designated as a place where people and animals are supposed to live and die for a few rich individuals and clans, and for market fundamentalism.
Hopefully these creatures did not die for nothing! In my mind, I consider them as fallen comrades.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.