MEDAN, Indonesia -- The eight fruit bats are trying to
sleep, but it's not easy. At midday, they dangle from a stick alongside
one of the busiest streets of this teeming city.
The bats hang head down, their feet and mouths bound
tightly with rubber bands. Passing cars, buses and motorcycles belch so
much smoke that the pollution at street level exceeds any smog alert
standard. The bats' little ears twitch amid the cacophony of honking
horns and revving engines.
But these bats are not destined to suffer long. Captured
in the rainforest about an hour outside the city, they will be sold to
passing motorists as a cure for asthma.
The recommended treatment is to cook the bat's heart and
Westerners might think that improving Medan's air
quality would do more to help asthma sufferers. But here in Indonesia's
fourth-largest city, there are many who believe that bat hearts are the
"There is always a buyer," said roadside bat vendor Mat
Unan, who estimates that he and his partners have sold as many as 500
bats at about $3 apiece in the last three years.
For best results, it is customary to remove the heart
from the animal while it is alive.
"It's very brutal," said Hardi Baktiantoro, Jakarta
coordinator of the animal protection group ProFauna Indonesia. "Even
though legally we cannot do anything about it, we ask people to stop on
ethical grounds. We ask them, is it ethical to torture the animals just
for pleasure or medicine?"
Bats are not the only unusual animals on the menu in
Indonesia. In various parts of the country, cobra blood, bear paws, sea
turtle eggs, orangutan meat, crocodile and tiger penises, geckos, dried
seahorses, monitor lizards, goat testicles, shark cartilage, pythons,
sperm whales, rhinoceros horns and monkey brains are consumed as health
remedies, impotency cures or gourmet treats.
The demand for some endangered species — including the
Sumatran tiger, the one-horned Javan rhinoceros, the Malayan sun bear
and the green sea turtle — has contributed to a dangerous decline in
their numbers even though they are protected under Indonesian and
In a nation with 300 ethnic groups scattered across
17,000 tropical islands, it is not surprising that Indonesians have a
wide variety of eating habits. KFC, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts are
popular in urban areas. But on remote islands, local tribal traditions
remain strong. In a few places, there are still instances of headhunting
Much of the desire for peculiar foods is rooted in ideas
of traditional medicine brought to the islands over the centuries by
Chinese immigrants. Today, ethnic Chinese are among the main consumers
of animal remedies.
This is a country where health care is woefully
inadequate and established medical treatment can be prohibitively
expensive. Some people suffering from long-term illness or impotency are
desperate enough to try anything.
"These animals are endangered not because they cure
ailments but because people believe they can," said Meutia Swasono,
professor of medical anthropology at the University of Indonesia.
Indonesian medical experts say most legitimate
traditional medicines are derived from plants, not animals. However, the
belief in animal cures remains strong. Although about 85% of the
population is Muslim, many Indonesians retain ancient animistic beliefs.
With little education, many are superstitious, and
belief in black magic is widespread.
One animal product that might have some benefit is shark
cartilage, which some studies — though controversial — suggest can be
effective in preventing the spread of cancer, said Dr. Boyke Dian
Nugraha, a noted Indonesian physician.
However, the greatest benefit from traditional animal
medicine appears to be psychological, he said, noting that when people
believe a cure is effective, their faith has a healing power. This is
especially true when treating impotence, he said.
"When one believes in a treatment, it has already healed
50% of the illness," Nugraha said. "Since they believe, 'I will be
strong. I will be powerful,' then they will be. It is not because of the
traditional medicine, but because of the suggestive factor."
People everywhere have eating habits that can be hard
for others to stomach. The French enjoy frog legs and snails.
Australians eat kangaroos. Americans boil lobsters alive. Dogs are
popular in much of Asia. Thais eat crickets, Japanese eat sea urchin
eggs, and Chinese eat everything from raw scorpions to pickled ants. But
in Indonesia, the variety and brutality are noteworthy.
Small restaurants and shops cater to popular demand for
monitor lizard meat, bat hearts, raw monkey brains and cocktails made
with cobra bile and blood. Some restaurants have been in business for
There is no law in Indonesia against brutality toward
animals. ProFauna has mounted education campaigns to improve the
treatment of animals and worked with local police to curb the worst
abuses, but the group and its supporters remain a small minority.
In Bali, sea turtles are butchered alive to keep the
meat from sticking to the shell. In Sumatra, monkeys are burned to death
before butchering in the belief that they will taste better if the blood
is not drained from the body.
Perhaps most brutal of all is the treatment of the
long-tail macaques. Some believe that eating the monkeys' brains can
cure impotence. The practice has led to over-hunting, says ProFauna,
which has campaigned against the slaughter.
Some establishments serve macaque at a special table
with a hole in the center. The monkey is tied up and the top of its
skull cut open with one slice of a sharp knife. The animal, still alive,
is placed under the table so its head protrudes like a bowl. Arrack, a
powerful native alcohol, is sometimes poured into the skull and mixed
with the brain.
In the central Jakarta neighborhood of Kota, a
shopkeeper who calls himself Cobra Man specializes in selling snakes,
bats and dried lizard meat. He said he gets 10 to 20 orders a year for
"I feel pity, but I have to do it," he said. "It's my
Cobra Man said each week he sells about 100 cobras, all
caught in the wild. Little of the snake goes to waste. Typically, he
cuts off the head and drains the blood into a glass of arrack. He adds
the bile and serves the drink as a treatment for respiratory ailments,
skin problems, aches or indigestion. It is also said to improve a man's
stamina and sex life.
As a cure for impotence, the cobra's penis can be soaked
in arrack for a month much like a worm in a bottle of mescal. A bag of
50 snake penises sells for $11.50.
The concoctions are as varied as the imagination. One
customer asked Cobra Man to boil a cobra live. When it was cooked, the
man filtered the liquid and drank it.
The quest for cures is contributing to the
near-extinction of some animals, particularly the rhinoceros, valued for
its horn, and the sun bear, prized for its gall bladder and bile. Some
bears are smuggled to China, where their parts are even more valuable.
Though the Sumatran tiger is highly endangered, tiger penis can be found
for sale in Jakarta, the capital, as a cure for impotence. The price:
The arrival of Viagra might someday help reduce the
slaughter of species that are believed to cure impotence. But for most
Indonesians, Viagra is too expensive to replace traditional medicine.
The smallest size of Viagra tablet, 25 milligrams, sells for the
equivalent of $8, while a concoction made from cobra penis is only
$3.50. The minimum wage here is about $50 a month.
One who swears by traditional remedies is Hajjah
Nurdiani, 60. Five years of treatment with cobra bile and powdered shark
cartilage cured her intestinal cancer, she claims. Nurdiani ate cobra
bile every day for three years after learning of its benefits from a
friend, she said. Worried that the bile would eventually shrink her
bones, she switched to shark cartilage, a treatment she had read about
in a magazine. Every day for two years, she drank an ounce of the powder
mixed with water.
"The snake's bile tasted like nothing," she said. "But
the shark's cartilage was loathsome."
Nurdiani, a devout Muslim who has taken the hajj
pilgrimage to Mecca, said the medicine worked because she had faith.
"I had a health checkup in 2001 and, thank God, the
doctor did not find any cancer left in my body," she said. "I believed
God would help me heal my illness. Shark's cartilage powder was just a
In Medan, a city of 2.2 million people, Unan and a man
who gave his name only as Dibah sell their bats under a large mahogany
tree on busy Walikota Street, a block from the North Sumatra governor's
A major port city across the heavily traveled Malacca
Strait from Malaysia, Medan has long been an entry point for Chinese
The two men, along with a woman who declined to give her
name, also sell turtle eggs for the equivalent of about 17 cents each.
It is illegal because the turtles are endangered, but no one enforces
The bats, with black wings and reddish-brown fur, are
caught in the jungle by stringing a net between two trees. They are kept
tied up day and night until they are sold. Two or three times a day,
their keepers unbind their mouths for a few minutes and give them a few
squirts of sugar water. Every once in a while, they are fed banana.
"You fry the heart and make the meat into a soup," Dibah
said. "I feel nothing because I sell them as medicine to help other
Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed
to this report.
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