Animal Writes
From 2 March 2003 Issue

Monkey Brains On The Menu
By Richard C. Paddock, Times Staff Writer;wi.468;hi.60/01/2003. 

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 eat it.

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 answer.

"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 international law.

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 and cannibalism.

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 decades.

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 monkey brains.

"I feel pity, but I have to do it," he said. "It's my work."

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: $40.

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 tool."

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 mansion.

A major port city across the heavily traveled Malacca Strait from Malaysia, Medan has long been an entry point for Chinese immigrants.

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 law.

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 people."

Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

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