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A cropped photo with three panels, one showing a miner, one of the landscape and one of a crocodile eye in the water
Bangka Island, Indonesia

Tin Mining and River Attacks: Inside Indonesia's Human-Crocodile Conflict

It is said that in the past, every patch of swamp and estuary on Bangka Island was guarded by "puaka" who ruled over all the fish, shrimps and females within their territory. Its roar can make even the toughest warrior recoil in trepidation. A puaka is a giant, its body stretching three to five meters from tail to snout. 

Puaka is a saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the largest animal in Bangka Belitung Province in Indonesia. Humans do not want to enter rivers inhabited by crocodiles, and vice versa. Crocodiles rarely enter settlements. Even if there is one—an "away crocodile," as they call it—it is an individual that strays after being kicked out by another male. 

But the deafening roar of the puaka is almost non-existent today. There is another, more jarring sound: the thump and clatter of diesel engines. Its echo is heard throughout the province, not least around Kampoeng Reklamasi Air Jangkang, Bangka District. 

"Many guests thought we were near the dock. We're Not! [That's] the sound of the mine!" says Endi R Yusuf, laughing as he mimics the sound of the tin suction behind the yard of the Alobi Animal Rescue Center (PPS). 

Yusuf is the manager of Alobi, a facility managed by Alobi Foundation, a Specialized Conservation Institution (LK) engaged in animal rescue. Specialized organizations are those that partner with the government to carry out animal rescue and rehabilitation functions. 

Alobi stands on an ex-tin mining land owned by PT Timah, a state-owned mining giant. This facility is recognized by the company as one of the successful models of reclamation activities that support environmental welfare. While there is no data about when tin mining officially stopped, the reclamation program began in 2018. 

In contrast to artisanal mining outside the fence, all activities inside Alobi are in the name of environmental conservation, especially wildlife. It is a sanctuary for a variety of species rescued from illegal trade and conflict with communities. 

Yusuf shows us some of them. There is a cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) that was rescued from a smuggling attempt, a sun bear cub (Helarctos malayanus) rescued from a forest fire, a tarsier (Tarsius bancanus) that entered a local resident’s garden, and even some blue peacocks (Pavo cristatus) from India. 

Then, in a caged patch bordered by double-layered iron bars: 34 saltwater crocodiles. The majority were rescued by Alobi from conflicts with residents.

a clearing and pond in a forested landscape with deer drinking water
The Alobi Animal Rescue Center stands on reclaimed land from the former PT Timah mine in Merawang District, Indonesia / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
Man sits in a yellow chair with banner depicting images of animals behind him; he wears a navy shirt that says "a foundation wildlife rescue center"
Alobi manager Endi R Yusuf rests in the backyard of his office / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia.
a small bear sits in a cage with paws resting on the bars
A sun bear cub named Bunga was rescued from forest fires in South Sumatra / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.

The king without a throne

These crocodiles are a few lucky ones. Others died after they were attacked with machetes or their guts were ripped out by fishers' fishing hooks. Some had attacked humans, but others were killed simply because they surfaced and happened to be seen by villagers.

Estuarine crocodiles are protected animals in accordance with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Regulation on Protected Plant and Animal Species. The regulation says no one is allowed to kill or injure protected animals. According to the database of the Supreme Court of Indonesia, there are almost 500 court cases related to the violation of the regulation since 2010.

In response to these encounters, Alobi Foundation founder Langka Sani routinely goes to the field to rescue crocodiles in conflict with communities. Sani is Yusuf's partner in managing Alobi Foundation.

However, Sani is now overwhelmed with reports of conflicts.

"In the past, we might never hear of a crocodile attack in a year, whereas now in the last two weeks there have been dozens of reports of crocodile cases," he says.

At one point, his cell phone could ring seven times a day with messages from residents panicked by the appearance of crocodiles.

That's too many. It was impossible for him to respond to all the reports. Inevitably, he directs the reports to other authorities, such as the police, fire department, and especially the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), the authority tasked in handling protected animals in Indonesia.

man leans towards a fenced-in area to look at a crocodile resting on the sandy bank of a pond
Langka Sani visits the saltwater crocodiles in the Alobi Animal Rescue Center enclosure / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
Water sprays as three crocodiles clash in a pond
The Alobi Animal Rescue Center crocodile cage is overcrowded and cannot accomodate more individuals, however crocodile victims of the conflict are still being sent / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
A crocodile rests in a grassy enclosure
A crocodile in an isolation cage, who can no longer eat because its digestive organs were torn by a resident's fishing hook; the hook is thought to still be in his stomach / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia. 

However, BKSDA is also overwhelmed. Where will they put the evacuated crocodiles? Currently, only Alobi can accommodate them. But the crocodile rehabilitation enclosure, sizing only 250 square meters, is already overcrowded. If forced to cohabit, the territorial saltwater crocodiles will fight with each other, causing many individuals to die.

In addition, Sani emphasized, there are almost no rivers in Bangka that are untouched by humans and no place to release crocodiles without opposition from residents.

"Releasing crocodiles on Bangka Island itself is not possible because the crocodile habitat is very damaged [as a result of human encroachment into the estuarine area] and no longer beautiful," said Sani.

In 2021, BKSDA and Alobi travelled to South Sumatra just to conduct a release. Other crocodiles were forced to stay in the cramped enclosure. Not because they could not recover in the wild, but because there were no longer conflict-free estuaries.

The community rejects the existence of crocodiles even though both people and the crocodiles’  lives depend on the river. Crocodiles clearly need the river as a habitat.

Residents rely on the river not only for their daily water needs, but also for employment, especially artisanal tin mining which is increasingly rampant.

Where tin is worth every drop of blood

In Bangka, tin is like a religion. And its people are devoted believers. Local residents have melted and shaped tin as coins and jewelry as early as the first century. The word Bangka itself finds its root from Wangkadwipa which translates into “Tin Island."

Many river areas that were once the habitat of  crocodiles are now crowded with rafts. Young and old, men and sometimes women, covered in mud, work as long as the sun is still high, dredging and siphoning off sediment that settles on the riverbed and kulongs—old tin pits.

Rozi (54) is one of them. He is a native of Telak Village, Parittiga Subdistrict, West Bangka District. After sunset, Rozi assumes his role as an ulema , respected throughout the village. He teaches students the Quran and leads prayers in the surau.

However, during the day, he goes down to the mud with many of his neighbors. They mine on the banks of the Antan River, which is surrounded by a mangrove wilderness where monkeys, fish and king prawns roam, a favorite snack of crocodiles.

On November 8, 2020, a saltwater crocodile defending its territory twisted Rozi's body and tore most of the flesh from his left calf while he was bathing after tin mining.

Since then, Rozi can no longer mine. He still limps after almost three years from the incident. Even if he is able to walk normally one day, Rozi does not dare return to mining.

He is traumatized by even looking at a picture of a crocodile or passing through a waterlogged ditch.

Rozi is far from the only victim of conflict with saltwater crocodiles. Garda Animalia recorded at least 111 cases of crocodile conflict in Bangka Belitung between 2016 and August 2023 from various sources. The majority occurred in mining areas.

Conflicts not only affect humans, but also crocodiles. Not infrequently, if someone is bitten, residents will hunt down all crocodiles in the river and kulong. One laceration on a human arm can be paid for with three to five crocodile lives.

However, data on attacks on crocodiles is much scarcer. Crocodile capture reports are only available for individuals rescued or handed over to Alobi or the authorities.

Made with Flourish

In each district, conflicts are clustered in certain places. These hotspots generally overlap with areas of high mining intensity.

This is because smallholder tin mining locations do not recognize land use. They mine in river areas, offshore, home yards, former recreational parks, protected forest areas, and even concessions of companies that have been reclaimed and are forbidden to be mined again.

The Antan River, where Rozi was pounced on, is an example of a protected forest area surrounded by artisanal miners. In fact, this location is one of the last areas that Alobi relies on to release crocodiles following conflict with residents.

Garda Animalia's analysis shows that all districts in Bangka Belitung Province have protected forest areas that are overlapped by mining. The majority of these encroachments occur on the coast, specifically in mangrove forests, the main habitat of saltwater crocodiles.

Subcoordinator of Watershed Management and Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation of the Bangka Belitung Provincial Environment and Forestry Agency (DLHK) Hasanudin said that as the authority of protected forest areas, his office has enforced the law and makes efforts to educate on residents who mine in protected forest areas.

This law enforcement usually involves the Forest Police, the Forest Management Unit (KPH), and the police at the regional level.

The latest arrest was made in April 2023 to one of the heads of illegal tin mining syndicates in Manggar District, East Belitung Regency. Local authorities revealed that they conducted their activities inside the protected mangrove forest area, a prominent habitat of crocodiles.

However, these efforts have yet to prove effective as conflicts throughout the province—and the number of victims like Rozi— continue to grow. The same goes for crocodiles, which are hunted by residents simply because they are considered a threat.

Man in pink shirt sits on a tiled floor with a television and plastic chair behind him
Rozi (54) at home. He was attacked by a crocodile while he was bathing after mining in the Antan River, West Bangka Regency / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
Two wooden structures for tin mining sit on the river with a billow of brown smoke behind them
Mining on the banks of the Antan River which is included in the protected forest area in West Bangka Regency / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
A man stands bathing in a pool of turquoise water
An artisanal miner bathes in a kulong after a day of tin mining; many miners are attacked by crocodiles while bathing / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia. 

The economy behind the conflict

Not only protected forests, company concessions are also easy targets for residents who want to make a fortune from tin. One of them is in the concession owned by PT Timah—a state-owned enterprise engaged in all lines of the tin industry, from dredging to refining and export.

The concessions that residents are looking for are generally those that are no longer producing at an industrial level and are in the reclamation stage. Infiltration usually occurs when tin prices are high.

However, it's not just residents. Crocodiles also enter kulongs inside the concessions. A community miner in PT Timah's concession in Telak Village said that there were many crocodiles in kulongs in the village. Meanwhile, residents also look for tin in kulongs.

Responding to the existence of conflicts within its concession, PT Timah’s Head of Corporate Communications Anggi Siahaan explained that the company offers a partnership scheme for residents who want to mine tin.

According to him, this scheme has a potential to reduce the number of illegal miners that infiltrate the company’s already-reclaimed concessions by facilitating them to collect tin inside other concessions that are still in a mining phase.

Under this scheme, the company will take responsibility in the event of work accidents, including cases of conflict with crocodiles. On the other hand, the partners are also required to comply with the company's standard operating procedures to reduce the risk of work accidents.

"It is critical that mining is carried out in accordance with good and correct mining principles. So it's not just lifting this commodity from the ground, but there are many other things that we can reduce," Siahaan explained, referring to the company’s effort to mitigate work accidents, including crocodile conflicts, that often happen to artisanal miners.

However, the miners met by Garda Animalia were reluctant to cooperate with PT Timah because according to them, the company's offtake price is much lower compared to what collectors paid.

Residents claim one kilogram of tin in August 2023 was bought for up to 200,000 rupiah by collectors, while Timah only offered 70,000 to 100,000 rupiah.

Reza, one of the community miners met by Garda Animalia, expressed his difficulty in working with PT Timah.

"In terms of safety, they [PT Timah] can guarantee it. It's just that the price of tin is not suitable for miners if we deposit it to PT Timah," he explained.

Rafts float on a river with forested banks
Kulong landscape in West Bangka Regency. The rafts in the distance are artisanal miners drawing up sediment from the bottom of the kulong. Cloudy water is an indication of tin mining / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia. 
A man wades through muddy water towards a raft in the river
A miner jumps into a kulong to climb onto a raft. All miners know that in the kulong there are crocodiles that can pounce on them while they work / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia. 
A man holds a grey bowl with a brown grainy substance inside on the banks of a river with a raft in view behind him
A bucket containing cleaned lead sand. Due to its high density, the tin in the bucket can weigh up to three kilograms with a price of up to 600,000 rupiah / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.

Regular raids are conducted by local law enforcement officials against illegal miners (who mine without a permit from PT Timah inside the concession or in areas where mining is prohibited), but Reza and other miners insist on returning to the site every time the raid season subsides.

They are so dependent on mining because there is a guarantee of money every day even though the net profit is only 50,000 to 100,000 rupiah. Plus, this profession does not require capital. Even if there is no money, people can sell their labor to other miners.

The next most lucrative business—opening a palm oil plantation—requires large capital. People also need to wait about five years for the first bunches to be harvested. In Telak Village, people mine tin while waiting to harvest.

Pepper, the former primadona of Bangka Island, no longer attracts farmers. The price has dropped dramatically, and loss is almost inevitable. The risk is also high because the spice—once a main commodity of the Dutch East Indies—is prone to diseases.

To reduce the adverse effects of mining without killing jobs, the Bangka Belitung Energy and Mineral Resources (Energi dan Sumber Daya Mineral/ESDM) Office directs the community to obtain a People's Mining Permit (Izin Pertambangan Rakyat/IPR).

This was explained by the Head of the Bangka Belitung Province ESDM Office, Amir Syahbana. By holding an IPR, the legality of people's mining practices is guaranteed. This is with a note that the community is obliged to carry out good mining practices, including in the aspects of work safety and environmental restoration.

Commitment to these two aspects has the potential to reduce the number of crocodile conflicts in mining areas. Both the company partnership scheme and IPR guarantee that.

However, if partnership schemes and IPR are unable to guarantee the kind of income that communities receive through back channels, illegal mining practices and all their adverse environmental impacts will continue to prevail.

The right conservation path

Make no mistake, challenges do not only arise from the regulatory aspects of artisanal mining. Estuarine crocodiles—like humans—are a stubborn species too.

Brandon Sideleau knows all too well how stubborn his object of research can be. Sideleau is a crocodile researcher from California, USA who initiated the CrocBITE program, a data repository of crocodile conflicts around the world.

From Wetar, Timor to Papua, Sideleau has observed one common trait across all saltwater crocodiles: no matter how far they are moved, they will return to their home territory.

"Crocodiles have a pigeon-like instinct to return to their habitat, and they will travel hundreds of kilometers to get back to where they were captured," Sideleau explains.

He emphasized that release is not an effective solution for conflict mitigation. Instead, it is important to conserve in-situ—the original habitat—by creating areas dedicated to crocodile habitat.

Based on satellite imagery, Sideleau saw potential habitat around the Baturusa River in Merawang District, Bangka Regency or around the Pice Dam in Gantung District, East Bangka District.

These observations coincided with a plan that the Bangka Belitung administration had proposed in 2021, which would utilize 157 hectares of ex-mining land for a crocodile conservation area in Air Anyir Village, Merawang District. This location neighbors Air Jangkang, where Alobi is located.

Short green plants grow out of muddy earth
The mouth of the Baturusa River in Merawang District. The location around this river was declared a crocodile conservation area in 2021 by the Bangka Belitung Provincial Government / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.

Unfortunately, news of the establishment of this area is unclear. The DLHK said the plan was in the hands of PT Timah, while PT Timah knew nothing about the existence of the plan.

“I have not heard of such a plan. I believe it is the administration’s [of Bangka Belitung] initiative, not ours. The pictures [in the web] also did not show any of our representatives,” Anggi Siahaan said.

Alobi, who was under the impression it would be invited as a partner, never heard further.

Regardless of the continuation of the plan, Sideleau welcomes Bangka administration's initiative to preserve crocodile habitats.

"We don't want Bangka and Belitung to be like Java and Bali, where crocodiles once existed but are now mostly extinct (except for a small population in Banten)," the member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) crocodile specialist group wrote in an email to the Garda Animalia team.

However, after a long conversation about conflict and conservation, the question is: does anyone know the population size of crocodiles in Bangka?

This question was asked by Amir Hamidy, Director of the Secretariat for Scientific Authority on Biodiversity of the State Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).

"Does it mean that the population is increasing or that the intensity of human activities in the water is increasing? That's what we have to answer," said Amir.

On the one hand, it is known that there is an increase in human activity in the estuary with the spread of artisanal mining, but there have been no comprehensive findings on the crocodile population itself.

According to Hamidy, the absence of any crocodile population survey has the potential to move conservation in the wrong direction.

"As per the international convention, the threat status of saltwater crocodiles is still in least concern level. Thus, it is not yet a consideration in the context of conservation," Amir said.

The status was given by the IUCN in 1996 and it has not been revised since. IUCN is an international organization that assigns the threat status of species worldwide.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has also revised the trade status of Indonesia-sourced saltwater crocodiles from Appendix I to Appendix II of the convention. It means the species can be traded commercially with certain limitations.

Can Bangka Belitung establish a commercial breeding center to handle the overwhelming number of crocodiles?

Is it possible that saltwater crocodiles no longer need to be protected by the state?

Hamidy suggested that there are many forms of conflict mitigation that authorities can do if saltwater crocodiles are not a protected species, such as establishing a breeding center for limited commercial use. The release of protected status can work at a local level, where the number of crocodiles grows too big.

This decision can only be done after a thorough population survey has been conducted. But the existing data is too outdated to serve as a basis for argument.

Surveys should not only be conducted on crocodiles; conflicts also involve humans. Hamidy believes surveys of the community of residents are also important.

For example, in Parittiga, access to water is difficult which forces residents to rely on kulongs. In Puding Besar, residents were attacked in the river which is a source of irrigation for oil palm. In Simpang Rimba, attacks occurred on fishermen. Fishing is the community's mainstay profession.

Clearly, conflicts are not only a result of mining activity. In fact, when conflicts have close ties to mining, the patterns vary: some are in kulongs, in rivers in protected forest areas, and even on the beach.

A close up of a crocodile with it's jaws open
A saltwater crocodile at Alobi Animal Rescue Center; saltwater crocodiles have one of the strongest bites among all animals / Credit: Bayu Nanda for Garda Animalia.
A woman in hijab holds a hand up to her face; on her hand are scars
Sari'a (53) from Sekar Biru Village had her arm bitten by a crocodile while fetching water. The hamlet where she lives often experiences water crises, forcing residents to rely on kulongs / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.

Restoring the estuary

From the economic problems of illegal miners, to the disturbance of habitat, to the stubbornness of crocodiles, to the absence of up-to-date population data—the answer to this complex set of  problems boils down to the presence of two bodies: PT Timah and the local government.

As a company at the forefront of good tin mining practices, PT Timah is in an important—and precarious—position to embrace artisanal miners in a partnership scheme that not only ensures work safety and environmental restoration, but also benefits the people economically.

Besides, as Siahaan points out, PT Timah is perhaps the only state-owned enterprise in Indonesia that contributes to the sustainability of Alobi's facilities. However, crocodile conservation at Alobi is already at a critical point, with crocodiles still being shipped in from all over Bangka.

If the enclosure can no longer accept new residents and release is not a solution, then PT Timah can take its contribution one step further by facilitating new space for an in-situ crocodile conservation area where mining would not take place.

Many crocodiles already consider company-owned kulongs—and PT Timah's is no exception—as habitat. So, why not make it a crocodile habitat? As Hamidy puts it, "conflict is not only because we destroy habitat, but because we also create new habitat."

Most importantly, Hamidy said, the first and foremost requirement of a crocodile conservation area: no human activities.

Langka Sani, founder of Alobi, emphasized, "The local government must determine a zone that is indeed for crocodile [habitat]."

Various parties such as Langka and Sideleau emphasize that there is no better time to revive the conservation area plan than today.

Crocodiles thrash around in water
The crocodiles in the rehabilitation pen are too crowded. They often fight over territory or food thrown by staff / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.
A turquoise pool of water with grass and trees in the background
The miners arranged tree branches in the kulong to prevent crocodiles from entering. This man-made landscape is a new habitat for saltwater crocodiles / Credit: Finlan Adhitya Aldan for Garda Animalia.

In addition, local governments need to initiate surveys, both for crocodile populations and community perspectives.

Hamidy admitted that BRIN does not have the capacity to carry it out on its own. Surveys can be effective if the public is directly involved in them. Moreover, crocodile conflicts have their own characteristics in each sub-district, even villages. To mobilize local communities, local governments need to be fully present.

The priority hotspots for surveys have been shown by Garda Animalia on the map in this article.

However, no matter the population, no matter how awkward the conflict, puaka are still the king of rivers and swamps. They naturally prey on fish, herons, and monkeys. For Sani, it's their nature—to function as apex predators in the estuarine ecosystem.

“The only place where crocodiles can do their services to the ecosystem is in nature, not inside the cage,” says Sani.


This story was produced with support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Garda Animalia on October 18, 2023. 

Banner image: Conflict is growing between humans and crocodiles on Bankga Island, Indonesia / Credit: Garda Animalia.