A bird in the hand and none in the bush?

Taking a look at the threat posed to Indonesia's stunning bird life by the exotic pet trade.

Bird keeping is a deeply ingrained part of Indonesian culture, especially in Java where owning songbirds is considered part of a well-balanced life. According to a paper published in the international journal Biological Conservation last year, a third of Java’s 36 million households keep up to 84 million caged birds, and the hobby has been increasingly popularised by singing contests. These contests are known locally as Kicau-mania (‘kikcau’ is Indonesian for ‘chirping’), and feature caged birds being judged on the volume and quality of their songs, with thousands of pounds in prize money up for grabs.

Held every two years in Indonesia’s largest sports stadium and attended by 8,000 people, the President’s Cup is one of the most prestigious of these contests. Indonesia’s current president Joko Widodo is an avid competitor to the extent that when his own bird lost the contest in 2018, he offered 600 million rupiah (£30,000) to buy the winner from its owner.

Unfortunately, the cost of this industry is counted in more than rupiah. While many popular bird species breed readily in captivity, there is a pervasive belief that wild-caught birds are better, and so the birds are poached in vast quantities. Poachers are often local trappers who make relatively little money from the endeavour, but the birds are then sold on to professional networks who transport and distribute them as part of a multimillion-dollar industry.

NGO TRAFFIC reports that in January 2021 alone, Indonesian authorities seized 11,000 poached birds from markets and pet stores. Many– which included mynahs, starlings and tailor birds – are not currently protected, despite rapid recent population declines. Fifty years ago, the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla) was one of the most common birds in rural Java. Today, a new study has found that it may be extinct in the wild, despite still being readily available for purchase in pet shops and homes across the island. Other commonly traded birds include the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), known for its beautiful duets with other birds, was recently classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). And more than half of the eleven leafbird species (Chloropseidae), which have beautiful plumage and are excellent mimics are now classified as Threatened or Near Threatened by the IUCN.

Straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) by NatureAtYourBackyard (CC BY 2.0)

Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis) by Francesco Veronesi (cc-by-sa-2.0)

What can we do?

Captive breeding is a possible solution, and the IUCN Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group are currently discussing establishing a captive population of Javan pied starlings for conservation and safe release into the wild; but there are serious risks that the existing captive population contains mutant plumages and birds hybridised with other species.

Even if viable captive populations can be created, the problem is compounded by habitat loss. Some of these birds do not have viable habitats to return to thanks to the loss of Indonesia’s forests and increased use of pesticides in industrialised farming.

Indonesia continues to update its lists of protected bird species, but wild-caught birds from across the country are still sold openly in markets. If Indonesia’s songbirds are to survive, a multipronged approach is needed such as creating and enforcing protections; changing public attitudes towards the sale of endangered wild-caught birds; captive breeding; and protecting and restoring habitat.

Many of Elephant Family’s projects focus on reconnecting fragmented habitat and enabling coexistence between humans and wildlife across Asia. While elephants may be at the centre of our projects, preserving their range means protecting the habitats of thousands of other species including songbirds. Other organisations working to directly tackle the songbird trade include Birdlife International, with whom we have collaborated in the past, and TRAFFIC.

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