Asia
27 May 2016

One more in a cage; no more in the wild

Java Sparrow © Tim Ellis/Flickr
By Shaun Hurrell

A new study shows that, without action, soon the only places to see and hear Indonesian bird species will be in cages.

Keeping birds as pets is an integral part of Indonesia’s national culture. From town to village throughout the archipelago, you’re very likely to find caged birds in restaurants, shops and homes. But as with many things, when a trend becomes popular, it can get out of hand. Beneath the sweet sound of a restaurant songbird or the colourful feathers of the family prized-and-caged-possession, a chaotic demand for pets is decimating Indonesian bird populations.

The work showed that 13 bird species found in Sundaic Indonesia are at serious risk of extinction. Surely holding the status of Indonesia’s national bird would render the Javan Hawk-eagle Nisaetus bartelsi immune to wanton over-harvesting? No, even this incredible species is rapidly disappearing.

The study, which is co-authored by BirdLife’s Research Fellow Dr Nigel Collar,  also found that an additional 14 bird subspecies are in danger of extinction.

Besides the Javan Hawk-eagle, the other full species at risk include the Silvery Woodpigeon Columba argentina, Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil, Yellow-crested Cockatoo Cacatua sulphurea, Scarlet-breasted Lorikeet Trichoglossus forsteni, Javan Green Magpie Cissa thalassina, Black-winged Myna Acridotheres melanopterus, Bali Myna Leucopsar rothschildi, Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus, Javan White-eye Zosterops flavus, Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons, Sumatran Laughingthrush Garrulax bicolor and Java Sparrow Padda oryzivora.

Although most of them are kept as pets, the Helmeted Hornbill is an exception:  thousands of these birds are being illegally killed and traded for their unique solid bill casques, carved as a substitute for elephant ivory, to meet demand in China.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

The Javan Green Magpie was recognised as a full species as recently as 2013; it was simultaneously documented as being in grave danger of extinction owing to trade pressure. In direct response, the Threatened Asian Songbird Alliance (TASA), operating as a formal body of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), initiated a programme of captive breeding in a number of zoos, creating assurance colonies for security and propagation purposes.

Such conservation breeding is the last hope for some of the taxa affected. According to the study: “Regrettably five subspecies…are probably already extinct, at least in the wild, due primarily to trade.” They include one subspecies of a parrot (Scarlet-breasted Lorikeet), three subspecies of the accomplished songster White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus and one subspecies of the Hill Myna Gracula religiosa, popular because of its ability to mimic human voices.

“Whether it’s species or subspecies, the message is the same: excessive trade is wiping out Indonesia’s wild bird species at an alarming rate”, said Dr Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Director for Southeast Asia and a co-author of the study. “Despite the alarming scale and consequences of the bird trade, governments and even conservation organisations often don't view this issue as a high priority. This hampers efforts to prevent further losses.”

“Despite the alarming scale and consequences of the bird trade, governments and even conservation organisations often don't view this issue as a high priority. This hampers efforts to prevent further losses.”

The solutions to the bird trade crisis in Indonesia lie in a combination of better law enforcement, public awareness campaigns, in situ management, conservation breeding, conversion of trappers to wardens and field, market and genetic surveys, say the study’s authors. 

Meanwhile as certain favoured species disappear because of trapping, others are targeted as “next-best” substitutes, while commercial breeders sometimes hybridise taxa for “better” effects, leading to further conservation complexities.

The study’s authors also consider whether commercial breeding could help alleviate the situation, but conclude that “while attractive in theory, [commercial breeding] presents difficulties that are probably insurmountable in practice.”

Adapted from TRAFFIC press release.