Six songs that could soon go silent across Asia’s forests
Listen to the beautiful songs of birds brought to the brink of extinction by the illegal wildlife trade, and find out how you can help us stop this profound threat to nature and human health
The illegal wild bird trade is a tragedy for both nature and people. Organised poaching networks are emptying Asia’s forests of their songbirds – where they will be transported, often in appalling conditions, to markets across the region. The excessive demand for songbirds – made fashionable through highly popular singing competitions – has brought dozens of species to the edge of extinction. On the island of Java, for example, it is now thought there are more songbirds in cages than in forests.
The markets themselves are another dire cause for concern. As the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us, human health is tightly interlinked with the fate of wild animals trapped and sold in trade markets. The UN Environment Programme estimates that 75% of new and emerging diseases are transmitted by wild animals. SARS and COVID-19 are both thought to have originated from the wildlife trade, and new strains of avian flu are a constant concern.
This is terrible but timely reminder that wildlife trade needs to be brought under strict control, and remain so. We have the science, expertise and local knowledge to do so – but need your help to scale up our work. Below are just a few examples of the songs that could soon disappear from the wild altogether if no action is taken.
The scale of the problem is such that some of the only recordings available were made in captivity – but their beauty, and the tragedy of losing them from Asia’s forests, is indisputable.
1. Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus (Critically Endangered)
If poaching wasn’t enough, this yellow-speckled songbird is also threatened by habitat loss, with the spread of logging roads making it easier for poachers to access their populations. Once prevalent across Southeast Asia, the species has dwindled to an estimated 600 – 1,700 birds confined to small pockets in Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. However, all hope is not lost. Surprisingly, the species is actually thriving in Singapore. Last year, our Partner the Nature Society (Singapore) jumped upon this opportunity to develop a national Action Plan for the species. This collaboration has brought together researchers, government bodies and ordinary citizens to reconnect habitats and lay down the law on illegal trapping.
2. Greater Green Leafbird Chloropsis sonnerati (Endangered)
This impressively-camouflaged songbird became the ultimate fashion victim when in 2012, a Greater Green Leafbird won the highly prestigious President Cup Bird Competition in Indonesia, sparking a huge demand for this species and – once it became scarce in the wild – other leafbirds. Its impressive ability to rapidly learn the songs of other species fuels the heavy demand. The species is currently being trapped at staggering levels across Southeast Asia: research from 2016 found that 5,000 individuals are imported from Sarawak into Kalimantan every month. Our Partners on the ground are currently monitoring and investigating sources, advocating for stricter enforcement of poaching laws, and providing technical support to Indonesian government in developing songbird contest regulations – including only displaying captive-bred birds.
3. Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons (Critically Endangered)
As its name suggests, this species’ song really does resemble a loud chuckle – or, as is reflected in the Indonesian name 'Poksai kuda', the gentle whinnying of a horse. Unfortunately, its cheery call is not reflected in its fate. Another victim of the whims of changing fashion, the songbird’s Red List status rocketed from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered in just six years due to increased popularity, driving its population down to just 250 individuals. Between 2000 and 2012, the imbalance between supply and demand caused the species’ market price to multiply tenfold. When a captive breeding programme was set up in an attempt to save the bird, several individuals were stolen. Since then, it has almost entirely disappeared from trade – but other, similar species such as the Sumatran Laughingthrush Garrulax bicolor (Endangered) are now being targeted instead.
Nevertheless, there’s a glimmer of hope in this tragic tale. Since 2018, our mountain survey project has identified key final strongholds for songbirds in the mountains of Java, so that we know which priority areas to protect.
4. Bali Myna Leucopsar rothschildi (Critically Endangered)
This stunning member of the starling family is the victim of an age-old vicious circle: valuable because it’s rare, and rare because it’s valuable. Found only on the island of Bali in Indonesia, it has perhaps been uncommon for a long time: when it was discovered by ornithologists in the early 1900s, it may already have numbered just a few hundred birds. But this is nothing compared to the devastation wreaked illegal poaching, which by 1990 had brought wild numbers down to just 15 birds. Since then, the Indonesian Government, supported by Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner), has ramped up law enforcement and the surveillance and protection of important habitats. Meanwhile, captive-release programmes across the island are attempting to restore the species to its former range.
5. Javan White-eye Zosterops flavus (Endangered)
This video is of a similar species, Swinhoe's White-eye Zosterops simplex.
Imagine a world where forests are silent, and the only time you hear birdsong is coming from cages like this. For species like the Javan White-eye, there are thought to be more in cages than there are in the wild. But why are birds trapped, rather than bred in captivity? Well, many birds are indeed captive-bred, but poaching is a quick way to make money and fuel the rapid and almost unquenchable public demand. Most species of White-eye are actually quite numerous and popular as a cheap and common pet. However, a demand for novelty has recently caused the coastal mangrove habitat of the Javan White-eye to be plundered for rarer species. To understand this phenomenon, BirdLife recently helped to conduct large-scale interviews with nearly a thousand bird owners across Java, providing a better insight than ever before into people’s behaviours, motivations and potential for change.
This video isn’t actually a Javan White-eye, but instead a Swinhoe's White-eye. Recordings of the Javan White-eye are restricted online, to prevent poachers from recognising the species in wild or using the recordings to lure birds towards traps.
6. Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora (Endangered)
The story of the Java Sparrow is a strange one, in that it is one of the few globally threatened species to have actually expanded its range. The species is naturally native to the islands of Java, Bali, and probably Madura, Indonesia. However, such is its long-standing popularity in the global pet trade that, over more than two centuries, feral populations have been established across Southeast Asia and locations as diverse as Hawaii and Florida. Nevertheless, numbers are crashing in its native habitat. Trapping is even decimating feral populations across wider Indonesia. This is a telling example of humanity’s ability to wildly alter global ecosystems, and a tragically drastic case of more birds existing as pets than they do in their natural wild range.