Late last year, over 30 experts gathered at Jurong Bird Park to identify the most threatened songbirds from the Greater Sunda region at the inaugural Songbird Crisis Summit. Co-organized by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), TRAFFIC and Cikananga Wildlife Center, the Summit attendees have proposed a multi-pronged action plan to save a list of species from extinction due to the illegal trade.
If you do a quick search online for songbird competitions, or scan the dailies and tabloids across countries like Indonesia, you’re likely to come across stories about songbird champions and their proud owners.
Specific species like the white-rumped shama Copsychus malabaricus and oriental magpie-robin Copsychus saularis are captive-bred and painstakingly reared to endure extraordinary levels of stress for songbird competitions. Shamas are also selectively bred to have longer tails, which means that over time their wild counterparts will become lost as a result of selective breeding.
Take the white-rumped shama. A shy, crepuscular bird, the glossy black males with their chestnut bellies and long outer tail sing loud, melodious songs that both bird conservationists and songbird owners believe are among the most beautiful in the Greater Sunda region. “Rich notes and tonal quality” play a big role in how songbirds are chosen and entered into competitions.[i]
And the stakes are high.
In a 2008 article for BirdingAsia, Dr. Paul Jepson noted that the world of kicau-mania can fetch owners up to 250 million Indonesian rupiah (close to S$30,000) for a winning bird. The prize money has undoubtedly risen in the last 7 years.
Keeping caged songbirds is an ancient tradition practiced across Asia, particularly by men. In China, the practice of rearing and keeping a hwa mei (Garrulax canorus) goes back centuries. It is both a gratifying hobby and a virtue (since drinking and womanizing are vices). Ria Saryanthi, Head of the Communication and Knowledge Center at Burung Indonesia explained that in ancient Javanese custom, a perfect man has a house, a wife, a horse, a bird and a kris. While the tradition may have evolved and altered over time, the culture of keeping songbirds has endured and turned into an industry because it is lucrative.
And that is where the trouble lies.
While there are many legitimate captive breeders in Indonesia, there are an alarming number of shops selling wild-caught birds because people think wild birds sing better and are often much easier to catch than breed. Much of that industry plainly flouts national laws protecting 22 species.
In countries like Indonesia, illegal traders and shop owners are spoilt for choice.
The country has the highest number of endemic bird species in the world and the highest number of bird species in Asia. But it also has among the highest number of threatened birds globally (131). Startlingly, only 3 out of 131 threatened species are categorized as “Critically Endangered” on the IUCN Red List (the Javan green magpie Cissa thalassina, the black-winged myna Acridotheres melanopterus and the Bali starling Leucopsar rothschildi). The rest remain vulnerable in a region where the prevailing logic is that spending $2000 on a white-rumped shama or $3200 on a straw-headed bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus would provide a better return on investment than purchasing a new motorbike or an android tablet. In this case, tradition trumps modernity.
The situation has worsened over the years and led experts to sit up and take notice.
“A number of publications came out which showed these birds were in serious trouble because of the trade in Indonesia as a whole. The birdwatching community were noticing a serious decline in the populations of several such species and were raising their voices; even the people working in the songbird trade began noticing a decline. It all came to a head and it really galvanized us in the international conservation community to act,” said Dr. Chris Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC for Southeast Asia.
Until 2011, zoos across Europe like the Zoological Society of London, Chester Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, among others, had been breeding species like the Bali starling, without a clear awareness of the status of the bird on the island of Bali itself. Partnering with BirdLife International Asia, which has an office in Indonesia – Burung Indonesia, the zoos involved in captive breeding programs began to understand how dire the situation was.
“We weren’t sure whether we were basically operating with a bottomless bucket. The birds were just going from breeding programs, straight into the wild and straight into captivity,” said Professor Nigel Collar, Leventis Fellow, BirdLife International.
While zoos attempted to remedy specific problems with respect to individual species, TRAFFIC approached the problem from the other end of the spectrum.
“They were identifying species that are clearly in massive decline as a consequence of the illegal trade, and the scale of it,” added Professor Collar.
The Summit has given key stakeholders the opportunity to look at the full extent of the crisis and design a coherent and comprehensive plan, which marks a new phase of advocacy and collaboration between researchers, non-government organizations (NGOs) and zoological institutions. Jurong Bird Park emerged as one of the leading contender in Asia in this regard.
“Jurong Bird Park will be tackling the Balinese black-winged myna Acridotheres melanopterus tertius. We’re developing the studbook, coordinating international action in terms of managing species in captivity and sustaining a healthy population to release into the wild. But we’ll be playing an important role for establishing populations for other species, including straw-headed bulbuls, Javan green magpies, Sumatran laughingthrush and Javan pied starlings Gracupica contra jalla.” said Dr. Luis Carlos Neves, Deputy-Director of Zoology at Wildlife Reserves Singapore.
Jurong Bird Park has a number of other birds in its collection that are priority species. These include the Java sparrow Lonchura oryzivora, white-rumped shama, oriental white-eye Zosterops palpebrosus, silver-eared mesia Leiothrix argentauris, rufous-fronted laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons, greater green leafbird Chloropsis sonnerati, and Asian fairy-bluebird Irena puella. Some of these birds (like the greater green leafbirds and Asian fairy-bluebirds) are not part of the top 12 priority species, but Dr. Neves stated that they are “second in line”. “TRAFFIC keeps an eye on them in the event we need to assemble a network of ex situ populations,” he clarified.
For its part, Cikananga Conservation and Breeding Center is holding and breeding 4 of the 12 prioritised species. Some of these are only present in Cikananga.
“By keeping a population in captivity, preserving their genetic diversity through managed breeding and implementing reintroduction programs and surveys, Cikananga has a frontline position for the future of some of the species presented at the summit,” said Anaїs Tritto, Curator at Cikananga Conservation & Breeding Center.
Over the course of the three-day summit, experts agreed upon a priority list of 28 songbird species in the Greater Sunda region that are verging on extinction if the illegal trade is left unchecked, and identified 12 species needing immediate action. But in addition to captive breeding programs and further research into the taxonomy and wild populations of the birds, experts agreed that the burgeoning illegal trade had to be stemmed.
That work will not be easy.
In a survey conducted by TRAFFIC last year, over 19,000 birds spanning across 200 species were being sold at Jakarta’s three largest bird markets.
“We need to map out trade routes and identify the networks that are involved in this crime and set priorities for enforcement action. The trade chains need to be disrupted; that’s essential, and for that to happen, we need the collaboration of law enforcement officials. We also need to be working with government partners to ensure that these birds are protected. They are threatened by international trade, so we also need to see CITES becoming an important partner in future efforts,” said Dr. Shepherd.
Fast on the heels of the Summit, Taman Safari convened the Bali Myna International Workshop from 1-4 October at the Bali Safari and Marine Park. The gathering focused on how in situ conservation could work in tandem with existing ex situ captive breeding and release programs that exist both in international zoological institutions, as well as among captive breeders in Indonesia.
Attended by local government authorities, international and local organizations, as well as the IUCN’s interagency coalition Asian Species Action Partnership (ASAP), the workshop attendees sought to review the current situation and establish new strategies for the conservation of the Bali starling.
The workshop took into consideration the fact that owning and breeding songbirds are an integral part of Indonesian culture, with some stakeholders debating the possibility of captive breeding as a management tool for the species. It was suggested that the number of permits for captive breeders could be increased and that the subsequent sale of birds (in addition to the release of birds back into the wild) could be closely monitored.
Ultimately, organisations like Begawan Foundation which have engaged in breeding programs for the Bali myna, want to ensure that released birds remain safe. Lessons on improving release strategies are continually being learned. There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done.
With the global conservation focus on poaching and its impact on African rhinoceros and elephant populations, many of the experts at both events felt that songbirds are woefully neglected in global conservation plans.
“Some like the white-rumped shamas, are strict insectivores, so they control pest populations. Hill mynas go for small vertebrates. Some are omnivores so they eat fruits and are responsible for seed dispersal. They have an important ecological role to play. It’s not just that they look beautiful. So who will spread the seeds and control the populations of pests and play that role when we don’t have these species around? Most of these people are farmers, so without birds the pests will eat the crops,” said Dr. Jessica Lee, WRS Conservation & Research department’s research manager.
In planning for the future, Dr. Sonja Luz, Director for Conservation & Research at WRS, added that education would play a key role in changing cultural attitudes about illegally keeping and selling wild-caught endangered songbirds.
“Environmental education can reach children at a young age and have an impact. If children tell their parents what they’re learning, there is a chance the parents will understand. They can become the next generation of conservation ambassadors, so that they understand birds are here for a reason,” she said.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Think twice before you purchase birds or other animals at markets. Make educated and informed decisions.
- Learn more about biodiversity and the role that birds play in healthy ecosystems by joining a bird watching club or going on eco-tours that allow you to see birds in the wild – where they belong.
- If you see songbirds in cages at hotels or restaurants, give the proprietors your feedback both in person and online. Branding and image counts!