Conservation news

Indonesia gives in to bird traders, rescinds protection for 3 species

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has dropped three popular songbirds from a new list of protected species, amid pressure from owners and breeders.

The white-rumped shama (Kittacincla malabarica), the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla) and the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) — the latter two of which are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List — will no longer be protected from captive breeding and trading by private owners.

The three were among 562 bird species named in a sweeping update of the government’s list of protected species, out of a total of 919 species. The announcement in June of the update, the first in nearly two decades, was met with protests by songbird owners and breeders. They argued that the ban on buying and selling commonly traded songbirds lacked scientific and cultural bases. They also said several species included in the update were currently bred on a large scale, and were far from endangered.

Representatives from 11 songbird groups met with officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry behind closed doors on Sept. 5, during which the ministry agreed to drop the three species from the list.

“Our hope is that through conservation efforts that have been done by the groups, the birds will be safe in the wild and in captive breeding,” Indra Eksploitasia, the ministry’s director of biodiversity conservation, said in a statement after the meeting. She added the decision was currently being reviewed by the Ministry of Law.

Indra Eksploitasia, director of biodiversity conservation at Indonesia’s environment ministry, announces the removal of three bird species in a closed meeting with songbird owners and breeders. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

The Indonesian Songbird Fan Club (FKMI), a coalition of owners’ groups, said that designating the three popular species as protected could put captive-breeding facilities for songbirds out of business. It warned of loss of livelihoods for those employed in the songbird trade, and cited the high cost already invested by breeders for licenses and facilities.

President Joko Widodo, himself a noted songbird collector and fan, said in March that birdkeeping contributed an estimated 1.7 trillion rupiah ($114 million) to the economy.

Indra said in the Sept. 5 statement that the removal of the three species from the protected list was based on a socioeconomic impact study carried out by the ministry.

Bagiya Rakhmadi, a representative of the Indonesian Bird Association (PBI), an owners’ group, welcomed the move, saying the ministry needed to consider social, economic and cultural impacts from adding certain bird species to the protected list. He also called on the government to provide incentives for breeders contributing to ex-situ conservation of protected species.

An existing regulation already ensures minimal impact to registered breeding facilities. It allows them to catch a protected species in the wild for captive-breeding purposes and to sell the offspring, which, crucially, are not designated as protected. For their part, the facilities must release 10 percent of their captive-born stock back into the wild as part of ex-situ conservation efforts, i.e. outside the species’ native habitat.

The songbird owners and breeders say they will push for more species to be removed from the protected list. Image courtesy of Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Birdkeeping is a popular pastime in Indonesia, particularly among the Javanese, in large part because it signifies status and is thought to promote peace of mind. Songbirds are also prized for use in contests, which have spawned thriving networks of clubs, online forums and blogs.

The hobby has grown popular beyond Java, thanks largely to the government’s transmigration program that relocated residents of the densely populated island to other parts of the country. That allowed Javanese customs like birdkeeping to take root in those regions.

But Indonesia is also home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group.

A straw-headed bulbul is spotted at a bird park in western Java, Indonesia. Image by Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons.

Having successfully pressured the government to cede to its demands, the FKMI says it will propose the removal of other protected bird species from the list.

Scientists and conservationists have slammed the ministry’s move. The state-funded Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) issued a letter recommending that the white-rumped shama, Javan pied starling and straw-headed bulbul be reinstated to the protected list to ensure their wild populations don’t die out.

“We advise protecting these species, based on our scientific research that reflects the population of the species in the wild,” Amir Hamidy, a LIPI scientist who helped draft the new list, told Mongabay.

He also said the three species met the criteria for protected species: they are native species with limited range, their population in the wild is small, and their population trends are decreasing.

The IUCN lists the white-rumped shama as being of least concern, the straw-headed bulbul as endangered, and the Javan pied starling as critically endangered, or a step away from being extinct in the wild.

The straw-headed bulbul has most likely vanished from Java, but small pockets remain in Sumatra, where there has been only one recent reported sighting since 2009, according to TRAFFIC. Populations in Indonesian Borneo have also greatly declined. The bulbul is one of the 28 priority species identified as being most threatened by trade in the Conservation Strategy for Southeast Asian Songbirds in Trade.

Sofi Mardiah, a wildlife policy program manager at Wildlife Conservation Society-Indonesia, said she was “heartbroken” by the environment ministry’s decision to remove the three species from the protected list.

“The update was meant to protect the species’ population from going extinct in the wild, so that the wild population can recover and be sustainable not just for two or three years, but longer,” she said.

A rendering of the critically endangered Javan pied starling at the bottom. Image courtesy of Joseph Smit/Wikimedia Commons.

The real issue, conservationists say, is that many captive breeders have not properly registered themselves or the birds they breed. This makes it increasingly likely that the birds they purport to have bred were actually captured in the wild and laundered through the facilities.

Collectors prefer wild-caught birds, which they believe have superior song quality over captive bred ones, according to TRAFFIC. The premium they’re willing to pay gives traders plenty of incentive to stock wild-caught birds rather than go to the trouble to breed birds from the same species.

Anyone convicted of catching protected species in the wild faces up to five years in prison and fines of 100 million rupiah ($6,700) under the 1990 Conservation Act.

The revised list is not retroactive, meaning owners of birds and other species newly added to the protected list will be allowed to keep them as long as they register them with the authorities within a grace period.

Instead of removing species from the protected list, LIPI’s Amir said, the environment ministry should revise a 2005 regulation on captive breeding to better accommodate and appraise breeding facilities as part of wider ex-situ conservation efforts.

“We can’t ignore the fact that some of the breeders have successfully conserved these species, which is something that LIPI or the environment ministry might not be able to do,” Amir said. “While the breeders produce thousands of Javan pied starling, for example, has the government successfully protected our forests?

“It all comes back to the consideration between socioeconomic needs and biodiversity conservation,” Amir said. “But it seems to be clear that for the environment ministry, the socioeconomic aspect is more dominant than the scientific aspect.”

Sofi, who was involved in the discussions with the environment ministry about the grace period, said the data collection effort during this period would allow the establishment of a comprehensive, publicly accessible catalogue of bird owners and captive-breeding facilities.

She also said the environment ministry should disclose its socioeconomic research on the three species removed from the list.

“How big is the business value, really? Is it fairly equal for all breeders or just for some? Who will actually benefit?” Sofi said.

But the biggest consequence from the ministry’s decision could be the snowball effect, she said: the likelihood that more species would be struck from the list.

“It’s the birds for now, not yet the reptiles,” she said, noting that reptiles were the second most-traded group of animals in the country.

The white-rumped shama. Image by Koshy Koshy/Flickr.

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