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Group helps illegal bird traders transition into different lines of business

One of the major goals of protected areas is to conserve biodiversity. Photo of knobbed hornbill by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Instead of focusing on putting bird poachers and illegal traders behind bars, an NGO in Indonesian Borneo is creating incentives for them to stop.
  • It’s a unique approach in the Southeast Asian country, where conservation efforts have tended to focus on calls for tighter law enforcement and more rigorous punishment.
  • The group, Planet Indonesia, has identified more than 100 small bird shops in and around Pontianak, the biggest city in western Borneo, and says many of them are pondering changing professions. It’s know-how and capital that’s holding them back.

MOUNT NIUT, Indonesia — Catching tropical birds in the wild is relatively easy: you put glue on the branches of trees they inhabit. Some species can be lured closer with bird songs played back from a phone. Later, you peel off the birds whose wings or feet got stuck — an arduous procedure that leaves many of them injured, if not dead. Larger-scale operations use nets to catch many birds at once.

Poachers in the few remaining forest ecosystems across Indonesia tend to catch indiscriminately, trapping everything they can get, from pangolins to hornbills, say wildlife trade experts. But lately, catching songbirds has become increasingly attractive because hobby birdkeepers are willing to pay handsomely for them.

“The market is getting hot,” says Oktavianus Marko, a farmer from the slopes of Mount Niut in West Kalimantan province, one of the many remote forests in Indonesia that feed the growing demand for songbirds, especially on the island of Java, where songbird keeping is a tradition. Champion birds that win songbird competitions can cost as much as a car or house.

Mount Niut

Marko was once a trapper himself, but when he realized that some of the birds that were plentiful just a few years ago were starting to disappear, he decided to stop. It’s difficult to convince his friends to do the same, he told Mongabay. When other opportunities are lacking, poaching, or allowing other hunters to enter the forest in exchange for money, can be the only option they have left.

Economic pressure and a lack of education are often the root causes of environmental loss. The global conservation community regularly encounters this pattern when studying factors that lead people to poach. Population growth has put humans and wildlife in competition for resources and space, and if a community sees no benefit in participating in conservation programs, or worse yet, is actually disadvantaged by them, these efforts are likely to fail.

A growing understanding of these dynamics has led to a shift in mindset away from the so-called “fines and fences” approach that favors tightly guarded national parks and reserves, to more participatory programs based on community buy-in. The evaluation of some these programs suggest that they can produce long-lasting conservation successes.

Planet Indonesia, an NGO that works in the Mount Niut area, is putting the participatory conservation principle to the test. Instead of focusing on putting poachers and traders behind bars, the group is creating incentives for them to stop — a unique approach in Indonesia, where conservation efforts have tended to focus on calls for tighter law enforcement and more rigorous punishment.

Parts of Mount Niut are a nature reserve, which gives it a higher protection status than national parks in Indonesia. In theory, even entering the forest requires a permit, but local inhabitants, some of them ethnic Dayak who have lived off the forest for generations, find it hard to adjust to the rules.

Conservation programs like Planet Indonesia’s, which are more prevalent in Africa and India, have to be incredibly diverse and tackle the problem of environmental loss from a number of angles, finding ways to engage with and steer away trappers and traders from environmentally harmful activities.

Around Mount Niut, Planet Indonesia has a program that helps farmers like those in Marko’s village become more productive and profitable, for example by using homemade fertilizer and linking them up with new buyers for their crops. Healthier produce can be sold for more money, reducing the incentive to hunt animals in the forest.

The NGO is also upgrading the way forest patrols are done. Official patrols in the nature reserve are rare. “There are only two units for an area of thousands of hectares,” Rodiansyah, who leads Planet Indonesia’s wildlife protection unit, told Mongabay.

By involving the local residents in the patrols, larger areas can be covered, and there’s more transparency and trust in the process because the NGO has also introduced a standardized monitoring and reporting tool to archive what’s seen on each patrol. Community members who participate in the patrols are compensated for this work, a further incentive for them to disengage from poaching activities. Rodiansyah says they’ve seen the number of traps and nets go down since introducing the method.

A forest patrol. Image courtesy of Planet Indonesia.

One step further along the supply chain, Planet Indonesia works with traders and bird shop keepers in the area, hoping to help some of them transition into different lines of business.

Unlike pangolin scales or hornbill beaks, which are trafficked across borders into Hong Kong, China and Taiwan on black market routes, much of the songbird trade happens out in the open. Many types of birds can be freely bought in shops and markets.

Some of the birds most popular with hobbyists, like the white-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus) and the pied myna (Gracupica contra), are not recognized by Indonesia as protected species, despite a broad scientific consensus that their wild populations are in dangerous decline.

Planet Indonesia has identified more than 100 small bird shops in and around Pontianak, the closest major city to the Niut reserve.

Roughly 20 shopkeepers have been pondering changing professions, because they realize that selling birds, along with cages, crickets and dry food, isn’t such a great business anyway. Running a coffee shop or small convenience store would be more lucrative. What’s been holding them back is know-how and capital, says Juhar Diansyah, who manages the NGO’s division that assists bird shop keepers in their transition.

One trader Mongabay interviewed in Pontianak said he principally agrees with efforts to protect endangered birds. And because it’s sometimes unclear to traders which birds are protected under Indonesian law and which aren’t, he fears he might unknowingly engage in illegal activities.

Fifty-year-old Suparmin is a passionate birdkeeper who left his Javanese hometown to become a logger in West Kalimantan more than 30 years ago. He thinks he helped kick-start the songbird-keeping hobby in Pontianak, because he was one of the first to organize birdsong competitions there.

Like Marko, Suparmin was once involved in the bird trade, but it dawned on him that things went too far when he saw large-scale traffickers shuttle birds off to faraway markets by the thousands. Many of the creatures don’t survive the journey.

Suparmin. Image by Nadine Freischlad for Mongabay.

Suparmin started assisting Planet Indonesia by gathering information and educating hobbyists and traders about the dangers of uncontrolled poaching. Before long, local law enforcement arrested a trader in Pontianak who was known to sell black-winged mynas (Acridotheres melanopterus), a critically endangered species that is on the government’s protected list.

Some conservationists, like Marison Guciano from Flight, an NGO that monitors the bird trade, think stricter law enforcement is the best way to discourage people from trafficking birds. Marison has spent time embedded with trappers and knows how they work. He says birds captured in raids often have nowhere to go. The local authorities are ill-equipped to care for birds in the long term, especially if they are sick or injured. In Marison’s view, it’s better to release birds once they’ve been seized, rather than leaving them to suffer in captivity.

Planet Indonesia isn’t opposed to law enforcement, but sees it as only one of many mechanisms to effectively combat the problem. The NGO places for emphasis on the need for rehabilitation and a long-term plan for eventual reintroduction to the wild.

“If you release them without proper protection, they’ll just get captured again,” says Adam Miller, Planet Indonesia’s co-founder. “It feeds the cycle.”

Tackling all points in the chain, from community supported monitoring and law enforcement, to education and income alternatives, has one goal: As many birds as possible are meant to be left where they are, the supply stopped at the source.

Banner: A knobbed hornbill. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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