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In eastern Indonesia, a bird-trafficking hotspot flies under the radar

A sulphur-crested cockatoo with a raised yellow crest. Image by Travel Stock Photos/Flickr.

  • Indonesia, one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth, is a major hub of the illegal bird trade. Demand comes from both inside and outside its borders.
  • Aru, a remote archipelago near the giant island of New Guinea, is a major supplier of cockatoos and other exotic birds.
  • The relevant government agency is too understaffed to keep up with traffickers, officials say.

MARAFENFEN/LORANG, Indonesia — Benedictus has to go out just after dark to check his traps. If he goes any earlier, the palm cockatoos will still be awake and hear him coming.

The 42-year-old farmer and hunter is inspecting his traps in Marafenfen village, southern Aru, a flat archipelago the size of Puerto Rico at Indonesia’s easternmost point before the island of New Guinea. He knows national law protects his quarry, a large black cockatoo with a red face and tall crest. Getting caught trading, keeping or killing one can result in up to five years’ jail time and a 100 million rupiah ($6,900) fine.

His traps are empty tonight. He walks by one that he forgot to check, and sees it swaying back and forth. “Damn it! It was just there but flew away!”

Benedictus says he only hunts when he receives an order for a bird, but Stefan, a hunter in central Aru, says he kills and sells birds whenever he needs the money. (Some of the names in this story have been changed.) His village, Lorang, is known for its abundance of famously flashy greater birds-of-paradise (Paradisaea apoda), also a protected species.

“They dance in the branches above us, then find a bride and mate with them. That’s when we shoot them with an air gun,” says Stefan, 31. He adds he rarely hunts, and uses the money to pay for his children’s ever-increasing school fees.

Benedictus demonstrates his trap in the forests of Aru. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Aru’s geological history puts it closer to Australia and New Guinea than the rest of Southeast Asia in terms of the endemic wildlife. It’s the only place outside of New Guinea where greater birds-of-paradise and some types of cockatoo roam wild, making it a busy but unexamined hotspot in Indonesia’s bird trade, much of it illegal.

“There are a lot of kinds of birds from Aru that get to the markets in Java,” says Giyanto of the Wildlife Conservation Society, referring to Indonesia’s most populous island, where birdkeeping is a favorite pastime. “Aru is important, but difficult to reach.”

The Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia. Image by M.Minderhoud/Wikimedia Commons.

Enforcement problems

In just the past few months, several cases have shown just how important the far-flung islands of Aru are to the bird markets in Java.

In August, police in Ambon, the nearest city to Aru, intercepted a shipment of 28 dead and stuffed greater birds-of-paradise. In October, police in Jember, East Java, confiscated five palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) and 73 Eleonora cockatoos, a subspecies of the critically endangered sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) that is found only in Aru. Later that month, nine sulphur-crested cockatoo chicks — valued at much higher prices — were confiscated on a ship from Ambon headed for Java, according to the Indonesian Parrot Project.

The Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), a government body, is tasked with investigating the wildlife trade, but when it comes to birds, it’s severely understaffed. Across the provinces of Maluku, where Aru is located, and North Maluku, there are 29 conservation areas but only 39 officers assigned to them.

“Every year we ask for more officers, but we don’t know why we don’t get any,” Seto Purwanto, an officer with the agency, says from Ambon, the capital of Maluku. Since the beginning of the year, they’ve rescued more than a thousand live birds from the trade, but traders are adapting, and finding the trafficked birds is getting more difficult.

“Birds used to be put in cardboard boxes, then they started using Thermos flasks,” Purwanto said. “After that, fabric bags, and they were found out [so] they started using water bottles [to transport live birds].”

In 2015, 23 yellow-crested cockatoos and a green parrot were found stuffed in plastic water bottles in a passenger’s luggage at Surabaya Port on the island of Java. Image by Petrus Riski for Mongabay.

The agency inspects every ship that docks in Ambon’s port. Inspectors like Purwanto suspect birds are hidden deep below deck or in other places the agency is restricted from accessing.

Purwanto laughs at the mention of the maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to 100 million rupiah for trafficking in protected species. He says he’s never heard of a court imposing a fine greater than 10 million rupiah ($690) or a sentence of more than 18 months. The punishment isn’t commensurate with the crime, he says.

“This old law definitely should be revised. It has to have a minimum fine or a minimum jail sentence,” Purwanto says.

When the law was first passed, in 1990, that maximum prescribed fine actually packed a punch. Back then, 100 million rupiah was equivalent to $57,000. But the Indonesian rupiah took a battering in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, and today that same sum is worth less than $7,000. With September’s sudden repeal of protections for three bird species, and two more in October, it’s not just enforcement but the expansion of legal protections that seems precarious.

Whenever the BKSDA seizes live birds, it works with nonprofits like the Indonesian Parrot Project and Burung Indonesia, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, to release them back into the wild. It takes time and manpower to find homes and care for them in the meantime. The agency’s office in Ambon has been looking after about 50 birds for the past two months.

A palm cockatoo. Image by Jim Bendon/Flickr.

At the source

In Dobo, the main town in Aru, there’s only one officer to inspect boats and coordinate with law enforcement agencies like the police to stem the illegal bird trade. BKSDA officer Timo Elawarin says he can’t inspect the boats alone, which means birds continue to be brought through the port at Dobo. Aru villagers say they’ve never been afraid of being caught at the port with bags of birds, even though they have to pass the police station to get into town.

Elawarin says he faces other major obstacles to his work.

“The first is that the local people sell these birds for their own needs like [buying] rice, for example,” he says. “I mean, we’re also human with feelings, we have to empathize with them.”

In Lorang, Stefan says he could trap cockatoos every day if he wanted to. As farms expand onto new land, the birds find that residents’ planted corn can be a substitute for their usual meals. As in Marafenfen, residents in Lorang typically hunt and gather food in the forest and use money only to pay for imported goods. Profits from the bird trade can help cover costs associated with rising living standards in the village, including schooling and gasoline.

Hunters in Aru sell live palm cockatoos for up to 700,000 rupiah ($48) each, and dead greater birds-of-paradise for 250,000 rupiah ($17). Yet in markets around Indonesia, palm cockatoos can fetch prices of 4 million rupiah ($280) while the more flamboyant and stuffed birds-of-paradise can command 10 million rupiah ($690). The most commonly seized bird from Aru is the sulphur-crested cockatoo; trappers sell live ones for 300,000 rupiah ($21).

Eclectus parrots (Eclectus roratus), the critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), and the yellowish-streaked lory (Chalcopsitta scintillata) — the latter was recently added to the protected list — are also caught. Sellers can get up to 400,000 rupiah ($28) for live adults when sold in Dobo.

A bag conceals a palm cockatoo on a boat traveling from Trangan Island to Dobo. Image by Ian Morse for Mongabay.

Elawarin says another problem is Aru’s naval base, whose soldiers buy and sell birds from Aru. In the archipelago’s southern Trangan Island, where Benedictus lives, residents say Navy soldiers are the only patrons of the bird trade.

“They used to request hundreds and fly them out from their airstrip, probably to Java. There used to be hundreds of cages loaded into the planes,” Benedictus says. “But now there’s the ban and they’re told they can only bring home at most two per person.” Residents of Popjetur, a nearby village, say they still receive orders from soldiers regularly. Palm cockatoos are the only species requested there, yet BKSDA officers almost never seize palm cockatoos.

Purwanto says the soldiers come and go in frequent deployments, mostly from Java, and take birds from Aru back as souvenirs or to sell. He says the BKSDA has even caught employees of the Ministry of Health taking birds back as souvenirs. On Nov. 26, members of 30 organizations, including the Army, Navy, state oil company Pertamina, and Indonesia’s postal service, signed a declaration to commit to fighting the illegal wildlife and plant trade.

“Now they can tell their own workers not to do this,” Purwanto says. “It’s enforcement from the top down within each organization.”

Hotspot in isolation

In the songbird trade, it’s often said that Indonesia’s transmigration program, which resettled millions of people from Java to other islands, spread the Javanese birdkeeping tradition across the country. But when it comes to the trade in exotic birds, Aru has been a hub since European explorers arrived in search of visually striking treasures, like the bright plumes of greater birds-of-paradise.

In one of the only books on Aru, Memory of Trade: Modernity’s Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island, anthropologist Patricia Spyer writes that the birds-of-paradise feathers for which Aru was renowned made it not only to Europe but also Persia and Turkey as exotic headdresses.

A greater bird-of-paradise. Image by Nik Borrow/Flickr.

Yet advocacy groups like the Indonesian Parrot Project, and even the BKSDA, the government’s conservation agency, have difficulty finding information on the bird trade in Aru. There’s a dearth of academic research on Aru in general, much less on the bird trade. Most of the data on the bird trade in Indonesia focuses on the more accessible regions in the west of the country.

“We try to address Aru by investigating the paths of trade that go through Ambon, Makassar and Java,” says Giyanto of WCS. But the BKSDA has found that merchant ships deliberately visit some ports multiple times to confuse officers.

While Purwanto’s team works to enforce existing national legislation on animal and plant trade, they believe local regulations, if they existed, would be better enforced and could address local practices. For example, headdresses with feathers from the greater bird-of-paradise are commonly used for traditional events in Aru, and local regulations could be drafted that would allow for the catching of the birds solely for this purpose.

“Maybe the best way would be to have regulations at the district level,” says Mohamad Djumpa, secretary of the Aru Islands district administration. “We only have the broader environmental laws at the national level [now]. A [local] regulation could bind the community together, so we can enforce the law and spread information about it, too.”

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