- As Indonesia cracks down on the illegal wildlife trade, it is struggling to deal with the influx of animals confiscated from traffickers.
- Birds are among the most trafficked creatures. Due to a lack of rehabilitation centers, where they would slowly be prepared for life in the wild, many birds are released prematurely.
- That seems to have been the case with a group of cockatoos that were handed into the state after the infamous “water bottle bust” of 2015, in which a smuggler was caught with 23 yellow-crested cockatoos stuffed into plastic water bottles in his luggage.
JAKARTA — In May 2015, a wildlife smuggler was arrested at an Indonesian port. He had attempted to transport nearly two dozen yellow-crested cockatoos, stuffed in plastic water bottles, aboard a passenger ship.
The rare birds in their tiny confinements looked barely alive; their feathers were dirty and sticky. They were likely on their way to local markets or international trade networks, to be sold as pets.
This particular bust drew a lot of attention because it expressed the cruelty of animal trafficking in one striking image. It gave rise to a viral campaign that saw dozens of Indonesians turn in their pet cockatoos to the government. Some of the birds had been kept as pets for decades.
In Indonesia, it is illegal to keep, kill or sell a yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) that has been caught in the wild. And yet, the bird, along with a host of other protected species, is widely trafficked in the country, one of the most biodiverse on Earth.
The outcry over the bottled cockatoos provided some grist for reform. Later that same year, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry spun out its own law enforcement department to increase oversight of the wildlife trade. The ministry also called for the revision of the nation’s law on conservation, which lays out penalties for traffickers. But as the number of cockatoos turned in by their owners climbed into the triple digits, it became glaringly obvious that the influx of birds was not matched by the quality of facilities available to take them in.
Of the 23 cockatoos seized in the “water bottle bust,” only five are likely still alive, according to Inge Tielen, the conservation manager at the privately funded Cikananga Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates confiscated animals on the island of Java. “They are now in a zoo, probably for [the rest of] their lives,” she told Mongabay. Cikananga didn’t receive any of the cockatoos from the bust, although it has gotten cockatoos from other cases.
The birds surrendered by their owners didn’t fare much better. Around 200 cockatoos were handed in across the country, according to Dudi Nandika of the Indonesian Parrot Project, an NGO. “The Environment and Forestry Ministry pushed the campaign,” he says. The ministry set up a hotline and drop-off posts for the cockatoos, with the minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, announcing they would later be “released into their natural habitats.” Dudi says it was well-intentioned: The government wanted to remind the public that cockatoos are protected and send a clear message that buying and trading wild-caught ones is illegal.
The birds were initially put into the care of zoos and safari parks. Forty-two were eventually released back into the wild, but prematurely, without all the right rehabilitation and medical tests, according to Dudi, who was involved in coordinating efforts to get the birds released.
Tony Sumampau, the director of animal theme park operator Taman Safari Indonesia, remembers receiving 28 cockatoos from that group. Only eight were fit enough to be considered for release. Ideally, he says, they would have been transferred to a rehabilitation center near their natural habitat, where they would have slowly been prepared for life in the wild. But hardly any of these facilities exist in eastern Indonesia, and so the birds were let go without undergoing this process.
Adam Miller, co-founder of Planet Indonesia, a nonprofit that works on bird conservation, was part of a group that visited Taman Safari in the wake of the bust. Many of the birds had been “fed fried rice for years, or had been tied to perches and couldn’t really fly anymore,” he says. The visitors recommended that the cockatoos undergo a complete health assessment with disease testing, and advised that many of them needed intensive rehabilitation.
Overall, Miller says, “many of the birds that were severely feather plucked and couldn’t fly were released back into the wild. I don’t know how they ended up. I’m sure they didn’t survive.”
The yellow-crested cockatoo is a popular pet. The species is smaller than the more common sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), making it easier to handle, and it sports cute round marks on its cheeks that matches the color of its crest. Like other parrots, it can learn to dance and imitate human speech.
The bird’s popularity has created a market for traffickers. The yellow-crested cockatoo has been poached to such a degree that no more than 2,500 individuals likely remain in the wild, according to BirdLife International. The NGO estimates that 12,000 parrots, including cockatoos, are trapped each year in Indonesia to fuel the illegal wildlife trade.
When law enforcers intercept smuggling attempts, the birds get a second chance at life in their natural habitat — if they can be rehabilitated and released. It’s easier said than done. Due to the scarcity of rescue and rehabilitation centers like Cikananga, there is often no other solution but to place the confiscated animals in private homes, or simply leave them at the site where they were found, until arrangements can be made to bring them to a facility that can provide appropriate care. Some animals don’t live long enough for that to happen.
At the moment, Cikananga is receiving more and more birds from confiscations, says Tielen, the manager there. It currently houses 26 cockatoos, of five different species; most of them came in after a 2017 bust. When birds like this arrive, they are often in poor condition after arduous trips and being moved from one place to another.
“The birds arrived in the middle of the night and we did an initial check,” Tielen says of the cockatoos taken in in 2017. “We grouped them by species. We identified five cockatoos that needed critical care. They were thin, stressed, one lost an eye. Animals who have been through stress, oftentimes when they settle down, that’s when the diseases come up. We lost 10 individuals in the first week.”
Later, the cockatoos were grouped according to their health and behavior. Some had their feathers clipped and couldn’t fly, but could potentially relearn this. Others will most likely stay in captivity for the rest of their lives.
In recent years, Cikananga has also received four cockatoos from private citizens. After the campaign to get Indonesians to turn in their yellow-crested cockatoos, and, more recently, when the government added hundreds of animals, mostly birds, to its list of protected species, more owners are becoming concerned and are looking for a more adequate environment for their pets.
But such birds don’t mix well with ones that still exhibit wild behavior. Tielen says the center built an aviary deliberately close to where people sit and chat, so that these cockatoos get human attention.
“Cockatoos are smart, and they develop stereotypic behavior that they learn from their environment,” she says. “Some are so used to people that they need them around to be mentally healthy.”
Not too fast
Some of the cockatoos at Cikananga have improved to the point where they’re fit for release, but following through is more complicated than it sounds.
Cockatoos mostly live in eastern Indonesia, on the islands of Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua. To feed the wildlife trade, they are typically smuggled by boat to Surabaya, a major city in eastern Java. From there they are distributed to markets and traders around the island, where demand for songbirds is most concentrated. This makes ports in eastern Java, and other nodes of the trade in Java in general, the place where busts are most likely to occur.
Each cockatoo must then be transported back to where it’s originally from, and it will need a lot of care before it can be let go.
If a rehabilitation and release program is executed properly, even cockatoos that are healthy and capable of surviving in the wild aren’t necessarily instantly released. Quick release might make for good headlines, but it can damage wild populations if it isn’t timed right. The animals might introduce diseases, or get into conflict with the existing wild population. It depends on whether the area they’re from is suitable. Is the habitat large enough for them? Is it safe, or is it likely they’ll just be caught again? These are all questions that must be taken into consideration, says Dwi Agustina of the Indonesian Parrot Project.
“That’s why the [government] tends to go for quick release,” Dwi says. “The food and medical tests are expensive.”
Things are only now starting to improve. A rehabilitation center on the island of Seram in South Maluku, where the Indonesian Parrot Project has its oldest and most developed facility, has been renovated with the help of private donors. A new rehabilitation center in North Maluku is being built on the local government’s initiative.
“We have, in the last three years, put the pieces together. We have identified the key partners that need to work together to organize this,” says Jess Lee, the director of conservation at Singapore’s Jurong Bird Pak and an initiator of the Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Specialists Group.
Until recently, Lee says, these centers relied heavily on private funding, but the Indonesian government is beginning to assume a greater role in developing and operating them.
“We’re working with all the government agencies now to create a protocol and standardize procedures,” Lee says. “We ran a four-day training workshop [for officials] recently. We are still in the early stages.”
More capacity at all points of the network of rescue and rehabilitation is badly needed. Just last month, investigators arrested a woman suspected to be involved in the illegal parrot trade. This wasn’t a small-scale smuggler who had packed live birds into water bottles hidden in her luggage. In this case, more than 400 animals, many of them cockatoos and other parrots, were found on the premises of a registered breeding facility. But the facility’s breeding licenses had long expired, and a police officer who worked on the case told Mongabay that most of the animals found there were wild-caught.
“Four hundred birds — there were just too many,” Dwi says. It was the biggest bust involving parrots in Indonesia to date. Because of the sheer volume of animals, the decision was made to keep them on the site and bring in experts to assess their health. Now, some have been placed under the care of the government conservation agency, others are handled by NGOs like the Indonesia Parrot Project, and some have been released. But with hundreds of individuals, the process from getting them through the initial medical treatment, rehabilitation up until eventual release can take years.
Even in Seram, the island in the east of the country where the Indonesian Parrot Project runs its most advanced rehabilitation center, Dwi says, not a single bird has fully adapted to life in the wilderness. “The ones we released keep coming back to look for food,” she says. In some cases, “slow release” can mean providing shelter and additional food on site for the birds indefinitely.
Nadine Freischlad is a Jakarta-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @texastee
Banner: A yellow-crested cockatoo. Image by Sham Edmond/Flickr.
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