- Little is known about the silvery pigeon, a critically endangered bird endemic to western Indonesia and Malaysia that may number anywhere between 50 and 1,000 individuals.
- Yet despite being rare and a protected species, the silvery pigeon continues to be offered for sale online in the international pet trade.
- Researchers say there needs to be swift conservation action to prevent the currently low-level trade from growing out of control.
A recent study, published in the journal Nature Conservation, warns that a snapshot review of social media trade in the critically endangered silvery pigeon (Columba argentina) is a cause for concern for this enigmatic species.
Simon Bruslund, curator of ornithology at Germany’s Rostock Zoo, worked with a team including the nonprofit Monitor Conservation Research Society to trawl Facebook groups and posts between October and December 2021. They identified at least 10 silvery pigeons for sale from three sellers in Indonesia, with interest from abroad in South Korea and Qatar.
Believed to be extinct in the wild by scientists for several decades, pictures of the silvery pigeon were snapped back in 2008, proving that it was holding on. The species’ known range is limited to islands in western Indonesia and Malaysia, and significant knowledge gaps persist about its basic ecology.
According to the IUCN Red List, there are only around 50 silvery pigeons left in the wild. Recent surveys, however, indicate this figure is likely an underestimate. Bruslund said that according to “best estimates,” there are up to 1,000 silvery pigeons remaining in the wild.
Similarities between the silvery pigeon and the pied imperial pigeon (Ducula bicolor), which shares some of its range, are among the causes stated for past low estimates during monitoring surveys. Such misidentifications were noted in the online trade as well. For example, silvery pigeons were in some cases identified along with other species as generic “forest birds,” indicating it was not specifically acquired and may have been caught as bycatch, Bruslund said.
The silvery pigeon is legally protected in both Malaysia and Indonesia. In the latter, possessing or trapping the bird can result in a fine or prison sentence.
Even though silvery pigeon numbers may be higher than previously thought, poaching remains a threat, according to Muhammad Iqbal, of the biology program at Indonesia’s Sriwijaya University. Based on his experience on Indonesia’s Simeulue Island, he said hunting is “not massive” and mostly “incidental.” Local people take chicks from nests, but they are often unaware that the pigeon is both protected and endangered. Tom Amey, director of social and environment programs at the EcosystemImpact Foundation, which is based on Simeulue, agreed, saying the silvery pigeon is sometimes caught alongside the more widely dispersed pied imperial pigeon.
Based on experiences with the trafficking of songbirds from Southeast Asia noted by the Silent Forest initiative, Bruslund said he’s concerned that what currently appears to be a small-scale trade popping up online may be early signs of a wider problem: “We see trends starting sometimes out of the blue, we see suddenly that there’s a new interest in a new species that appears in the trade. And it just takes off.”
Bruslund called on Indonesian authorities to list the silvery pigeon on Appendix III of CITES, the global convention on wildlife trade, to head off any potential surge in demand, with a view to uplisting it to Appendix I, which would prohibit its international trade entirely. The similar-looking pied imperial pigeon, he added, should be listed on Appendix II to avoid misidentification and prevent attempts to circumvent regulations. Such actions would also prompt information gathering on any current ongoing trade. Raising awareness among officials, law enforcement and locals is another important strategy to protect the vulnerable species.
“If we let local people [know] this species is threatened and protected,” Iqbal said, “I believe they will not try to collect this species in the wild again.”
Banner image: The silvery pigeon is one of the most threatened pigeon species in the world. As a seed disperser, this species helps contribute to the overall biodiversity of the small islands it inhabits, according to researcher Simon Bruslund. Image by James Eaton/Birdtour Asia.
Bruslund, S., Leupen, B., Shepherd, C. R., & Nelson, S. S. (2022). Online trade as a serious additional threat to the critically endangered silvery pigeon Columba argentina in Indonesia. Nature Conservation, 46, 41-48. doi:10.3897/natureconservation.46.80064