Social media and online marketplaces are known to offer up a variety of wildlife, opening new avenues for traffickers.
A recent survey of online trade shows that a lesser-known Indonesian species, the pink-headed fruit dove, is being openly sold on Facebook and online marketplaces.
Experts say the trade in this and other “inconspicuous” species is fueled in part by rising demand overseas, which stimulates interest in collecting them domestically, where they’ve historically not been kept captive.
They call for existing laws to be enforced locally, and for online platforms to do more to address the presence of wildlife traders on their platforms.
Trade in endangered species online is an increasingly popular avenue for traders and traffickers. A recent review, published in the journal Oryx, highlights a related trend: lesser-known species that have traditionally flown under the radars of both traders and conservationists are appearing online.
Earlier this year, Vincent Nijman, a professor of anthropology with the Oxford Wildlife Trade Research Group at Oxford Brookes University in the U.K., scanned Facebook groups and online platforms for listings of the pink-headed fruit dove (Ptilinopus porphyreus). This “inconspicuous” species has rarely been found in marketplaces in its native Indonesia.
“It took me literally a few hours to find a decent number of them online,” Nijman told Mongabay. “[Y]ou can find many more of them online than what we’ve seen over, let’s say, four or five decades of surveying [physical] markets.”
In total, Nijman found 56 of these birds listed for sale online. Prices started as low as $20 for a single bird. To Nijman, this demonstrates that even species that previously would have garnered little interest in physical markets are now sellable online.
“Because even if it’s very niche, with the internet and with basically online advertising, with good courier services, and with a lack of enforcement … all these things combined means that if you want to sell pink-headed fruit doves, you can do that,” he said. “You can turn it into a business.”
Traditionally, songbirds have attracted the attention of traders and buyers in Southeast Asia. The region is in the grips of a songbird crisis, conservationists say, with birds being captured and sold en masse to such an extent that the wild populations of many species are quickly disappearing.
Birds such as the pink-headed fruit dove don’t fit the usual bill. They’re not known for their song, but the males in particular are visually striking. As such, they’re not entirely “inconspicuous” to potential buyers or collectors, says Simon Bruslund, curator of ornithology at Germany’s Rostock Zoo. In contrast, the zebra dove (Geopelia striata) is regularly traded but also bred in captivity. Demand for this species, Bruslund says, centers around its distinctive call.
The pink-headed fruit dove’s conservation status is listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List. Based on an extensive survey on the Indonesian island of Java, there may soon be a deterioration of that status to near threatened, though the results are still being analyzed. “There hasn’t been much evidence that they are in trouble from a conservation viewpoint, and we didn’t have very much evidence that they weren’t,” said Stuart Marsden, a conservation ecologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, U.K., who led the survey.
A burgeoning interest
Some sellers advertising the pink-headed fruit dove also list a variety of other species, such as the black-naped fruit dove (Ptilinopus melanospilus) and the common emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica), both listed as least concern. Nijman points to other examples: the chestnut-bellied hill partridge (Arborophila javanica), also listed as least concern, and the white-faced hill partridge (Arborophila orientalis), which is considered vulnerable. In another recent study, these two species were documented in both physical markets and online.
This demand for inconspicuous birds is, in part, spurred by a burgeoning interest internationally, according to Joe Wood, co-chair of the IUCN’s Pigeon and Dove Specialist Group and a conservation ecologist at Toledo Zoo in the U.S. “It seems that international demand and the trade around that has stimulated interest in the domestic keeping of pigeon and dove species in places like Asia, where they hadn’t historically been valued at all as captive subjects,” he said.
Concern has arisen, for example, around international interest in the critically endangered silvery pigeon (Columba argentina), endemic to Indonesia and Malaysia. In a study published in February, conservationists warned that this species is also appearing on social media and online marketplaces, potentially serving domestic and international buyers. Wood cites another species, the endangered blue-headed quail dove (Starnoenas cyanocephala), endemic to Cuba, which began appearing in Europe and the Middle East in “quite significant numbers” since around 2016.
A species such as the pink-headed fruit dove may not be of immediate conservation concern. All of the pink-headed fruit doves up for sale, Nijman said, were adults and likely harvested from the wild. In Indonesia, despite not benefiting from protected status, the species doesn’t have a harvest quota, meaning that capturing and selling the bird is illegal. Nijman said that trade should now be considered a threat to a much larger group of birds, not only those listed as endangered. “I could have picked any of the other fruit doves or another obscure bird and written the same story,” he said.
Wood said that while such trade is concerning, other issues, such as hunting for food, habitat loss, and invasive species, remain the dominant threats to pigeon and dove species in general.
If specific species are targeted, however, it could increase pressure significantly and threaten the survival of a species, Bruslund noted. “It could go really quick. We see that in the songbirds. It really turns within a few years; the population goes from least concern to critically endangered when they’re closely monitored,” he said.
To get a handle on this issue, Nijman and others say existing laws must be enforced locally, while online platforms should do more to address the presence of wildlife traders on their platforms.
“The reason why they’re not supportive is because a lot of people think, oh it’s just one bird. Oh, it’s just a bird. Oh, it’s only $20,” Nijman said. “It’s not seen as something that has a kind of dramatic impact on society at large or on the natural resources of the forest. So, it’s not recognized that what we see is symptomatic of a bigger problem.”
Banner image: A pink-headed fruit dove. These birds live in high montane forests on the Indonesian islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. As frugivorous birds, they play an important role in dispersing seeds in their forest habitat. Image by Ben Ponsford via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Nijman, V. (2022). Online trade threatens even inconspicuous wildlife. Oryx, 56(3), 332-333. doi:10.1017/s0030605322000187
Nijman, V. (2022). Analysis of trade in endemic Javan hill partridges over the last quarter of a century period. Avian Biology Research. doi:10.1177/17581559221086469
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