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Big data monitoring tool aims to catch up to Indonesia’s booming online bird trade

  • A web-trawling tool developed by researchers in Indonesia has identified more than a quarter of a million songbirds in online listings from a single e-commerce site between April 2020 and September 2021.
  • More than 6% of these were species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List, including the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla) and the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), both critically endangered.
  • In a newly published paper, the researchers say the online bird trade is highly successful thanks to well-developed e-commerce infrastructure such as internet and shipping services.
  • The researchers have proposed the adoption of their tool by Indonesian authorities to monitor the online bird trade, given the absence of any other platform to crack down on trafficking.

JAKARTA — Researchers in Indonesia have harnessed the power of big data to monitor the flourishing online trade in songbirds, proposing it as a critical conservation tool in the absence of any other platform to crack down on trafficking.

The researchers, from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), developed their “Support Vector Machine,” or SVM, to collect all publicly available listings of songbird advertisements between April 2020 and September 2021 from an online marketplace in Indonesia. This web-scraping tool found 326,201 records of relevant ads, accounting for 284,118 songbirds, the researchers wrote in a paper published Sept. 5 in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

“Looking at our result, the trade using online platforms has a high success rate,” lead author Beni Okarda told Mongabay in an email.

Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, according to a wildlife trade monitoring group. Image courtesy of Beni Okarda.

The keeping of songbirds is a popular pastime in Indonesia, especially among the Javanese, who see it as signifying status and promoting peace of mind. The activity has expanded beyond Java, thanks largely to the government’s transmigration program that relocated residents of the densely populated island to other parts of the country, allowing birdkeeping to take root in those regions.

Previous studies on the bird trade have highlighted urban markets in Java and Sumatra. A 2005 report estimated that an average of 614,180 native songbirds were trapped and traded annually throughout the two islands.

Songbirds are also prized for use in contests, which have spawned thriving networks of clubs, online forums and blogs. President Joko Widodo, himself a noted songbird collector and fan, said in March 2018 that birdkeeping contributed an estimated 1.7 trillion rupiah ($114 million) to the economy.

Okarda said the species they identified in the online listings largely mirrored the composition of songbirds kept by households as identified in a 2020 study. Okarda’s team also found that more than 6% of the ads, or just over 18,000, listed threatened species, such as the Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla) and the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), both considered critically endangered.

Another pattern that the study highlighted was that most of the sellers were not traders by profession, meaning they weren’t buying and selling the birds for commercial purposes, but as hobbyists. Most were based in Java, with most transactions occurring within the same city or island.

“I believe the [e-commerce] infrastructure … is one of the main factors of successful online trading activities,” study co-author Sonya Dyah Kusumadewi told Mongabay in the email, referring to widely accessible internet and a plethora of shipping services, including same-day delivery.

Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, according to wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC. Image courtesy of Beni Okarda.

Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group. The Southeast Asian country has a protected species list that bans any capture or trade of some endangered wildlife. Anyone convicted of catching protected species in the wild faces up to five years in prison and fines of 100 million rupiah under the 1990 Conservation Act.

But the government also allows a quota for registered breeding facilities to catch a protected species in the wild for captive-breeding purposes. These facilities can then sell the offspring, which, crucially, are not designated as protected.

The main problem, conservationists say, is that many captive breeders don’t register themselves or the songbirds they breed, rendering it increasingly likely that the birds they purport to have bred were actually captured in the wild and laundered through the facilities. Inflated quotas for breeding animals in Indonesia’s commercial conservation facilities appear to be fueling the illegal wildlife trade, according to TRAFFIC.

In addition, collectors prefer wild-caught birds, which they believe have superior song quality over captive-bred ones, TRAFFIC said. The premium they’re willing to pay gives traders plenty of incentive to stock wild-caught birds rather than go to the trouble to breed birds from the same species.

Conservationists have for years called on the government to update the Conservation Act and include regulating online wildlife trade, but with no success. While existing legislation on electronic transactions does address the online wildlife trade, it’s far from adequate to stem the actual practice, observers say.

In 2017, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which works with Indonesian law enforcement to catch traffickers, said that at least 40% of illegal wildlife traders in the country used online platforms such as WhatsApp to carry out their transactions since 2011. It also estimated the value of this illicit animal trade at 13 trillion rupiah ($868 million) a year.

Okarda said he hopes his team’s findings, and the SVM tool they developed, can serve as a model for Indonesian authorities to monitor the online marketplace. Given that Indonesia is a global wildlife hotspot and one of the biggest online markets in the world, it’s puzzling that it doesn’t have a monitoring system for the online songbird market, he said.

“The monitoring of songbird trade needs to be extended to online marketplace as well,” Okarda said.

Songbirds in Indonesia are also prized for use in contests, which have spawned thriving networks of clubs, online forums and blogs. Image courtesy of Beni Okarda.

Citation:

Okarda, B., Muchlish, U., Kusumadewi, S. D., & Purnomo, H. (2022). Categorizing the songbird market through big data and machine learning in the context of Indonesia’s online market. Global Ecology and Conservation, 39, e02280. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02280

Marshall, H., Collar, N. J., Lees, A. C., Moss, A., Yuda, P., & Marsden, S. J. (2020). Spatio-temporal dynamics of consumer demand driving the Asian songbird crisis. Biological Conservation241, 108237. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108237

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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