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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Asian Songbird Crisis

The illegal trade in endangered species and their parts has its tentacles spread across the world, but if it has a hub, it would perhaps be Southeast Asia.  Here, their is an almost insatiable demand for rhino horn, pangolin scale, bear bile, turtle flesh, and virtually every other animal byproduct that you can imagine.  Among the species being lost to the trades are some of the regions smaller, but most beautiful, residents - the songbirds of Indonesia.

For almost as long as humans have lived in Indonesia, they've taken pleasure and pride in keeping songbirds.  As a traveler to the region recently explained to me, a successful man must be able to boast of three things - a house, a spouse, and a bird in a cage.  Unlike the first two, the later tends to be treated as somewhat disposable, more akin to cut roses than a family pet.  As an increasingly large middle class develops in the islands, more people find themselves needing to prove their success... by getting a pet bird.  You get one, it dies, you get a new one.

The result?  Widespread capture, smuggling, and sale of songbirds, including some critically endangered species - the Javan green magpie, the black-winged mynah, and, perhaps most famous of all, the Bali mynah.  As with flowers, not all birds are created equally in the eyes of the consumer (which is why we give roses and not dandelions for Valentine's Day).  The more beautiful a bird is, the more it is sought and traded in, the rarer it ends up becoming.  The rarer it becomes, the higher the price it commands, the more of a status symbol it becomes.  The situation is not helped by the fact that Indonesia is a nation of islands.  Island species tend to be less abundant by nature than those on the continents.

What can be done?  Obviously, addressing the illegal trade is an important step.  Illegal trade means smuggling, which means birds stuffed into horrifically unsuitable containers, deprived of food and water, and ultimately, in many cases, dying.  The scope of the trade is enormous.  One survey found 14,000 birds of over 100 species for sale in Singapore over the span of four days.  About half of the birds represented were oriental white-eyes, a species once native to Singapore but recently extirpated.  The leading cause of its disappearance?  Over-collection for the pet trade.

The challenge is that keeping songbirds is an integral part of Indonesian culture.  Fortunately, it may be possible to address the decline of songbirds while still maintaining this tradition... with some changes.  For example, more of a focus can be on maintaining pet birds so they live full lives.  That means better enclosures, better diets, proper veterinary care, and social groups - or at least a partner.  Not only will this tremendously improve the quality of life for the individual birds, but it will also result in far fewer replacement birds being taken out of the wild.  Hopefully, the trend can develop so that owners take just as much pride from the set-up of their birds as they do for the birds themselves.

Captive-breeding is also an essential step.  It's already been considered a key reason that the Bali mynah has survived into the present.  Breeding birds not only provides insurance colonies for future reintroduction efforts.  It can also provide legal, captive-bred birds for the trade - birds that do not suffer the stress of capture and smuggling, and birds which will help undercut the demand for illegally captured birds.

Finally, there needs to be an educational component.  A deeper appreciation for mynahs, starlings, magpies, and other birds needs to be fostered in local people - not just as beautiful set pieces for homes, but as living creatures that can suffer and feel pain.  In addition, it needs to be remembered hat  Asia's songbirds are under severe threats, and not just from the caged bird trade.  Habitats are being lost.  Unique island species are in decline.  Pollution threatens air and water quality.  If these birds, which are such a focal part of Indonesia's heritage, are to survive the 21st century, then efforts to conserve them must begin now.  Otherwise, the forests of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo may fall eerily silent.