The majestic Javan hawk-eagle used to glide unnoticed through the humid Javan rainforests, striking the dwindling landscape with dashes of colour from its rufous plumage and white-tipped black crest. That all changed in 1993, when it was granted special protected status by the Indonesian government: the bird of prey became Indonesia’s national bird, and found itself in high demand by zoos and pet owners. It is now one of 13 bird species in Sundaic Indonesia that is at ‘serious risk’ of extinction due to the unrelenting commercial bird trade.
Despite being home to more than 1,600 species of bird, Indonesia is also the nation in which the bird trade has had the gravest impact. Its long history of bird-keeping is driving wild populations to the brink. About 584,000 households (35.7 per cent) in Indonesia’s six largest cities own some two million birds, more than half of which have been caught from the wild. While the marketplaces have erupted with chaotic birdsong, the rainforests have grown alarmingly quiet: wild bird populations, being trapped by the thousands, are struggling to replenish.
A study published in Forktail (the Journal of Asian Ornithology) has identified 13 bird species and 14 subspecies that are at risk of global extinction due primarily to the bird trade. ‘Birds are reportedly the most traded among the higher classes of animals,’ the authors write. ‘Indonesia, with its long tradition of bird-keeping and its high levels of biological diversity already under pressure from habitat loss, holds the greatest number of globally threatened bird species for which trade is registered as a significant threat – 28, with Brazil following at 24 and China at 18.’
“Most wildlife trade in Indonesia is illegal, yet enforcement is almost non-existent”
Only 300 to 400 mature Javan hawk-eagles are thought to remain in the wild, with 30 to 40 individuals (the same as its annual output) captured each year. The rare Javan green magpie is another victim: no sooner had it been recognised as a full species in 2013 than it was documented as being in ‘grave danger of extinction’ due to trade pressure. But it’s not just the pet trade putting the birds at risk: the helmeted hornbill is illegally killed in its thousands for its unique keratin-filled casque, which is traded to China as a substitute for elephant ivory.
‘Regrettably five subspecies are probably already extinct, at least in the wild, due primarily to trade,’ the authors write. These include the scarlet-breasted lorikeet and a subspecies of hill myna, a bird that is able to imitate human voices. Three subspecies of white-rumped shama, which are favoured for their beautiful song and sold to compete in Indonesian songbird contests, are also believed to be extinct in the wild. Dr Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s director for Southeast Asia, says: ‘Whether it’s species or subspecies, the message is the same: excessive trade is wiping out Indonesia’s wild bird species at an alarming rate.’
Dismantling a tradition so culturally ingrained as bird keeping is no easy feat, especially when the government seems indifferent to its impacts: ‘Most wildlife trade in Indonesia is illegal,’ the study states, ‘yet enforcement is almost non-existent.’ If these species are to survive, Indonesia must first address its lax laws on the unsustainable and devastating bird trade.
This was published in the September 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.