The recent incident of brutal smuggling in which Indonesian cockatoos, destined for the local pet market, were found stuffed alive into plastic bottles has sent shockwaves of revulsion around the world. Yet for some conservationists, sadly, this is hardly a big story, because they know this kind of thing goes on all the time in Indonesia and other parts of eastern Asia.
Bird-keeping is a huge cultural pastime in Indonesia, which is rich in bird species with beautiful songs and beautiful plumages. But so strong is the demand and so ruthless the catchers that many birds in the country simply have no chance. 'Bird trapping is like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking the forests of Indonesia empty of songbirds, parrots and various other bird species', says David Jeggo, Chairman of EAZA's Threatened Asian Songbird Alliance (TASA). 'On Java in particular we are losing species without anybody noticing.'
The worst aspects of this overlooked conservation crisis are being addressed by TASA. A group of committed experts from zoos in Jersey, London, Chester, Waddesdon, Cologne, Heidelberg, Prague, Pilsen and Liberec, with support from ZGAP, BirdLife International, IUCN, TRAFFIC, Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre and Indonesian Species Conservation Program have joined efforts as 'TASA' and has been working since eight years to prevent the complete extinction of some of the species most threatened by trade in Asia. 'The tiny managed population of the Javan Green Magpie—maybe even the last of these birds on earth—could now be the last hope for this species', says Roland Wirth, former head of ZGAP. 'The wild birds have simply all been trapped right out of their forests on the island.'
A conservation breeding centre in Indonesia, supported by TASA has key populations of Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush (endemic to Java), Black-winged Starling (endemic to Java and Bali) and Black-and-white Laughingthrush (endemic to Sumatra). These are vital reserves in case these species are totally eliminated in the wild by uncontrolled trapping. As an indication of how highly these birds are valued and how serious the threat to them from trade is, in June 2014 thieves broke into this breeding centre and stole some 150 Black-winged Starlings and several pairs of the other two species. In response to this, good conservation money had to be spent on a 300-m long 3-m high fence around the centre to prevent such a thing happening again.
TASA is now expanding its endeavours to other trade-threatened species and developing strong relations with other institutions such as Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. But as the story of the cockatoos stuffed into plastic bottles indicates, the demand in and around Indonesia for attractive cage birds is insatiable. 'Slogans often claim that if you save the forests you save all the animals in them,' says Tomas Pes of Pilsen Zoo, 'but it isn't true. The trappers have proved that saving habitat is not enough.'
Wildlife trade is a huge problem in South-East Asia which can only be addressed by commitment at the highest political level. EAZA is playing its part in pushing for greater recognition of the issue and the shouldering of responsibility by governments throughout the region. Until this happens, there will only be more species facing extinction and more cases of birds being trafficked in bottles.
These species are only found on certain islands and nowhere else in the world. They are rapidly disappearing, and many still do not have populations in zoos as an insurance. If we allow them to go extinct now they will be lost forever.
For further questions please contact David Jeggo (David.Jeggo@Durrell.org), Simon Bruslund (Simon.Bruslund@Heidelberg.de) or Andrew Owen (A.Owen@Chesterzoo.org)