The caged bird sings

Indonesia's Love of Songbirds is Driving Species to the Brink of Extinction

The legal captive breeding industry can't keep up with demand, so animal traffickers are filling the gap.
September 13, 2017, 6:38am
Sumatran Laughingthrush is on high demand in Indonesian illegal bird trade. Photo by cuatrok77 via Flickr.

On one Sunday afternoon, in the backyard of an office building in Mampang, Jakarta, I could hear loud chirps of birds. I looked around, but there were no trees nearby. The birds belong to Ngadimin, the office building's security guard. The 56-year-old had set his prized songbirds out to sunbathe while he worked. When I visited him, he was carefully spraying his songbirds one by one with a special spray. Sporting only an undershirt, loose pants and a kretek cigarette in one hand, it was Ngadimin's idea of a perfect day off.

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"This way, I don't miss my hometown too much," Ngadimin said. "Back home, I used to hear sound of birds chirping in the forest everyday. It's been 10 years since I was back home."

Ngadimin's birds collection is pretty modest by Indonesian standards. He has a canary, a turtledove, a straw-headed bulbul, and a stone magpie. Each of them was individually put in a simple wooden cage hung out on the canopy. Ngadimin bought the birds from a fellow songbird enthusiast. Afraid of getting scolded by his wife for spending too much money on his feathered friends, Ngadimin decided to play it smart: he turned his hobby into a business.

"The salary of a security guard is nothing," he told me. "It's nice that by selling birds I could make extra money for my wife and kids. Are you looking for any bird in particular? I'll find it for you."

It's a lucrative business. Songbirds go for anywhere from Rp 300,000 to millions ($22 USD to hundreds of dollars), depending on the species. The more beautifully it sings, the more expensive it is. In Indonesia, the practice of keeping birds as pets started in early 1970s as a part of Javanese tradition. This hobby hitched a ride with Javanese laborers sent out to other provinces under Gen. Suharto's transmigration program. Now it's easy to find caged birds on house terraces almost anywhere in Indonesia.

But here's the catch. This widespread and seemingly harmless pastime is driving Indonesian birds to the edge of extinction. Songbird trading is legal as long as the birds are bred in captivity. But sometimes the demand for new birds is too much for captive breeders. Enter the animal traffickers who scour the forests of Indonesia to capture these prized birds in the wild. The illegal trade of songbirds is now so large, and so destructive, that 13 species are on the brink of extinction, according to a study by the anti-trafficking watchdog Traffic. Today, both the Laughingtrush and the Java Magpie are critically endangered.

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The total number of songbirds still found in the wild remains unknown, said Sustyo Iriyono, the head of natural resources conservation agency Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam. But the high demand at the country's bird markets is pretty worrying, he said.

"There hasn't been any research on songbird population," Sustyo said. "But songbird trading should be done on the foundations of a captive breeding program, not by snatching birds from the wild."

In June, police confiscated 4,000 magpies that were allegedly being smuggled through Batam. The arrest was likely just the tip of a much larger problem. Indonesian authorities already struggle to curb the illegal trafficking of animals like pangolins and loris, as well as the pelts of critically endangered species like the Sumatran tiger. The semi-legal reality of the songbird trade makes it even harder for authorities to crack down on the illegal trade of wild birds.

Online marketplaces like OLX currently sell songbirds to collectors. A quick search on the site found more than 9,500 entries in the songbird category. And Kicaumania.or.id, the biggest online forum for songbird enthusiasts has thousands of members.

"Nowadays, it's hard to find birds in Java," Swasti Prawidya Mukt, the spokesperson for LSM Pro Fauna, told VICE. "Birds in Java have been snatched all over, so people are starting to look at other islands such as Sumatra and Kalimantan."

The trafficking of wild songbirds has been on the rise for the past three years, Swasti said. While none of these birds have been declared a "protected species" by the central government, the actions of animal traffickers threatens to knock off the forest's delicate ecosystem.

"This hobby of keeping birds as a pet or putting them in competitions has definitely caused a few bird species in Java to be extinct," Swasti said. "We're afraid the same issue will happen in Sumatra and Kalimantan."

Regardless of a species status, capturing wild birds in a conservation zone is still against the law, Swasti said. She urged authorities to increase efforts to monitor the trade of wild songbirds.

But with songbirds' rising popularity, the trafficking of wild birds is likely going to plague Indonesia for some time. The central government has programs that aim to support the growth of the captive breeding market, but this kind of breeding requires a lot of time and resources, Swasti explained. It would take years before the captive breeding industry can meet the demands of the market. Until then, the capture of wild birds will continue to soar.