Demand For Pets Endangers Southeast Asia’s Birds

Traditions of keeping caged birds and Chinese gourmands drive demand for threatened species, while lax law enforcement hampers consrevation efforts.

Personnel at Yogyakarta, Indonesia's Taman Satwa Wildlife Rescue Centre attend to a four year old Javan hawk-eagle after it was implanted with a microchip prior to its release into the wild, in file photo.

Go to almost any public market in the Philippines, and you can find people selling caged birds as pets.

Many of the birds have been seized from their natural habitats by wildlife traffickers who meet a growing demand for them from Southeast Asia’s growing urban middle-class.

The traffickers illegally ship many of these captive birds from the Philippines by sea to markets elsewhere in Asia, according to Jay Batongbacal, a law professor at the University of the Philippines.

TRAFFIC, a British wildlife monitoring network based in Cambridge, reported that a “thriving illegal wildlife trade” from Indonesia to the Philippines had recently “come into the limelight with a remarkable discovery in a Philippine home.”

The monitoring group said that Philippine authorities found 312 birds and mammals on March 12 this year in a home in Pasay City.

TRAFFIC said that the cache proved “significant for its sheer size and the variety of wildlife involved.”

Officials said that most of the species found in the home were destined for the illegal pet trade and were thought to be from the island of New Guinea, which comprises the Papua province of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Among the animals seized were more than 100 cockatoos as well as Red Birds-of-paradise, wallabies, and sugar gliders, which are pocket-size marsupials belonging to the same family as kangaroos.

Four men were arrested at the house in a joint raid by the Philippines National Bureau of Investigations working together with a special group of Filipinos assigned to counter wildlife trafficking.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has thwarted numerous attempts to smuggle wildlife to the Philippines, according to TRAFFIC.

One should also note that most Indonesian songbirds end up well cared for in Indonesian homes.

As Professor Stuart Marsden of Manchester Metropolitan University has written, Indonesians have a centuries-long tradition of keeping these birds in cages.

The songbirds’ popularity in Indonesia became more notable over the past 20 to 30 years, Marsden says, because of singing contests, where hobbyists gather and judges rate the birdsongs.

The nongovernmental organization BirdLife International says that “although the birds may be traded across Asia, available evidence points to Java as an “epicenter.”

Indonesia’s biggest challenges

It’s illegal to hunt for birds in Indonesia, but experts say that the law is poorly implemented.

A new study by TRAFFIC concludes that 13 of Indonesia’s bird species—including the country’s national bird, the Javan hawk-eagle—are at serious risk of extinction.

The main driver behind this crisis, the study says, is “the enormous demand for birds for the domestic pet trade.”

Keeping the birds as pets is a part of Indonesia’s national culture, it says, “yet the high levels of demand for some species have fueled excessive hunting, with the populations of many rapidly disappearing.”

Other species at risk include the silvery woodpigeon, helmeted hornbill, yellow-crested cockatoo, scarlet-breasted lorikeet, Javan green magpie, black-winged myna, Bali myna, straw-headed bulbul, Javan white-eye, rufous-fronted laughingthrush, and the Sumatran laughingthrush.

Although most of the birds are kept as pets, the helmeted hornbill is the exception.

TRAFFIC says that thousands of them are killed and traded for their unique, solid-bill casques and carved as a substitute for elephant ivory to meet demand in China.

Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s director for Southeast Asia, said that “despite the alarming scale and consequences of the bird trade, governments and conservation organizations often don’t view this issue as a high priority.”

“This hampers efforts to prevent losses,” he said.

Shepherd, who is a co-author of the new study, told the news agency Agence France Presse, that the huge demand for songbirds in Indonesia has also placed the birds in other countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, at risk.

The new study’s authors say that the solution to the bird-trade crisis in Indonesia lies in a combination of better law enforcement, conservation breeding of birds, the conversion of trappers into wardens, and field, market, and genetic surveys.

A European organization, meanwhile, has taken steps to begin “conservation breeding” to build colonies of endangered Indonesian birds for the purposes of security and propagation.

The Threatened Asian Songbird Association (TASA), operating as a body of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA),  has initiated a program of captive breeding of “assurance colonies” in zoos.

This may turn out to be the last hope for some of the species involved.

The good news: In both the Philippines and Indonesia an impressive list of experts and local volunteers are committed to monitoring and protecting songbirds.

The bad news: The demand for the songbirds in Indonesia is so high, that smugglers ship them to Indonesia from as far away as Vietnam.

On Jan. 21 of this year, The Maritime Executive magazine reported that three Indonesian smugglers dumped some 300 caged birds into the sea while attempting to escape from officers of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

The MMEA said it believed that the birds were smuggled over land from Vietnam to Thailand and then into Malaysia, which served as a transit point before the birds were to be sent into Indonesia for sale.

In China one bird tells the story

The story of a single small bird, the yellow-breasted bunting, provides a tale of what can go wrong in the bird trade in China but also what can go right when it comes to fighting it.

Based on reporting from Hong Kong and from southern China, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) concludes that Chinese diners are eating the yellow-breasted bunting into extinction.

In a lengthy article on the subject published on July 5, the newspaper said that only 14 years ago, in 2004, the small bird was listed as a “species of least concern.”

Unfortunately for the bird, Chinese gourmands developed a taste for its meat, deeming it a luxury item that “bestows medicinal benefits.”

The trade is illegal, so those who hunt for the bird and those who sell it operate undercover.

The bird’s meat goes unmentioned on restaurant menus.

But customers can place orders for the bird in advance, allowing enough time to bring the frozen meat in from off-site storehouses.

China’s Wildlife Protection Act outlaws the hunting, selling, and consumption of wild animals without a permit.

But in the yellow-breasted bunting’s case, the government has failed to halt the underground trade.

The SCMP says that in the end, efforts by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and international academics, environmentalists, and bird watchers “may well prove crucial’ in saving the yellow-breasted bunting from extinction.

In recent years, a team of volunteers led by Dr. Wieland Heim, an expert on bird migration at the University of Munster in Germany has been attaching geolocating devices to track the yellow-breasted bunting’s migration and land-use patterns.

According to the SCMP, Beijing bird watcher and blogger Terry Townsend reported last year that live yellow-breasted buntings were being offered for sale on the Chinese e-commerce website Taobao.

Following Townsend’s report, a representative of Taobao’s parent group, the Alibaba Group, which also owns the South China Morning Post, expressed its concern and removed the offending posts.

During wide-ranging migrations, the yellow-breasted buntings spend about three months in China during which many are killed, plucked, frozen, and then sent by road or rail to the south of China to be sold as a delicacy, according to Fu Wing-kan, assistant manager of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society China Program.

Thanks to the SCMP, we know that when the little birds fly south, they make rest-and-recuperation visits to Long Valley, Hong Kong’s largest swath of agricultural land.

Here an innovative project involving 28 local farmers is contributing to the species’ survival.

The group monitors the birds and provides education about their importance.

Rice paddies are a perfect habitat for the yellow-breasted bunting, and a farmers’ Eco-Paddy Club plants and harvests the rice according to organic principles, generates income to support the project, and receives part of the crop at season’s end.

Wieland Heim’s team has tracked the birds’ winter migration to Myanmar, where the country’s Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association is planning a survey of the yellow-breasted bunting’s presence and studying ways to raise awareness of its plight.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.