Indonesia’s national emblem is a bird. To be precise, it is the large mythical bird or bird-like creature called Garuda.
The Garuda is a reference to both Indonesia’s Hindu and Buddhist past, as well as to the cultural importance of birds in this country.
The speed at which Indonesians are consuming and trading their wild birds, however, points towards a not too distant future in which the only birds left will either live in cages, or are exotics like the now ubiquitous tree sparrow that was once introduced from Europe.
Demand for cage birds in Indonesia, and also for the international bird trade, is vast at the moment. Forest areas that used to resonate with bird calls are now falling silent. The Yellow-vented Bulbul, or Merbah Cerucuk, a formerly very common bird in places like Bogor and Jakarta is increasingly rare — I still have to see my first one here in South Jakarta after five years of searching. It may have something to do with its pretty song and therefore its popularity as a cage bird.
One of the most common birds on Indonesia’s rice fields, the lovely-looking Java Sparrow (Google it, it really is pretty) was extensively caught for keeping in cages and shot and poisoned because of its rice-feeding habits. This bird, which used to swarm in flocks of thousands, has now pretty much disappeared from the wild.
Bird collectors and traders are finding ever more devious (and often illegal) ways to obtain birds that are now really hard to find in the wild. This includes stealing them from others. A conservation breeding center where birds are bred in captivity for later release into the wild was recently robbed of a few hundred birds. All signs indicated that these were professional thieves who knew exactly what they were doing.
This is organized crime, and the gloves have clearly come off in Indonesian wildlife conservation.
As we speak, the bird-poaching frontier in Indonesia is expanding and few areas are safe now. Deep in the Heart of Borneo, as remote as it can possibly get in Indonesia, people are using sophisticated techniques to capture song birds.
Local markets there now sell equipment that records and plays back bird calls, an excellent way to attract and catch birds. Ironically, this technique was originally introduced by over-zealous bird watchers who did not have the patience to wait and see if birds would show themselves, but instead attracted them with played-back calls. Smart bird poachers now borrow those techniques from bird watchers, and in a round-about way, bird watchers are contributing to the demise of wild bird species.
As all this is happening, the Indonesian conservation authorities seem pretty much asleep at the helm. There are occasional raids on bird markets, but no one is really doing much to effectively address illegal bird poaching and trade in the country.
Does anyone care, I wonder. Most Indonesians will probably never see a real forest in their life — after all, real forests are now pretty rare on Java, where most people live. Would it bother anyone if the last of Indonesia’s hornbills were caught for the ivory in their bill and to be used in Chinese medicine? Or that no more eagles would soar overhead? Maybe not now, but one day in the future Indonesians will wake up and likely bemoan what they have lost. It might then be a little too late.
To change these trends, a major effort is needed by both governmental and non-government organizations to crack down hard on illegal bird trade and poaching. The authorities often argue that they don’t have the manpower to do this. Still, there are many steps the government could take to make sure that Indonesia is not going to lose its wildlife, as has already happened in other Southeast Asian countries.
It shouldn’t be a major effort for the conservation department to develop a television ad that tells people that capturing birds from the wild is often illegal. It would also be useful to provide the public with good information about wild birds. Or maybe the next Indonesian president can go on television and tell Indonesians what they stand to lose if present poaching trends continue. This has little to do with manpower, but all with political will.
Let’s hope that not all of Indonesia’s birds will become mythical creatures just like the Garuda, with future generations sadly reminiscing about the days when wild birds still sang. If Indonesia cares about its wildlife it should wake up before it is too late.
Erik Meijaard is an independent scientist working from Jakarta. He coordinates the Borneo Futures — Science for Change program.