A police officer holds up a plastic bottle in which a yellow-crested cockatoo, still alive, was found. Officials discovered 21 of the birds on board a ferry docking in Surabaya from Ambon earlier this year. (JG Photo/Fully Syafi)

Erik Meijaard: The Erosion of Indonesian Identity


DECEMBER 12, 2015

In the late 90s, I was travelling in a very remote part of Kalimantan. We were tracking along the upper Bahau River, a tributary of the Kayan, some 50 kilometers upriver past the last village. The goal of the survey was to look for the last few remaining banteng, or Asian wild cattle, of Kalimantan. But that day, another species really caught my attention.

Knee-deep in water, I was wading through a shallow river bed when I heard a very familiar bird call. “What is that bird?”, I was thinking. I just couldn’t place it among the many wild bird calls I know. Only when I finally caught a glimpse of it through my binoculars did I realize what I was listening to. It was a Straw-headed Bulbul, a bird I had only ever seen in cages.

This bulbul is a bird species of lowland rivers, with an exceptionally beautiful song. For that reason, it has always been popular as a cage bird, fetching very high prices in bird markets. Until as recently as a few decades ago, the species was widespread and locally abundant across much of its Southeast Asian range.

However, it is now thought to be extinct in Thailand and Java, and is virtually extinct on Sumatra and probably also in Kalimantan. For all I know, I may well have been one of the last Western birders to see this species in the wild.

I have written before about Indonesian wildlife trade and the problem of empty forests, and there is a persistent counter-argument that I have heard many times from Indonesian commentators. They tell me that Western conservationists, like myself, do not understand Indonesian culture. Specifically, we do not understand the social and cultural importance for Indonesian men to have birds in cages, or so I am told.

One thing I realized this morning, while munching on my indeed very Western breakfast of bread, cheese and boiled eggs, is that Indonesian birds are not just disappearing from the wild, but also from captivity. When I first arrived in Indonesia in 1992, the streets of Yogyakarta, where I was based, would ring with the calls of many Straw-headed Bulbuls (which is why I knew their song so well), but also various starling species, beautiful colored laughing thrushes, gorgeous orange thrushes, and many other bird species.

Those species have now disappeared from both the streets and forests of Indonesia, and you may only find them in zoos.

So, Indonesia is not just losing its environmental heritage, but with that also its cultural heritage. Anyone telling me that keeping birds is important for protecting Indonesian culture, think again. Unless major societal and governmental change occurs, it won’t be long until the only birds left to put in cages are the ubiquitous and colonist Eurasian sparrows, or Burung Gereja (Church Bird), which would be ironic in a predominantly Muslim country that is presently pushing back against foreign influence.

The national identity of any country is to a significant extent shaped by the environment in which its people grow up and on which many cultural practices are based. If you lose that environment, your indigenous identity will invariably erode, and be replaced by outside influences.

Seriously, everyone is losing out at the moment. Indonesia is selling off its wildlife until there is nothing left to sell, and almost no one is doing anything to stop it. And the trade is callous and lethal to the extreme. For just one example, see this link to witness how smugglers cram endangered cockatoos into plastic bottles to get them through customs.

Or if you are not convinced, have a look at the conditions of wildlife trade in Jakarta’s Jatinegara and Pramuka markets. Most species that you will see there can be guaranteed to be nearing extinction in the wild.

The Indonesian conservation authorities are fully aware of these problems but rarely do anything about it. A few well-connected criminal traders likely bribe the system and make millions selling birds in Indonesia, orangutans in the Middle East, and pangolins to China. The global wildlife trade is one of the most lucrative crimes in the world, and its supply chain is long. From mostly forest-based communities who do much of the trapping to the smugglers who take species out of the country. This is seriously big business involving hundreds of thousands of people.

And the trade is very far from being sustainable. Unless the conservation authorities start doing their job, it won’t be long until Indonesia can say bye bye to most of its indigenous species, both in the wild and in captivity. Now, you tell me how that is supposed to benefit the country.

I was going to post a link to a website with bird calls so you could hear the beautiful call of the Straw-headed Bulbul yourself. The website, however, has taken its calls offline, because the open availability of high-quality recordings of this species can make the trapping problems even worse, because they are used by bird catchers to attract the few remaining wild ones. Bird catchers use modern technologies, such as digital recordings, geographic positioning systems, telescopic poles, and mobile phones to trap and trade their catch.

People everywhere in Indonesia’s forests are on the prowl to catch or kill the country’s wildlife. This is not some over-dramatization; it’s Indonesia’s reality, and a reality based on greed, short-term profit thinking, and a lack of interest in sustainability issues. Ultimately it undermines the welfare of all Indonesians, and to me it is plain stupid.

Everyone has a role in solving this problem. The authorities need to step up their act, enforce the law, close down illegal animal markets, and put traders in jail. They need to hit hard on any government employees involved in the trade through bribe-taking.

The public needs to stop buying birds and other endangered wildlife. Tell your friends and family that such practices are no longer acceptable, and that it is actually much nicer to have a free bird in your garden than a captive one in a cage. And NGOs should help by working with forest communities and getting them to understand that unsustainable hunting and collecting means just that – it cannot be sustained, i.e. a quick buck today, nothing tomorrow.

For the sake of Indonesia’s cultural and environmental heritage, let’s do something, and let’s do it now!

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative.  and