The White-shouldered Ibis.

Erik Meijaard: The Tale of the Ibis in Indonesia


SEPTEMBER 04, 2015

There is an unusual species living among us, but very few people know of its existence. It’s a bird, and quite a big bird for that matter. It’s certainly not something you would overlook if it landed in your backyard or on your balcony. But the chances of seeing one as a city-based newspaper reader are about the same as you being sucked through a worm hole and continuing your life on a habitable planet in a different universe (yes, I did watch “Interstellar”).

Fewer than 1,000 of these birds are thought to survive in the world. Once distributed over large parts of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar and Vietnam in the north to Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the south, it is nowadays confined to pockets of riverine and swamp forest in Cambodia, extreme southern Laos and Indonesian Borneo.

I am talking about the White-shouldered Ibis, known in Kalimantan as the Karau. It’s a curious looking bird, with the typical, long, curved ibis bill, dark brown feathers, with a striking white patch on the back of its head, blueish wings, orange eyes and bright red legs. This bird struts its stuff along tropical river banks, looking for worms, crabs and other tasty bites.

The species was described in 1875 by Allan Octavian Hume, who has been called “the father of Indian Ornithology.” As a tragic reminder of what we scientists sometimes have to go through, the following story is told about Mr. Hume. In 1883, Hume returned from a collecting trip to find that many pages of the manuscripts that he had maintained over 15 years had been stolen and sold off as waste paper by a servant! Thank the lord for hard drives, USB sticks, and cloud services.

Hume certainly wasn’t the first one to notice this curious bird. In fact, 40 years prior to his discovery Dr. Müller, a German naturalist working in the Dutch East Indies, shot several of these ibises along the Barito River in what is now Central Kalimantan province. He didn’t think that much of his discovery, and considered the bird the same as the Red-naped Ibis from the Indian subcontinent. Why, I wonder. The two species look completely different, with one having a bright red patch behind its head and the other a white one. I guess Dr. Müller didn’t have the same luxury as me of quickly googling the species and doing an online comparison.

What Hume and Müller had in common is that they lived at a time when the White-shouldered Ibis was still wide-spread. Both described the species as not-uncommon but very wary. Being the size of a goose and living along river banks obviously made this species a prime target for hunters and egg collectors. To be wary was necessary in order not to end up on a local barbeque.

Unfortunately, people and White-shouldered Ibises like the same habitat, fertile river banks and back swamps. And with people calling the shots in this competition, the ibis is being pushed into extinction as we speak.

What strikes me as strange is that Indonesia has fewer than 100 birds of this globally endangered species left, but that almost nobody is doing anything to help it survive. I know the government authorities have neither the manpower, nor expertise to effectively protect all 1,259 species in the country listed as threatened with extinction. But surely someone could do something. Some local NGOs and students from Mulawarman University in Samarinda have done bits and pieces of survey work, but, to the best of my knowledge, no real programs have been developed to reduce habitat loss and hunting.

A friend of mine – I call him “the Dutch Dayak” – frequently travels to the upper Mahakam River area, where his family lives. He recently told me that people there may occasionally shoot the ibis, because of their preposterous behavior. Any bird that shows itself so obviously on river banks, surely is worth a shot. Local people recollect that in the recent past, large groups of White-shouldered Ibises were regularly seen on pebbly river banks, but nowadays it is almost never encountered. I last saw one in 2005. The “Dutch Dayak” generally sees one or two birds, most but not all times when he does his annual upriver home trip. This doesn’t sound like many birds remain.

As far as I am aware, no zoos or breeding centers in Indonesia presently hold these birds, so if they disappear from the Mahakam – as they did from the Barito where they were last recorded in 1984 – that’s it for Indonesia. Another species ticked off as nationally extinct, with the authorities asleep at the helm.

Surely it can’t be that difficult to do something! How hard can it be to breed these birds in captivity? How hard is it to work with communities in the Mahakam area, getting them to stop shooting these birds or collecting their eggs?

Why do we not tell the many oil-palm and coal-mining concessions in the Mahakam region who have illegally planted their oil-palm all the way up to the river bank or dug their coal-holes in the backswamps to donate a million dollar to an effectively coordinated program to prevent the loss of another Indonesian species?

Successful species conservation is all about leadership, commitment and organization. Someone urgently needs to stick out their neck and stand up for the White-shouldered Ibis. Volunteers?

Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.