The Asian songbird crisis

Many threats face the birds in Southeast Asia, most particularly habitat loss, which has been devastating across the region, but wildlife trade is widely recognised as another major conservation threat in the region. Indonesia especially is a global conservation priority in this regard, with the second highest number of threatened bird species in the world and the highest number in Asia. Many of these species are threatened by widespread illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade. On market traders openly sell illegally trapped and protected birds without being punished (Chng and Eaton 2016).

Keys to the trade are the social aspects of bird-keeping in Indonesia, particularly Java. Keeping birds has a very long tradition in Javanese culture where ownership of a pet bird is almost considered an obligation for a settled, adult Javanese man, and a house with a large collection of songbirds will be considered prestigious. Moreover, increasingly popular singing competitions have raised the demand for certain species, and individuals with the very best singing ability are highly valued. This huge business in Indonesia ranges from the village level to the district, region, city and national levels. The dynamics and socioeconomics of the trade are still poorly understood but it is known to be a massive industry (BirdLife International 2010). Some birds in the trade in Indonesia have a survival span of just few days. These are mainly colourful nectar- or insect-eaters which have been nick-named “cut-flower birds” by conservationists because they are something alive and beautiful from nature which you put in your house accepting that they will soon wither away. A shift in mentality is badly needed while respecting and taking advantage of the natural appreciation for birds that moves ordinary people to keep them in their houses.

Low public awareness is a major issue in the songbird crisis; others are deficits in legislation and lack of actual law enforcement. Related to this are the many significant differences in conservation status between the IUCN Red List and the species given protection under Indonesian law. Some threatened songbirds species have yet to be incorporated into Indonesia law and clearly such species are exposed to greater risks. Recent developments in our knowledge on the birds relationship have led to a number of birds being split. This means that what was once considered to be subspecies without any specific legal status is in some cases now considered separate species which in term are subject to review by IUCN, CITES and local authorities. Some subspecies which are quite distinct and may represent “conservation worthy biological units” without any such legal status pose a special problem.

In September 2015, a group of concerned experts came together for the first Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit, held in Singapore, to begin the process of co-ordinating a response to the alarming numbers of songbirds trapped from the wild in Southeast Asia for domestic and international trade. This unprecedented meeting in the region led to the development of the much-needed Conservation Strategy for Southeast Asian Songbirds in Trade.

In February 2017, the second Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit, organized by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and TRAFFIC, took place at Jurong Bird Park, Singapore. Approximately 60 experts came together to discuss this progress and to look ahead to the implementation of the strategy. Participants discussed a variety of future actions ranging from advocating the closure of illegal markets, motivating enforcement actions, breeding highly threatened species in captivity for eventual release in the wild, and the need for further research and monitoring of trade and wild populations. Opportunities to raise global awareness of this crisis through campaigns by zoos were also discussed at length (see TRAFFIC Bulletin 29(1):3-4).

Recommendations from the first Songbird Crisis Summit (Lee et al. )

  • Conduct research on wild populations, in order to determine distributions, population sizes and trends and hence understand better the status of taxa; and identify genetically distinct lineages deserving of protection as separate conservation units.
  • Reduce the threat of illegal and unregulated trade through monitoring of markets and other trade hubs/forums, especially in key bird markets, and lobby for and support increased effective enforcement actions at national and international levels.
  • Establish and expand, where necessary, ex-situ assurance breeding populations, and develop studbooks and health and husbandry protocols for each taxon identified as needing ex-situ management.
  • Strengthen community outreach for a bottom-up approach involving participants in the trade, raise awareness of the issues and key conservation efforts ultimately to reduce demand for songbirds, through a strategic communications and behavioural change strategy.

This would enable a balance to be maintained between the cultural practice of bird-keeping in Indonesia and the conservation of threatened bird populations. Traders and bird-keeping hobbyists need to understand that compliance is in their best interests in the long term.

Ethical consideration

Also in European zoos the time where zoos can just replace mortalities with new birds from the trade is over. It is now essential to focus and nourish our skillsets to become better in breeding songbirds in a sustainable fashion. To make sure we can maintain healthy populations on the long term, based on the birds currently available in captivity. So these populations can fulfil their educational/conservation role and could function as a healthy back up population when required. Not very long ago “cut-flower birds” were also common in EAZA zoos.  Nowadays, once commonly kept species like the Hill Myna and White-rumped Shama are still not doing well in EAZA zoos and need more attention and dedicated focus. Unless we take their taxonomy and husbandry needs more seriously we may lose these and other species in our zoos very soon.

EAZA zoos need to continue to ensure ethical acquisition of birds in accordance with the policies and procedures written in the Population Management Manual and EAZA Code of Ethics. Birds should only be accepted when there is certainty about the legality of their provenance. This campaign has the potential to go hand-in-hand with many of the goals set by the EU Action Plan on Wildlife Trafficking in 2016 (see resources), so we should use this opportunity of the campaign to actively follow up on this and as a community show that we can make a difference.