- Five bird species in Indonesia have lost their protected status under a new ministerial decree, issued last month in response to complaints from songbird collectors.
- The decree also establishes additional guidelines for birds to be granted protected status, which effectively sets the stage for any species to be dropped from the list if it is deemed of high economic value to the songbird fan community.
- Scientists and wildlife experts have criticized the removal of the five species from the protected list, and the new criteria for granting protected status.
- Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, but their populations in the wild are severely threatened by overexploitation.
JAKARTA — A new decree from Indonesian authorities drops five bird species from a newly expanded list of protected wildlife, and potentially sets the stage for more to follow by widening the scope under which protected status can be rescinded.
The capture and trade of the white-rumped shama (Kittacincla malabarica), Javan pied starling (Gracupica jalla), straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), Sangihe shrikethrush (Colluricincla sanghirensis) and little shrikethrush (Colluricincla megarhyncha) will remain illegal without a government permit, but the lack of protected status means violators won’t face the jail time or hefty fines prescribed in the 1990 Conservation Act.
Four of the birds were among hundreds of species added to the ministry’s list of protected species this past June. The fifth bird, the little shrikethrush, was on the original list published in 1999. All five have now been removed from the list following the publication on Sept. 5 of a decree from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry
The capture of wild birds is to be regulated through a government permit-and-quota system that is supposed to consider recommendations from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), a state-funded think tank. Mohammad Irham, a senior ornithologist at LIPI, said his institution would reject requests to capture any of the five now-unprotected species from the wild.
He criticized the rescinding of their protected status, saying it would hasten their decline in the wild. “Our decision is based on scientific data, papers and surveys on the populations of these species in the wild,” he told Mongabay.
The ministerial decree also establishes additional guidelines for birds to be granted protected status, such as the popularity of a given species for breeding and for songbird competitions.
Under current rules, protected status can be granted to a species that is native to Indonesia, has a limited range, and has a small and dwindling population. But the decree adds new criteria for birds alone: the popularity of a species among breeders and hobbyists, the extent to which it contributes to people’s livelihoods, and the frequency with which it appears in songbird competitions.
“There’s a huge local economy aspect to the birdkeeping business,” Wiratno, the environment ministry’s director general for biodiversity conservation, told reporters on Oct. 2.
Birdkeeping is a popular pastime in Indonesia, particularly on the island of Java. The practice spread widely as a government-led transmigration program, beginning in the Dutch colonial era, relocated millions of landless Javanese to other parts of the country.
Songbirds are prized for their use in contests, which have spawned networks of clubs, online forums and blogs. President Joko Widodo, himself an avid songbird collector, said in March that birdkeeping contributed an estimated 1.7 trillion rupiah ($114 million) annually to the nation’s economy.
The permit-and-quota system applies to all birds, whether or not they’re on the protected list. Anyone convicted of illegally catching a protected species faces up to five years in prison and 100 million rupiah ($6,600) in fines under the 1990 Conservation Act. Those who illegally catch non-protected birds face only the prospect of having the birds seized and a token administrative sanction (if they run a breeding facility).
Registered breeding facilities are allowed to catch a protected species in the wild for captive-breeding purposes and sell the offspring, which, crucially, are not designated as protected. The facilities are required to release 10 percent of their captive-born stock back into the wild.
But the key issue, observers say, is that captive breeders often fail to properly register either their facilities or their birds. This opens the door for wild-caught birds to be laundered through the facilities.
“Some claim that their animal is [captive-bred] offspring, but it turns out to be wild-caught,” Wiratno said.
Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia, according to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group. Collectors tend to prefer wild-caught birds, seen as better singers than captive-bred ones. The premium they’re willing to pay gives traders plenty of incentive to stock wild-caught birds rather than go to the trouble of breeding them in captivity.
In the new decree, the environment ministry has given captive breeders and owners of newly protected species a two-year grace period to register their animals and businesses.
In September, Mongabay reported that three of the birds — the shama, starling and bulbul — had been removed from the list. Owners’ groups had specifically demanded that the protected status for these three birds be rescinded, citing the potential for loss of livelihoods among those employed in the songbird trade and large investments already made in breeding facilities. The ministry acknowledged these concerns in defending its decision last month.
A further review of the latest version of the list, however, shows it also removes protections for the two shrikethrushes. The reason for their removal is unclear, especially since the little shrikethrush has been a protected species since 1999. LIPI’s Irham said the ministry had never mentioned these two birds in discussions about the protected list. Owners’ groups have not specifically asked for the pair to be taken off the list, according to Bagya Rachmadi, head of Pelestari Burung Indonesia, a bird-breeding group.
“These two birds are hardly found in breeding facilities,” Bagya told Mongabay. “I don’t think they’re popular in [songbird] competitions either.”
Wiratno appeared confused when asked why these two birds were removed from the list. He asked whether one of the species in question was the orange-headed thrush (Geokichla citrina), which has a similar Indonesian name to the two strikethrushes. “I will have to check again,” he said. He didn’t respond to multiple subsequent requests for comment.
“These shrikethrushes were on the protected list because of their critical population in the wild,” Irham said.
Counterproductive to bird conservation?
Scientists and wildlife experts have taken issue with the new criteria for granting birds protected status.
Irham called the new requirements “a compromise between the environment ministry and the songbird fan groups.”
He noted that these points were not enumerated in the 1990 Conservation Act or a 1999 government regulation on wildlife conservation.
“We must really ensure whether the new provisions will support conservation or become counterproductive,” Irham said.
Darmawan Liswanto, a scientific adviser for the Titian Lestari Foundation, which advocates for environmental sustainability, said only the president had the authority to introduce new criteria this way.
“Neither the 1990 Conservation Act nor the 1999 government regulation on wildlife conservation give the environment minister the authority to change the criteria for granting protected status,” he told Mongabay.
He added the criteria were far too wide in scope; someone caught trapping a protected bird in the wild could easily justify their actions by arguing that the species was important to breeders.
“The minister has made it more difficult for the people who are on the ground to enforce the law,” Darmawan said.
Raynaldo Sembiring, a deputy director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said the addition of the new criteria had set a bad precedent, given that it was a concession to demands from owners’ groups and not supported by scientific evidence.
“I don’t think this ministerial regulation would have been issued without the push from the songbird fan groups,” Raynaldo told Mongabay.
“While one is strictly for conservation and based on scientific data, the other is clearly just for the enjoyment of certain groups,” Raynaldo said of the difference between the criteria in the conservation act and the government regulation, on one hand, and the ministerial regulation on the other.
A top concern, Irham said, is the implementation of these additional factors to other bird species that are also popular in captive breeding and songbird competitions.
“We’re worried that these considerations will have a stronger influence in designating protection status than prioritizing the real condition in the wild,” he said. “These bird species are not the only ones that are popular among owners and breeders.”
Conservationists have called on the environment ministry to revoke the new decree and revert to the regulation it issued in June.
“The ministry must understand that there has been a fundamental mistake in the [new] ministerial regulation and there isn’t any other solution except to revoke it,” Darmawan said.
ICEL’s Raynaldo said the ministerial regulation could be annulled if challenged in court.
“Plugging the loopholes in the ministerial regulation would be very difficult because it contradicts the prevailing government regulation and act that it’s based on,” he said.