Friday, 1 June 2018

Chaona Phiri and the Black-cheeked Lovebird

Posted by Chaona Phiri

In June of 2017, my boss Trevor Robson returned from a visit to the BirdLife International Secretariat in Cambridge very excited about a chat he had with Nigel Collar. They apparently discussed me and the work I was doing on birds in Zambia. One of those species is the Black-cheeked Lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis a localized parrot restricted to the deciduous Mopane woodlands of South western Zambia.

The Vulnerable  Black-cheeked Lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis (Photo: Chao)
My name is Chaona Phiri and I work as an ecologist at BirdWatch Zambia (BWZ), BirdLife International’s partner in Zambia. I have been with BWZ for close to 10 years, having joined them as a student intern in 2008. So, Trevor mentioned that Nigel Collar was interested in having a student in Zambia to work on the Black-cheeked Lovebird (BCL); its now near endemic to Zambia as there have been some local extinctions in wild populations of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. I was apparently the preferred student since I had already done some work on these species and working for the BirdLife partner in Zambia.

Chao and Birdwatch Zambia team counting birds
By the end of 2017, I had not only been talking to Nigel but had also been introduced to Stu Marsden and Christian Devenish who have since been helping with fundraising and designing what exactly we will do on the BCL project. With funding from the Loro Parque Fundacion, I will will undertake a part-time doctoral research programme over a projected five-year period at Manchester Metropolitan University. Part-time because I will be based in Zambia and still working for the BWZ.

Above: Zambia's Mopane woodland on which the lovebird seems to rely; Below: large Mopane tree turned into a canoe in situ (Photos: Chao)

 Presently, this Lovebird is thought to be Africa’s most localised parrot species with a restricted range of around 5500 sq. km. Within its restricted range, the species is clumped and localised to stands of mopane with large trees and permanent water sources. The naturally formed cavities in live mature Mopane trees are A. nigrigenis’ choice of roosting sites; these double as nesting sites during the breeding season. The roost site location is stable for as long as a site remains intact and undisturbed. This makes the bird extremely vulnerable to land-use/habitat change within its range, especially the with increased cutting of large mopane trees for firewood and timber, as well as agriculture expansion for Maize, Sorghum and Millet which have replaced a large section of the woodland habitats. 

Flooded Mopane - water sources may be key to the bird's survival especially in the dry season (Photo: Chao)
 However, perhaps the most important influence on the species has been the fall in surface-water availability over the last 25 years – as a result of both changing climate and patterns of water usage in the region. A significant reduction in surface water sources has been recorded in much of south western Zambia in light of several factors including but not limited to; low annual rainfall (shorter rain season), human population growth and increase in livestock farming. 
Above: An objective of the PhD is to find out how limiting drinking opportunities are for the lovebird; Below: Waterholes are clearly multi-use - a challenge is to find a way that people and lovebirds can co-habit (Photos: Chao)

The primary aim of this project is to improve significantly our level of knowledge of (and hence our capacity to counteract) the factors that currently limit the global population of the Black-cheeked Lovebird (BCL). At the same time, an important secondary aim of the project is to provide a strong ecological training for me, young bird conservationist in Zambia, as a long-term investment in both BWZ and the protection and survival of the lovebird. To achieve both aims, the project will take the following objectives:

1. To assess and establish the species range, abundance and population using point and transect count methods.

2. To document the state of the species habitat and its associations as well as possible local perceptions regarding the species and their impacts on its distribution and abundance.

3. To identify and monitor a series of waterbodies that are used and unused by BCL using citizen science and remote sensing.

4. To use historical and current presence records (e.g. from 1.) to build species distribution models (SDMs) for BCL to determine the influence of landscape features, habitat and waterbody location on its distribution.

5. To prescribe management strategies using SDMs of future scenarios regarding water availability and suitable habitat.

It's rare to see our three Loro Parque Fundación parrot PhDers in the same room. L>R Anna Reuleaux (Yellow-crested Cockatoo), Andrea Thomen (Hispaniolan parrots) & Chaona Phiri (Photo: Fraser Combe)

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Worrying news on Timneh Parrots from Gola

Posted by Simon Valle & Stuart Marsden

The Timneh Parrot (Psittacus timneh) together with the congeneric Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) has recently been uplisted, to Endangered based on the suspected decline due to habitat loss and trapping for the pet trade (BirdLife International 2018). However, the hard truth is that we have hardly any data on the size and trends of the populations that dwell in the remaining forest patches across its range. As part of a project generously funded by the Parrot Wildlife Foundation, successfully launched inaugurated with a productive workshop at the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP), Dr Simon Valle (Bangor University) has spent four weeks surveying in and around GRNP to understand how abundant the species may be. 

Community guide Mohamed Nyallay (left) and porters Mustapha Kanneh (centre) and Keni Desmond on their way to set a base camp in the heart of Gola Rainforest National Park (Photo: S. Valle)

Preliminary results from the surveys have raised some serious concerns for the species in Gola, despite being probably one of the best preserved and managed protected areas in West Africa. Simon and his team often struggled to find any parrots even in the better-preserved forest at the core of the national park. Encounters were rare and far apart and judging from the extremely low encounter rates (0.3 parrots/hour), and, until the analysis is done, we can only assume that Timneh Parrots presumably persist at very low densities in the area as a whole. These figures are alarming if we compare them to those of healthy populations of the congeneric Grey Parrot such as the 30 ± 8 parrots per sq km in Lobéké National Park, Cameroun (Marsden et al. 2015), or the 59 ± 4 parrots  per sq km on the Island of Príncipe, São Tomé & Príncipe (Valle et al. 2017). 

A rare encounter in Gola forest. 
Community Guide Mohamed Mansare` listens to a 
group of Timneh Parrots feeding on a nearby tree.

Most encounters were from the 4-km buffer zone that surrounds the park, where the forest is under continuous threat from inhabitants of the surrounding settlements. The buffer zone holds pockets of reasonably intact forest and hosts some very successful wildlife -friendly cocoa farms managed in partnership with the park authorities. However, in some areas, the buffer zone still bears the clear signs of slash-and-burn farming, selective logging for valuable timber and mining for gold and diamonds. These are the areas where the work of the park authorities is the most difficult and the survival of the remaining forest most fragile.

A team surveys for Timneh Parrots in the 4-km buffer zone around the Gola Rainforest National Park, where large areas are cleared with fire to make space for subsistence farming (Photo: S. Valle)

The data collected in GRNP are an important alarm bell and shows us that a well-protected and carefully managed protected area may not be sufficient to guarantee the recovery of a population to a healthy state, or at least not before many years (Valle et al. 2018). Moreover, these results highlight the importance of performing similar surveys across the range to assess the true conservation status of this species and the need for consistent monitoring of the remaining populations. With this in mind, and following up on the successful training held in GRNP, Simon has delivered a further workshop at the HQ of the National Protected Areas Authority, the government agency which manages all protected areas across the country. Together with Prof Stuart Marsden (Manchester Metropolitan University), Simon will keep on working closely with the NPAA and GRNP to develop a long-term countrywide monitoring scheme for Timneh Parrot, probably the first of its kind in Africa.


BirdLife International (2018) Species factsheet: Psittacus timneh. Downloaded from on 12/05/2018
Marsden, S.J., Loqueh, E., Takuo, J.M., Hart, J.A., Abani, R., Ahon, D.B., Annorbah, N.N.D., Johnson, R., & Valle, S. (2015) Using encounter rates as surrogates for density estimates makes monitoring of the heavily-traded grey parrots achievable across Africa. Oryx 50(4):617-625
Valle, S., Collar, N.J., Harris, E., & Marsden, S.J. (2017) Spatial and seasonal variation in abundance within an insular grey parrot population. African Journal of Ecology 55(4):433-442
Valle, S., Collar, N.J., Harris, E., & Marsden, S.J. (2018) Effects of trapping method and capture rate variability on harvest sustainability in a heavily traded parrot. Biological Conservation 217:428–436

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Spotlight on Timneh Parrot

 Posted by Stu, Simon Valle & Amy Marsden

Ever since Simon Valle (now Bangor University) and Nat Annorbah finished their PhDs on Grey Parrots here at MMU, we’ve been itching to start more work on this stunning but troubled taxon. The opportunity arrived in the form of a grant from the newly formed Parrot Wildlife Foundation See their website, a French charity dedicated to parrot welfare and conservation run by Eric Vignot. Stu had spent a very pleasant week in early March with Eric and Irina in Dominican Republic, kicking off Andrea Thomen’s PhD on parrots on that island. Now it was time for something a little tougher.

Above - Simon talking about Timneh's range (Photo: Amy); Below - Stu introducing the science behind the simple encounter rate method (Photo: Simon)

There are two main components to the project – a workshop on Timneh Parrot monitoring and a survey of the parrot across the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP). This post describes the former and some thoughts on how Timneh Parrots can be monitored effectively but practically long term across their range. 

Relaxing after practicing fieldwork in Gola
The three-day course took place at GRNP’s research station/guest lodge in Lalehun. The attendees for the workshop represented a number of institutions and organisations working within conservation in Sierra Leone - the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL), National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), students and lecturers from Njala University and Eastern Polytechnic, and staff from the Gola Rainforest itself. Mustapha Songe, a tour guide from a community on the border of the National Park, also attended. The aim was to introduce delegates to the ecology and plight of the Timneh, train them in a simple method to monitor parrots that can be done whilst conducting their usual duties, and to discuss ways in which a scheme to monitor Timnehs could possibly be rolled out across Sierra Leone.

Lovely t-shirts and other course materials - thanks to Bearprint Design, TinnedSnail, and Amy Marsden (Photos: Amy)
The method itself centres on a paper we published in Oryx in 2015 – we identified the relationship between grey parrot abundance as estimated using Distance sampling and an ‘on-the-hoof’ encounter rate method (simply the number of parrot groups seen or heard per hour of walking or sitting). The course included plenty of field practice and discussion, especially feedback on how the method could be tailored for the local situation. We were all delighted with both the level of interest and understanding (many participants had little or no biological training), and the enthusiasm for taking forward a countrywide parrot monitoring scheme. Certainly, Timneh Parrot monitoring is on the agenda for Gola, and we hope elsewhere too. Simon will be visiting NPAA in Freetown to discuss possibilities in other protected areas.

The course is only the beginning of our work at Gola. Simon is starting five weeks of fieldwork right across the National Park to estimate abundance and habitat needs of the species. The first step on this exciting journey was to check out reports of a large parrot roost in a community forest close to Gola with Patrick Dauda of the park’s Research & Monitoring Department. We were unable to see parrots at what seems to be a ‘flexible’ roosting area, but hope that Simon and Patrick will be able to return to the site to check on numbers of parrots in the area.

Checking potential roosting tree in one of the community forests on the border of the Nartional Park (Photo: Amy)

We thank: Alusine Kpara, Sheriff Mohamed V, Mustapha Dabenie, Ahmed M Swaray, Amara Aruma, Ibraihim J Kallon (GRNP); Momoh Bai Sesay, Mohamed Sama (CSSL); Osman Deen, Alhassan Khalli Kamara, Abdul Karim Sesay, Wuyatta Kallon (NPAA); Bobson Kobba (Njala University), James Feika (Eastern Polytechnic); and Mustapha Songe (Community tour guide) for interesting discussions during the course. Special thanks go to Benjamin Barca, Brima Sheku Turay, and Patrick Dauda of Gola Rainforest National Park for their amazing support and help with logistics. The project is funded by Parrot Wildlife Foundation.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The trapping of adult grey parrots is ruinous

Posted by Simon Valle & Stu

In a paper just published in Biological Conservation, Simon Valle et al. investigated how different capture methods and other aspects of parrot trade, other than just the actual volume of birds taken from the wild, can affect sustainability of harvest. This is of course important as the ‘currency’ which is generally used by CITES and government agencies to assess the impact of bird trade is usually solely the total number taken from the wild. This paper shows how crucial it is to also consider other facets of the trade – if adults or nestlings are taken, how may fluctuations in annual harvest affect sustainability, and what role may habitat loss or augmentation have in influencing population stability. 

The study was grounded in the building of a population viability model (PVA), a tool often used in conservation biology to see how populations might grow or decline in the future. These models use demographic parameters such as birth rates, mortality of juveniles and adults, longevity, and other life history traits to predict future population trajectories and to identify those aspects of the animals’ lives that are most crucial to safeguard. PVAs are data-hungry, and the lack of real data from wild populations means that, often, parameters have to be taken from other species, from captive birds, or are simply guessed. Our models used some data (e.g. on mortality) from other large parrot species, but Simon’s months of fieldwork on the grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) population on Príncipe meant that we had a reasonable idea of most of the parameters needed for the running of the models.

Inquisitive subadult grey parrot kept as a pet on the island of Príncipe.This individual would have been originally caught as a chick from the nest, as is common  practice on the island .

Our first important finding was that there was a very fine line between a harvest being sustainable in the long term, and ruinous. A harvest of around 900 individuals per year allowed the population to thrive, but one of 1000 birds almost certainly resulted in extinction of grey parrots on the island. Hence, to keep trade sustainable, we would need to relying on a scientific balancing act, but this is the polar opposite of how grey parrot trade is currently managed – we have little or no confidence that quotas are strictly adhered to, mortality in trade is pitiful and unknown, and often we don’t even know from which country the parrots were even caught.     

Predicted population trajectories in response to no harvest (0% of the initial population); and annual harvests (SD) of 600 (100), i.e. 7.5% of the initial population, 900 (100), and 1200 (100) chicks, i.e. 15% of the initial population. Light grey lines =population trajectories resulting from each simulation; black solid lines = mean trajectory.

Even more disturbing is that the age of birds taken from the wild blows simple numbers of birds taken out of the water in terms of its importance. On Principe, there was a tradition of only taking chicks from nests, and leaving the adults to be. This is likely one of the keys to the species’ survival in large numbers on the island. The figure below shows how disastrous the taking of just a few adults can be. The taking of birds ‘randomly’ from the population, as might be done in places like Cameroon where birds are caught en mass at aggregations, is utterly ruinous.

Difference in predicted 50-year trends when the population is subject to a harvest of 900 ± 100 harvesting chicks only, nest raiding (i.e. one adult is collected with every two chicks) and indiscriminate trapping.

Another interesting finding of the study was that having a ‘steady’ (well-managed and well-policed) harvest of small numbers of birds every year is more likely to be sustainable in the long term than a harvest that is inconsistent across years. The message here is that booms and busts of parrot trapping are not a good thing.  

Predicted population trend and individual simulations in response to harvesting a fixed (left) or variable (right) quota of 900 (top) and of 1000 (bottom) chicks each year

But booms and busts, high and variable mortality and other real uncertainties are exactly the realities that have plagued the trade in grey parrots for the past decades. Effective trade management seems a million miles away from what is happening at present across the species’ range.

On Príncipe grey parrots are commonly raised together with other household pets.

The research on the Grey Parrots in Príncipe was funded by

and supported by

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Using acoustic monitoring to understand human impacts on Amazonian wildlife

Posted by Oliver Metcalf

It was dawn on my first morning in the Amazon. 24 hours earlier, I had been walking through the snow in Manchester to catch a bus to the airport, now I was stood 50m up on a scaffolding tower, soaring above the rain forest canopy, listening to the forest come alive. We had been so keen to get here that we hadn’t slept, briefly dropped our bags at the accommodation and then headed straight out on dirt roads, so that my first sight of Brazil should be deep in the heart of pristine rain forest. Moments earlier, there had only been the occasional mournful whistle of a tinamou and the otherworldly, nightmare-ish growl of howler monkeys, but now the dawn chorus had started and songs and calls came from all directions.
The Tapajos National Forest at dawn – the sun glowing red from the smoke of surrounding small wildfires (Photo: Oliver Metcalf)

Alex Lees, my PhD Director of Studies, rattled off the species names like a football commentator during a particularly frenzied passage of play, recording each species on eBird as he pointed them out – cryptic forest-falcon, black-tailed trogon, rufous-winged antwren, three-striped flycatcher - before long my head was spinning and I couldn’t keep up. Zoning out of trying to identify individual species, I took a minute to feel this new environment, to indulge the surreal feeling of being so far from home, in the world’s greatest rain forest. But something jarred with the image my eyes were providing of pristine wilderness, there in the background of sensory overload was the acrid, lingering smell of smoke. 

Above: Undisturbed forest looks dark because of an intact canopy layer. Below: Burned forest lets in more light as dying trees open up gaps in the canopy. Many species in the Amazon are photophobic and won't cope well with these brighter conditions (Photos: Oliver Metcalf)

The ecological and environmental impact of deforestation in the Amazon are well known and well publicised. Many of us have watched news reports of falling canopy giants accompanied by the soundtrack of screaming chainsaws, or learnt in geography classes about the harm slash-and-burn agriculture can cause. However, the high visibility of this environmental destruction has led to the Brazilian government taking action, and the rate of deforestation has declined since their 2004 peak (albeit with some recent increases). Various sustainable forestry initiatives have been used to slow the rate of deforestation– including extractive reserves which permit selective logging. These allow large areas to be set aside ostensibly for conservation purposes whilst still generating income from extractive industries.

Delights and dangers of Amazonian fieldwork. Above, the lovely Wing-barred Piprites Piprites chloris (Photo: Nárgila Moura); Below, a Fer-de-lance Bothrops atrox sharing the trail with us (Photo: Oliver Metcalf)

Large swathes of Amazonia are now subject to disturbance from selective logging and fire, yet our understanding of the impacts of such disturbance on biodiversity is still limited (Barlow et al., 2016). One of the most harmful consequences of selective logging is an increase in forest susceptibility to wildfire, exacerbating an already volatile situation caused by drought and climate change. In fact, during the El Nino events of 2015-2016, there were so many wildfires in the Santarem region (where my study site is located), the area was responsible for driving a large rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Fire can have devastating and immediate impacts on tropical forests. During my PhD, I will be working with the Sustainable Amazon Network, a transdisciplinary research consortium that studies the effects of disturbance on all levels of the rain forest environment and its biodiversity, as well as the best means to avoid and mitigate these impacts. I will be working in a protected area that allows selective logging, the Tapajos National Forest (FLONA) in Para state, Brazil, to establish the impact of logging and fire on the biodiversity of the park, large areas inside and outside of the reserve were burnt in 2015-2016. Consequently, my study design will focus on establishing the impacts of disturbance on biodiversity across a degradation gradient – comparing areas that are variously undisturbed, logged, burned or logged and burned.

Layard's Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes layardi (Photo: Alex Lees)
Technical innovations in measuring biodiversity in the rain forest

Of course, comparing ‘biodiversity’ in such a diverse and challenging region is easier said than done. Trekking from point count to point count, transect to transect can be extremely hard work, time consuming and even dangerous, with a preponderance of poisonous snakes, bullet ants and wasps. Even if everything goes to plan, observing wildlife can be extremely difficult, frogs hide in hollow logs, birds feed in canopies 50m above and mammals run for cover well before a surveyor can clap eyes on them. This means that the best way to survey a wide range of species in the Amazon is to listen for the sounds they make. Even then, some species will only call at dawn and dusk–particularly birds such as forest falcons and tinamous, whilst others will wait for the dead of night or the heat of the day before making noise. This means that any attempt to survey all species using point counts or transects will inevitably miss a range of species, unless repeated a huge number of times across the day.

Some of the wildlife we hope to record; Above: an Amazonian pygmy owl Glaucidium hardyii, Below: a white-cheeked spider monkey Ateles marginatus (Photos: Oliver Metcalf)

Instead, I will be using passive acoustic recording devices from Frontier Labs to record continuously for a week at each of 40 transects spanning the degradation gradient, once in the wet and once in the dry season. These devices allow a huge amount of data to be collected with comparatively little time required in the field, and have previously been used to survey a wide range of species, as well as anthropogenic disturbance events such as chainsaws and gunshots. The difference here is that I will aim to detect the vocalisations of all the species within each transect, including birds, mammals, frogs and insects (although many of the insects will be morphotyped rather than identified to a species level). This will allow a greater understanding of how entire forest communities are affected by disturbance, rather than particular species within it.

The widespread Forest Elaenia Myiopagis gaimardii should feature on the 'tapes' (Photo: Nárgila Moura)

Of course, analysing the huge amounts of data collected (over 20 terabytes) is a challenge in itself, and it would be impossible to manually listen to all of the sound data that will be collected. I will instead be using Tadarida, a program that utilises machine-learning algorithms, to automatically detect vocalisations. This is a painstaking process in which I must iteratively train the program to recognise each of the call types present in the data. To start with, I will focus my attention on the nocturnal and crepuscular communities, as these are the least studied and hardest to survey using traditional techniques – and the simpler soundscapes will give the automated recognition software the best chance of performing well. Even still, I will have my work cut out for many months to come! After the training process, the program will look through the entire dataset for further similar calls allowing the creation of a database of the presence or absence of a wide range of taxa, equivalent to many hundreds of repeat transect surveys.

A spectrogram of a small section of the data so far recorded – most of the marks below 6kHz are bird calls, whilst the dark line in the centre is an insect being very noisy!
This will allow us to understand, at a broader scale than ever before, how communities respond to the disturbance gradient, and gain a through understanding of how the precious, unique biodiversity of the Amazon is being impacted by ongoing human disturbance.

Oliver's PhD at MMU is supervised by Dr Alexander Lees, Professor Jos Barlow (University of Lancaster) and Stu. The PhD is a component of Rede Amazônia Sustentável (RAS), a multidisciplinary project on sustainable land use in the Amazon. 

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Myna miracle needed for Indonesia’s threatened starlings

Posted by Tom Squires

Trade-driven extinction threatens a growing number of Indonesia’s songbirds, as unsustainable trapping to supply the cagebird trade continues seemingly unabated (Eaton et al. 2015). In 2016, 19 of Indonesia’s bird species, all bar one songbirds, were uplisted to a higher extinction risk category on the IUCN’s Red List for birds. Indonesia is home to ten Critically Endangered species on the brink of extinction, primarily because of trapping. All except the helmeted hornbill Rhinoplax vigil, a species long-exploited for its ‘ivory’ casque, are traded as songbirds. In response to the significant and growing threat of extinction facing Southeast Asia’s songbirds, the first Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit convened in 2015 to devise a conservation strategy to tackle the issue.

Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and Chester Zoo developed two research projects that will focus on Indonesia’s cagebird trade (see Stu’s previous post). Tom’s PhD aims to understand the ecology and management needs of some of Indonesia’s most endangered birds that are affected by trade on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. Here, he introduces his research project and outlines its objectives.

Bratang bird market, Surabaya, East Java - not only can you buy songbirds, parrots and owls, but also reptiles, amphibians and mammals. (Photo: Tom Squires)

Unsustainable trapping to supply Indonesia’s domestic cagebird trade involves millions of wild birds annually and threatens an ever-increasing number of species with extinction (Eaton et al. 2015). Seven of Indonesia’s Critically Endangered songbirds affected by trade are endemic to Java and Bali. Java, the most populous of the Indonesian islands (145 million inhabitants in 2015), lies at the heart of Indonesia’s cagebird trade, due to its deep-rooted songbird-keeping culture and the rising popularity of songbird competitions.

Black-winged myna populations have plummeted in response to increased trade demand. They are a next best replacement for the coveted, but hard to obtain, Bali myna. (Photo: Jonathan Beilby)

My project will include ecological studies of two of Indonesia’s most endangered birds, the black-winged myna Acridotheres melanopterus and Bali myna Leucopsar rothschildi, both members of the starling family. The black-winged myna was formerly quite common in the lowlands of Java and northwest Bali, but in recent decades has become almost impossible to find, except in local bird markets (see Nijman et al. 2017). Nevertheless, small populations persist at up to ten locations, and current actions – including a reintroduction at Taman Safari in West Java and a captive breeding programme to enable further releases – provide hope of a species recovery. I will carry out fieldwork at one of the most important remaining sites for the species, Baluran National Park in East Java, to estimate population size and study aspects of black-winged myna ecology. Fieldwork will also be replicated at other sites where black-winged myna are known to be present. The information gleaned will help guide in situ conservation efforts for the species.

Bekol savannah at Baluran National Park supports one of the largest remaining populations of black-winged myna. (Photo: Tom Squires)
Bali myna: king of cagebirds, this species may have been trapped to extinction in 2006  (Photo: Jonathan Beilby)

The iconic Bali myna, Bali’s faunal emblem and its only endemic bird, is highly coveted as a cagebird for its song, pristine white plumage that has symbolic associations with peace, and rarity. Consequently, the Bali myna has suffered a steady population decline since the 1960s and 70s, when its popularity as a cagebird reached its pinnacle, with hundreds being exported overseas annually. Habitat conversion, from monsoon forest to agricultural land, has certainly contributed to this decline, but in part only because it made birds more accessible to poachers. Despite being listed on Appendix 1 of CITES (prohibiting international trade) and protected under Indonesian law since 1970, numbers in the wild continued to diminish until a possible extinction in 2006 (Jepson 2015). Since then, conservation efforts and releases of Bali myna at various locations on Bali and its neighbouring island of Nusa Penida mean that they can still be seen in the wild, albeit in small numbers.
A released Bali Myna seen using one of the artificial nest-boxes provided (Photo: Tom Squires)

The number of released Bali myna in the wild probably remains at around 100, suggesting that conservation efforts have been hampered. It is unclear what the outcome of all releases of birds has been, but is highly probable that birds have suffered continued illegal poaching for the cagebird trade, and birds may have also failed to reproduce. I plan to initiate a radio tracking study to follow the fortunes of reintroduced Bali myna closely at release sites. Daily monitoring of released birds, for the lifetime of the radio tags, will be carried out to collect data on post-release dispersal, mortality, feeding behaviour and habitat-use. Additionally, birds will be colour ringed to facilitate a long-term monitoring project of the releases, hopefully with collaboration from Indonesian partners. This post-release study is urgently required to establish patterns of behaviour following release and ultimately optimise conditions for future releases.

The blue-winged leafbird Chloropsis moluccensis may grow in popularity similar to its cousin, the greater green leafbird C.sonnerati, whilst the Javan nominate of crested jay (or jay shrike) Platylophus galericulatus is already being substituted by the Sumatran and Bornean subspecies coronatus (in photo; Photos: Jonathan Beilby)

Indonesia’s cagebird markets are dynamic and trends of popularity in groups of species can change quickly. Some species, such as the greater green leafbird Chloropsis sonnerati, are beginning to exhibit worrying population trajectories that could go on to replicate historic declines of Critically Endangered species like the Bali myna (Eaton et al. 2015). Thus, an objective of this project is to investigate broad patterns of change in the range of species affected by trade. To achieve this, I will build species distribution models (SDMs) for a suite of traded species. Locations of species occurrence, obtained from citizen science datasets such as eBird, will be related to environmental (e.g. land-use and climate) and trade-pressure related variables (e.g. human population density and distance to bird markets), to determine which factors best predict species distribution. It is hoped that results will indicate where species are exposed to high levels of trapping pressure, as well as areas where trapping pressure is relatively low; these could be the best areas within which to search for ‘sanctuaries’ for future species reintroductions. This will serve as a predictive tool to pre-empt areas of concern for species that begin to emerge in large numbers at bird markets.

Living rent-free: the endemic Java sparrow is clinging on in unlikely places, like at this hotel in Yogyakarta city centre, Java. (Photo: Tom Squires)

An interesting feature of the distribution of some species threatened by trade is that they appear to thrive in some unusual locations, either because they have so many visitors that trappers cannot covertly take birds, or security arrangements exist which indirectly protect birds. A couple of examples include the Java sparrow Lonchura oryzivora that I saw in Yogyakarta, roosting under the eaves of an exclusive hotel, and the Bali myna that were out in the open near a temple and very conspicuous to visitors of the site. I will review as many of these sites as possible to understand why species persist in these locations but are missing from others, and discover what is happening in terms of population dynamics. I will carry out bird surveys and collect environmental and socio-economic data in and around the sites supporting target species including Java sparrow, Javan myna Acridotheres javanicus and ruby-throated bulbul Pycnonotus dispar. Assessing these sites and searching for sites with similar attributes could help find locations for future species reintroductions, and possibly even new populations of threatened species. This work will certainly help document the biodiversity value of such sites and may highlight a need to formalise their protection wherever possible.

This project is joint-funded by MMU and Chester Zoo and is a collaboration between these organisations, Burung Indonesia (Indonesia’s BirdLife partner), and Universitas Indonesia. Tom’s supervisors are Stu, Nigel Collar (BirdLife International), Andrew Owen (Chester Zoo), Christian Devenish (MMU), Simon Tollington (Chester Zoo), Huw Lloyd (MMU) and Nurul Winarni (Universitas Indonesia).


Collar, N.J. & Butchart, H.M. (2014) Conservation breeding and avian diversity: chances and challenges. International Zoo Yearbook 48: 7-28

Eaton, J.A., Shepherd, C.R., Rheindt, F.E., Harris, J.B.C., van Balen, S. (B.), Wilcove, D.S. and Collar, N.J. (2015) Trade-driven extinctions and near-extinctions of avian taxa in Sundaic Indonesia. Forktail 31: 1-12

Jepson, P.R. (2016) Saving a species threatened by trade: a network study of Bali starling Leucopsar rothschildi conservation. Oryx 50: 480-488

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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Salone's gangs: Children of a civil war

Posted by Amy Marsden

For three months, I lived in Kenema, in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province, as part of the ICS scheme. Our group was mainly involved in peaceful conflict resolution discussions with members of violent street gangs and young people in the four different communities. Over the course of 12 weeks, we covered everything from Ebola, to mental health, and the civil war in our group discussions.

Sierra Leone has a long history of disruption, disasters and violence, the most recent of which being the devastating landslides in Freetown. However, it is arguably the eleven year civil war (1991- 2002) that caused most chaos and that is almost as prevalent today as it was 15 years ago. During this period of war, war crimes were unabashedly committed and countless human rights were breeched. It is thought that at least 50,000, if not as many as 300,000 lives were taken. A prominent feature of this war, as with some other African conflicts, was the proportion of children involved in the fighting.

The aftermath of the war is still painfully prominent in Salone society, both in its people and its geography. Deep into the Kambui hills and those of the Gola rainforest, you can still stumble across rebel ammunition and weaponry; both of which can be easily found in the Kenema black market. If it isn't enough of a reminder being in the shadow of rebel hideouts up in the hills, you can see the effect of the war in Kenema's people.

Child soldiers. Above - the reality; below - J-Boy and Small Mikey play with wooden guns in the yard (Photo: Amy Marsden)

The stories of burned villages, mass executions, war rape, child soldiers and cannibalism lives on brutally in the minds of survivors, now 15 years since the war ended. It isn't any wonder that there are many suffering with severe mental health problems because of what they experienced. One of the older participants in our group sessions in a community called Nydandeyama, was a young man during the civil war. He told us of the joy in which the rebels executed people, and the songs they sang before they did. He remembers the hysterical fear he felt when hearing one of these songs as he was stopped at a rebel checkpoint with his mother. He felt sure that if they had not been hidden in the back of the van, they would have both been killed.

As UK volunteers, we couldn't help but wonder at how these kind of experiences had affected people. With only one mental health nurse in the whole of the country, and no NGOs working in this area, there is no help for those who desperately need it. When we spoke to people about the war in our talks, they were understandably reluctant to open
up. Sierra Leonians don't talk about the civil war, it seems that they prefer to pretend it never happened, potentially providing a breeding ground for further emotional and psychological issues. However, some seemed relieved to unburden themselves from the pressure of this secrecy. Many spoke of their personal grief; losing mothers, standing as their homes burnt to the ground. However, it is arguably the long- term effects of the war that have created the biggest impact on modern Salone society. This is primarily because of what the children of Sierra Leone experienced in those eleven years at war.

Small Mikey doing headstands on the dining room table (Photo: Amy Marsden)

Kenema’s Street Gangs

It is the children (now aged between 20-40) who lost parents and senior members of their families who have grown up without essential support systems. Those who did not find this support in religious or community groups formed or integrated into street gangs, known in Sierra Leone as ‘cliques’. This could have been to simply to feel a sense of community and togetherness they no longer had within a family. It seemed that the bonds they shared and the power they felt from having such a support system could have been a small comfort against the losses they experienced in their childhoods. Despite how charming and seemingly childish these men are, the vast majority of gangs are involved in serious violence, the most powerful having mafia- style authority over their communities. Although most of the younger men involved in the cliques have typical jobs, like okada drivers (giving people lifts on their motorbikes or mopeds), the older men seem to be a part of something a little more suspect. Some of them are part of the diamond trade, one that is still as dishonest and unsafe as ever. Many diamond traders and labourers are part of street gangs; helping to find, sell and trade both illegally and unethically sourced gems. Sierra Leone is the fourteenth poorest country in the world, and for young adults and children living in poverty, these wealthy gang members must be inspirational for some of them. Young people in Kenema are desperate for jobs or some source of income, and from the outside, these ‘cliques’ seem to provide that, despite their members being frequently in and out of prison for violent crime.

Howareyou playing in unfinished house (Photo: Amy Marsden)

During the war, boys as young as 5 were taken from their homes to fight. These children, now men, are less likely to be involved at all in Salone society, or even in street gangs. They were subject to such extreme and constant violence that they were expected to become immune to  it. Many were forced to kill their own families, because, in theory, if you've killed your own parents, who will you not kill? These child soldiers were also forcibly given drugs and strong alcohol as a further brainwashing technique, to keep them inhumanely detached from their actions. Because of this, there are many survivors today with chronic drug and alcohol issues, either unable to break from the addiction that engulfed them during their time in the war; or because they are using these substances as a coping mechanism. These young people are often isolated, or isolate themselves from society. 

One would think that the atrocities seen during the Salone civil war would be enough to persuade the country to be peaceful for a long time afterwards. However, in the community named ‘Burma 4’, many of the people we spoke to believed that another civil war was inevitable. The government is still selfishly corrupt, and those it is meant to be helping are still desperately trying to carve themselves a life out of poverty. Our community discussions indicated that many people across Kenema believed this to be the case, that a second conflict was on its way, as shortly as 15 years after the last ended.

Amy is about to start her BSc in International Disaster Management and Humanitarian Response at the University of Manchester.