Friday, 9 September 2016

Java's mountain forests, and the Asian songbird crisis

Posted by Stu

I recently returned from a two week visit to Java preparing for some research we hope to get going on the island in the coming months. Much of my time was spent with Bas van Balen, a world authority on birds on the island. First, we have a grant from the Shearwater Foundation to prepare for surveys of seriously endangered birds in and around twelve mountains in West Java. Some of these species, such as Javan Green Magpie and Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush have been hit by habitat loss, but particularly by crazy levels of capture for the cagebird trade. Some of the mountains simply have not been studied for decades and we need to know if some of these highly threatened species (birds but also primates and other taxa) can survive there. We may also be able to identify some potential sites for reintroductions, especially for the magpie.

Above: Workshop on bird surveying at Burung Indonesia's Bogor office; Below: Practicing methods at Gunung Gede with Bas van Balen (Photos: Stu)

One of our activities in Bogor was to run a four day training course on bird surveys for staff of Burung, the Indonesian BirdLife partner, and students from University of Indonesia and Bogor Agricultural University. Two days were spent in the classroom, talking about different survey methods and analysis, tackling bird identification issues, and problem-solving of how to get the best out of surveys in difficult and diverse situations. Then we moved to Gunung Gede and put some of these methods into practice for a couple of days.

Then attention turned to two PhDs I am hoping to set up in partnership with Chester Zoo. These concern the huge cagebird trade on the island and its catastrophic effect on wild populations of songbirds. The extent of the problem is laid out in full in this Forktail paper by James Eaton, Bas, Nigel Collar and others. It makes quite depressing reading. They tell a story of empty forests, cleared of shamas, and the wholesale loss of leafbirds and other species that really ought to be common across the landscape.

Two species impacted hugely by the cage bird trade: nominate melanopterus Black-winged Starling (left) and Greater Green Leafbird (right)

With Ria Saryanthi from Burung Indonesia I visited a large ‘bird farm’ on the outskirts of Bogor – these commercial captive breeding facilities are springing up across Java. I was expecting a really depressing ‘bird battery farm’ – but this place was rather different. Sure, they bred birds such as Straw-headed Bulbul and White-rumped Sharma (and several parrot and cockatoo species) but this was a well-run business. What was most incredible is the price of some of these birds. A pair of Straw-headed Bulbuls can fetch 45M Rupiah (> US$3,000) while a ‘singer’ (a champion who is used to teach younger birds to sing) can fetch more than $5,000. The troubled White-rumped Sharma regularly fetches $2,000, while a grand champion singer can fetch an astonishing $50,000.

What we hope to do is to run two PhDs in parallel – the first will look at factors influencing supply to, and demand for, the bird trade. Its aim is to identify points, people and psychologies that conservationists can target to turn an obvious love of birds in cages into a desire to protect birds in the wild. The second PhD will focus on the Critically Endangered Black-winged Starling, its current pitiful status in the wild and a detailed study of a release programme for the species, perhaps around Cikananga Wildlife Centre. I had some really positive discussions at the centre with Anais Tritto and the centre’s director, Resit Sozer.

Anais Tritto checks on starling breeding activity remotely at Cikananga (Photo: Stu)

Finally, I travelled with Bas to visit some key sites on the north coast for Java’s lowland endemics. This included Muara Angke, a fantastic urban nature reserve in bustling Jakarta (which reminded me again of the loss of Manchester’s Pomona island). Depressingly, we failed to see Javan White-eye at a couple of sites around Pamanukan – others have reported it to be getting hard to see in the area. Trappers had been active in the area before our visit, using MP3s of its call to catch whole foraging parties using glue. Individual white-eyes may sell for around $20 each. 

Habitat for, but without, the Javan White-eye. The species is currently Near threatened but is a sure bet for uplisting (Photo: Stu)

We had better luck at a nearby cement factory where Java Sparrows are able to  persist, simply due to the presence of security within the quarry compound. This once ubiquitous species has virtually vanished from the map due to excess trapping.

Java Sparrows, protected from trappers by security around a cement factory in Java (Photo: Reza A. Ahmadi)

More on these PhDs soon I hope.