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

Lee, J.G.H., Chng, S.C.L. and Eaton, J.A. (eds.) (2016) Conservation strategy for Southeast Asian songbirds in trade. Recommendations from the first Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit 2015 held in Jurong Bird Park, Singapore, 27-29 September 2015

Nijman, V., Sari, S.L., Siriwat, P., Sigaud, M. & Nekaris, K.A-I. (2017) Records of four Critically Endangered songbirds in the markets of Java suggest domestic trade is a major impediment to their conservation. BirdingASIA 27: 20-25.

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.