Poachers are trapping Malaysian songbirds to sell in Indonesia

  • Living Premium
  • Tuesday, 16 Feb 2021

A white-rumped shama captured on film at the at the Doi Ang Khang National Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand. -JIM THOMPSON/Wikimedia Commons

They have names like Jagger, Kitaro, Malaikat Subuh (Dawn Angel) and even Hitler.

But they aren’t crooners or members of popular rock bands. Rather, they are some of the most expensive white-rumped shamas – commonly known as the murai batu – in Indonesia, with millions of fans.

Flitting about in their wooden cages hung beneath a zinc shelter to keep out the rain, these birds thrill the crowds and the judges with their melodious calls at popular songbird competitions across the archipelago.

The superstar birds are known to fetch up to millions and even billions of Indonesian rupiah. The most expensive, Ohara, is thought to be worth three milyar rupiah, or about RM2.3mil, according to a video on a popular YouTube channel for Indonesian songbird enthusiasts.

While keeping songbirds is a hobby and a tradition for many across Asia, the Indonesians are particularly crazy about it, so much so they even have a name for it: Kicau Mania. The YouTube channel mentioned above, which is based in Indonesia, has close to over 14,000 subscribers while there are various groups for songbird enthusiasts in Jakarta on Facebook.

Even when much of the city was under lockdown in July 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these enthusiasts – who are mostly men – were reportedly still crowding songbird competitions in the district of Cipondoh in Kota Tangerang, Banten, to egg on their favourites, many without masks on.

Just one small section of the Pramuka market, one of the biggest songbird markets in Indonesia. -123rf.comJust one small section of the Pramuka market, one of the biggest songbird markets in Indonesia. -123rf.com

Bought for a song

The most popular of all the songbird species currently looks to be the white-rumped shama, the Kittacincla malabarica, known by its old taxonomic name, Copsychus malabaricus.

Increasingly, however, the songbird craze in Indonesia is also emptying Malaysian forests, as well as those in other parts of South-East Asia, of its wild white-rumped shamas and other songbird species.

Last year, the number of white-rumped shamas confiscated by wildlife authorities in Malaysia before they could be smuggled into Indonesia increased by 185% from 2019.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan) seized 2,990 birds in eight cases of smuggling. This is despite much of 2020 being marked by restrictions under the movement control order since March.

In comparison, the number of birds seized in 2019 was 1,048 from 16 cases while in 2018, only 583 birds and eight eggs were seized in five cases. As at Jan 22 this year, authorities have already tracked down and seized 228 birds.

Tragically, many of these birds died from being stuffed together into cramped cages before they were found by Perhilitan officers.

“These birds can fetch between RM1,500 and RM20,000 on the black market based on how well they sing or the length of their tails. They are smuggled from waters off Johor and Melaka and their final destination is Jakarta in Indonesia, ” said the department in an email reply to The Star last month.

At one of the biggest bird markets in Jakarta, the Pramuka, visitors and enthusiasts can gawk at the rows and rows of cages of chirping songbirds. Ask any trader, however, and they will claim that most of these birds are from breeders, whose centres in the city are often heavily fortified with barb wire.

But Indonesian conservation group Flight estimates that 70% of the white-rumped shamas in the bird markets in the country come from Malaysia and Thailand.

“They are smuggled from Malaysia to Indonesia via Batam and Meranti Island, Riau (see map below right).

“From Batam, these birds are sent to various regions in Indo-nesia, especially Java, which is the largest market for the songbird trade, ” says its executive director Marison Guciano.

Flight, which is registered with Indonesia’s Legal and Human Rights Ministry, was formed in February 2018 to raise awareness about and help protect the country’s wildlife, especially birds.

ALSO READ: The 5 most illegally trafficked songbirds in Malaysia

A bird in hand

Guciano says while traders on Batam and Meranti islands have breeding permits for these birds, with thousands of birds being sent out every week, it is certainly impossible for these animals to have come from breeding.

“(Breeding) is very time consuming and also expensive. Their mating process needs time – starting from the introduction of the pair, courtship, laying eggs, hatching and up to the caring of newborn birds, ” he explains.

The arrest of a Malaysian suspect on Dec 9, 2020, led Johor Perhilitan to raid premises in Kota Tinggi on Jan 16, 2021, where 97 illegally trapped songbirds, all bound for the Indonesian market, were discovered. - PerhilitanThe arrest of a Malaysian suspect on Dec 9, 2020, led Johor Perhilitan to raid premises in Kota Tinggi on Jan 16, 2021, where 97 illegally trapped songbirds, all bound for the Indonesian market, were discovered. - PerhilitanOn the contrary, the bird markets, he points out, constantly demand new stock.

“A profit-oriented seller will definitely prefer to accommodate an illegal smuggling supply from Malaysia, rather than farm-breeding them himself. It is a lot easier and cheaper, ” he says.

“These birds are smuggled from Malaysia, ” concludes Guciano, describing the numbers of animals involved as “incredible”.

Flight estimates that around 40% to 50% of birds die during transport before reaching Indonesia’s markets.

Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Monitor executive director and vice-chair of the IUCN SSC Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group, agrees, saying that white-rumped shamas are not easy to breed in captivity in the numbers required by the trade in them. (In full, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission.)

“Given that it’s cheaper and easier to take them from the wild, the pressure on wild populations continues.”

Shepherd contends that, in fact, commercial breeding of wildlife in South-East Asia often increases the ease with which poachers can take animals from the wild, providing a mechanism to launder wild-caught, illegally-taken animals for release into the market.

“Furthermore, commercial breeding may promote the trade in the species and further threaten the wild populations, ” he adds.

Shepherd is extremely concerned about reports of increase in the trafficking of white-rumped shamas from Malaysia to Indonesia.

Indonesia’s insatiable demand for songbirds has already caused severe declines and local extinctions of a long and growing list of species in the country itself.

“And yet the bird markets there continue to trade illegally and unsustainably captured species on a large scale.

“The white-rumped shama is one of the species in Indonesia that is rapidly vanishing due to uncontrolled capture and trade, and as a result, dealers are having to source birds elsewhere – especially Malaysia, ” explains Shepherd, who has co-authored several reports on the songbird trade in the region.

Cages of white-rumped shamas discovered in a vehicle at the Kota Tinggi location. - PerhilitanCages of white-rumped shamas discovered in a vehicle at the Kota Tinggi location. - Perhilitan

Is this the last song?

In Indonesia, the white-rumped shama was one of three birds – the other two being the endangered straw-headed bulbul and the Javan pied starling – removed from a protected species list following protests by songbird enthusiasts in 2018.

On top of the industry generating some US$20mil (RM81mil) from the sale of cages, the birds, food and medicine in Indonesia, many enthusiasts have insisted that in captivity, these birds are not mistreated but well taken care of, even pampered.

Removing a songbird from the wild is in many ways the same as killing it, says Shepherd.

“The bird is no longer part of the ecosystem it belongs to. It is no longer part of the wild breeding population. It is no longer a part of the natural food chain.

“And to believe that a creature designed to fly is happy in a small cage is something that will never cease to amaze and depress me.

“Wild birds do not belong in cages, ” he maintains.

Birdkeepers, say Guciano, may think that caring for birds is just about providing enough seeds.

“In their mind, keeping and feeding them in cages already means caring well for them. Actually, it is absolutely wrong. Keeping caged birds does not provide any benefit to the ecosystem and bird’s welfare, ” he says, pointing to the increased exposure to zoonotic diseases such as avian flu from the handling of wild birds.

Although keeping songbirds is a cultural pastime for Indonesians, especially the Javanese community, both Shepherd and Guciano agree that efforts must be made to rein in the tradition as it is feared that it may not only impact local wild populations but those in neighbouring countries as well.

“Right now, we found (songbird competitions) growing in popularity outside Java.

“For example, now it is very easy to see bird singing contests in many rural areas in Sumatra. It is a very worrying phenomenon, ” says Guciano.

Indonesia’s favourite pastime, Shepherd points out, is most often carried out in violation of the country’s laws and policies.

“Sadly, this does not seem to be a high priority for the authorities as the illegal trade is carried out openly in bird markets across the country.

“Programmes to raise awareness of the songbird conservation crisis, and of the often illegal nature of the trade, need to be put into place in Indonesia, to reduce demand and raise appreciation and support for songbird conservation, ” he adds.

Besides closing down bird markets and meting out action against traffickers, Shepherd is also calling for laws in all South-East Asian countries impacted by the trade, not just Indonesia, to be strengthened and effectively enforced.

“Malaysia could and perhaps should play a leading role and propose the white-rumped shama for listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for the next Conference of the Parties to help prevent illegal international trade, ” urges Shepherd.

Time is of the essence as many conservationists, including wildlife watchdog group Traffic, fear that the songbird trade has already reached a crisis point.

Although two summits were held in 2015 and 2017, the about-turn by the Indonesian government in 2018 on the protection of the white-rumped shama shows that there is no time to waste if South-East Asia wants to keep its songbirds.

It’s that or risk our forests being silenced completely.

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