Silence of the bulbul

Due to intense poaching, the melodious sounds of one bird no longer ring through the forest.

WITH a rusty orange-coloured crown and black-streaked upper breast, the straw-headed bulbul is a rather pretty bird. But its appeal lies more in its calls, a varied repertoire ranging from melodious songs to rhythmic tunes which have made it a hot favourite among bird-lovers – and also the reason behind its “endangered” status.

The popularity of the bird has led to intense trapping for trade. Once common in lowland scrub and forests, occurring mostly near rivers and open water bodies, the straw-headed bulbul is a rare sight these days. The forest is now silent of its beautiful calls.

Its high sale value and poor legal protection in parts of its range are pushing the prized songbird towards extinction in the wild, according to a report Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus: Legal Protection and Enforcement Action in Malaysia by Traffic South-East Asia, the wildlife trade monitoring body.

As recently as two decades ago, the straw-headed bulbul was common across much of its range but today, it is thought to be extinct in Thailand, and its status in Myanmar and Brunei is not known. In Indonesia, the species was extirpated from Java by the mid-20th century and possibly no longer exists in the wild in Sumatra. In Kalimantan, it is believed to survive only in remote areas.

Remaining populations in Malaysia and Singapore are believed to be in serious decline due to severe poaching for the caged-bird trade, stated the report written by Chris R. Shepherd, Loretta Ann Shepherd and Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley.

Trade in the species became controlled and subjected to licensing in 1997 when it was included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, illicit trade continues.

In Peninsular Malaysia, straw-headed bulbuls (known as barau-barau locally) became totally protected only with the enactment of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, which makes it illegal to capture, trade and keep the species. Prior to that, individuals could apply for licences and permits from the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) to trade and keep this bird.

The 2010 annual report of Perhilitan showed a total of 874 straw-headed bulbuls kept in captivity by licence-holders as permitted by the previous law. Some legal export of the bird was permitted in the past, but involved very few birds. According to trade data, Malaysia exported 15 wild-caught straw-headed bulbuls to Singapore in 2000. The species is protected in Sabah under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, and totally protected in Sarawak, under the Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998.

Despite legal protection in Malaysia, illegal capture and trade continues, with much of the demand coming from neighbouring countries, stated the report. During a spot check by Traffic in 2010, 10 straw-headed bulbuls were found for sale in a shop in Betong, Thailand, close to the Malaysian border, and all were said to have come from Peninsular Malaysia. Sources said the species was frequently sold there. In Singapore, bird dealers and bird enthusiasts claimed that straw-headed bulbuls were occasionally smuggled into the country from the peninsula.

The greatest demand for the species comes from Indonesia, where the birds are frequently sold in bird markets in Medan, Sumatra, and Jakarta, Java. Monthly surveys by Shepherd in 2000 and 2001 found 421 straw-headed bulbuls for sale. Dealers in both cities claimed that some of the birds had been captured in Kalimantan and Sumatra, and as the population declined in Indonesia, from Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. The species remain unprotected in Indonesia. Therefore, unless smugglers are detected at entry points into the country (in violation of CITES), legal action is virtually impossible.

Straw-headed bulbuls are now rarely seen in bird shops in Malaysia as the trade has gone underground, facilitated by bird hobbyist forums, trading websites and social networking sites. As such, the extent and nature of the trade are unknown, according to the report.

In a random survey of five shops in Kuala Lumpur in April 2010, Traffic found no straw-headed bulbuls for sale. The following year, one shop (out of five surveyed) in Ipoh, Perak, offered four birds and last year, three birds were seen in one shop in Ipoh. Perhilitan has seized 42 straw-headed bulbuls between 2006 and 2011, the bulk of which was from Malacca.

“It is highly likely that more were seized but unfortunately, seizures have in the past sometimes not been reported to species level and very little information regarding the status of the cases is available in the public domain,” said the report.

As trapping of the bird for the caged-bird trade pushes the species closer to the brink, the authors called for more monitoring and enforcement.

There should also be an analysis to assess whether the species meets the criteria for a transfer from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, where trade is banned. Also needed is research to identify collection sites and trade routes as well as a trade forensic study, and full protection for the species in Indonesia.

Also, penalties for offenders should be increased to serve as deterrent. In October 2010, Perhilitan raided a business premise in Kuala Lumpur and found 34 protected and totally protected animals, including two straw-headed bulbuls, palm cockatoos, yellow-crested cockatoos, a leopard cat and giant squirrels. At the time, the new legislation was not yet in force, therefore the two people who were arrested were liable to a fine of not more than RM3,000 or three years’ jail under the Protection of Wild Life Act 1972. However, they were also charged under the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008, where they faced a fine of RM100,000 for each animal (up to RM1mil) or imprisonment for up to seven years. The offenders were eventually fined a total of RM45,600.

The author urged the public to report incidents of trapping, trading and buying of this species to the Wildlife Crime Hotline by sending a text message or calling 019-356 4194, or by e-mail to

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