Indonesians on the island of Java have an old saying: A man is considered to be a real man if he has a house, a wife, a horse, a keris (dagger), and a bird.
The sprawling island nation is home to more than 1,600 species of birds, more than almost any other country in the world. It’s also home to the greatest number of species that are threatened by the bird trade.
Now a new study highlights just how severe a threat the pet trade is to Indonesia’s birds. The study, released Wednesday, has identified 13 species and another 14 subspecies that are at risk of extinction because of the pet trade.
“The number one thing I want people to know is that the bird trade is an incredibly urgent issue that needs addressing,” said Chris Shepherd, one of the study’s authors and the Southeast Asian regional director for TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring organization. “It is a conservation crisis that is being ignored.”
Among the species at risk of extinction is Indonesia’s national bird, the Javan hawk-eagle, a dark-brown raptor with a pointy crest of feathers extending from its head. According to the study, 300 to 500 mature hawk-eagles remain, and the number born each year is about equivalent to the number being taken from the wild for the pet trade. When the bird was elevated to a national symbol in 1993, there were fears that the special recognition would encourage demand rather than stifle it. Those fears have been borne out.
The white-rumped shama, a smallish bird with a glossy blue head and body and a long, straight tail, is also at risk. While the shama is not currently classified as endangered, thousands have been counted at markets in Medan, Indonesia, over the course of just three months. This bird is popular for its extraordinary song, the study says, making it a favorite pet and competitor in Java’s bird-singing competitions. (See “Indonesia’s Booming Bird Markets Put Songbirds at Risk”)
Other species at risk from the trade include the silvery wood-pigeon, yellow-crested cockatoo, scarlet-breasted lorikeet, Javan green magpie, black-winged myna, Bali myna, straw-headed bulbul, Javan white-eye, Rufous-fronted laughingthrush, Sumatran laughingthrush, and Java sparrow.
The helmeted hornbill is also at risk—but not from the pet trade. Instead, hornbills are being slaughtered by the thousands for their “ivory.” The solid wedge above their beaks is in high demand in Asia, where it’s carved into jewelry and artwork.
The Indonesian bird trade demonstrates how the illegal wildlife trade has become increasingly sophisticated.
“Organized crime groups are heavily involved in this trade, with massive profits being made and with virtually no risk,” Shepherd said.
When it comes to the helmeted hornbill trade, criminal syndicates operate networks of hunters who “are prepared to shoot any large hornbill in the hope that it is this species.” Organized crime was also suspected to be involved in the theft of 151 birds, many of them critically endangered black-winged mynas, stolen in 2014 from Chikanaga Wildlife Center, a nonprofit conservation organization about 55 miles south of Jakarta.
What’s needed most is enforcement, Shepherd said. Indonesia has laws in place to protect its birds, but enforcement agencies and decision makers need to realize just how urgent the problem is.
While this study focuses on a subset bird species in Indonesia, hundreds around the world are at risk.
“The world needs to know that illegal trade is wiping out our birds,” Shepherd says.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.