Although only 14% of bird species are currently threatened with extinction, constitut-ing the lowest rate for all vertebrates, we have to recognise that the threat is not evenly distributed. Thus species in south-east Asia are far closer to the eye of the storm than those in other areas. In particular, the Greater Sunda Islands are home to more than 850 bird species, a large number of which are endemic, i.e. this is the on-ly place in the world where they are found. In 2015, many scientists rang alarm bells about the massive decline in forest species. The call was taken up by European zoos, which launched a huge awareness campaign running throughout 2018 and 2019.
In addition to the disappearance of their habitat due to human activity and the trap-ping of birds for food or use in traditional medicine, there is a deep-rooted and wide-spread cultural practice that is pushing many species to the edge of the abyss. Keeping songbirds as house pets is a deeply-rooted tradition in southeast Asian cul-ture. Local people believe that songbirds encourage marital happiness and their singing favours long life. The tradition has led to a real national passion: singing competitions have become huge events, bringing prestige and financial rewards to the families with the best birds. Unfortunately, songbirds are often difficult to keep in captivity and suffer high mortality rates. To meet demand, therefore, millions of birds from different species are sold annually in pet shops, most of which unfortunately come from illegal trapping. Little by little, the local forests are being depopulated and are falling increasingly silent by the day.
The role of zoos
A huge international awareness campaign aimed at attracting the general public’s attention to this little-known problem was launched in 2018-2019 on the initiative of zoos.
The participating zoos also initiated fundraising programmes. They set a goal of €400,000. If it is reached, a scientific committee will use all the money to fund vari-ous in situ safeguarding projects.
Finally, zoos have a longstanding practice of breeding some of the most fragile bird species. Their know-how is used to set up ex situ conservation programmes for the most endangered species.
Six flagship species
Although more than 150 species in this region are currently threatened with extinc-tion, the campaign has chosen six flagship species as representatives.
Bali Myna (Leucopsar rothschildi)
Historically endemic to Bali, populations have been decimated largely due to the incessant capture for trade. Nearly all existing birds in the wild are a result of the re-introduction of captive-bred individuals.
Nias Hill Myna (Gracula robusta)
The Nias Hill Myna is an endemic resident of several islands off the west coast of Sumatra. Trapping pressures for the songbird trade have led to its massive decline. Surveys have determined that the species survives on only a few remaining islands where ongoing conservation efforts are needed to prevent its extinction.
Javan green magpie (Cissa thalassina)
This endemic Javan species with special habitat requirements was recently recog-nised as a separate species to the more common Bornean Green Magpie (Cissa jef-feryi). It is therefore not currently protected under Indonesian law. It is now thought to be close to extinction in the wild due to habitat loss and excessive trapping, with no confirmed sightings in the wild since 2007. Nevertheless, small numbers of birds continue to be found for sale in the markets.
Sumatran laughingthrush (Garrulax bicolor)
Endemic to Sumatra, this species is an easy target for trappers due to its noisy, flock-ing nature and increased accessibility to their montane forest habitat due to defor-estation. As a result, it has disappeared from much of its usual range. Field surveys are required to ascertain the presence of wild populations.
Straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylandicus)
Confined to the Greater Sunda region, the species has undergone massive decline across its range in response to trapping for trade. It is thought to be extinct in Thai-land and locally extirpated in Indonesia (Java and Sumatra). Field surveys are needed in Malaysia, Kalimantan, Myanmar and Brunei to establish the status of wild populations.
White-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus)
Widespread throughout south and southeast Asia, the species has at least 14 sub-species. Some are distinct peripheral forms characterised by a narrow geographic distribution which are seriously threatened with extinction. Urgent field survey work is needed to establish the existing wild population status of these subspecies across Sumatra, Java and surrounding islands.
The Bali Myna, a survivor’s story
This bird of around 25 centimetres long, related to the mynah bird, is almost entirely white with black tips on the wings and tail and bare blue skin around the eyes. This iconic Balinese species was discovered in 1911. Mass export to Europe and the Unit-ed States occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, quickly leading international authorities to enter the species in Appendix I of CITES, the international convention that regulates the trade in living species. Regular counts revealed the decline of the species in the wild. Its numbers thus went from 300 to 400 birds in 1976-77 to between 125 and 180 in 1984 and only 13 or 14 individuals in 1990. After increasing briefly to 45 speci-mens in 1993, the population continued its decline to 15 in 2000 and was considered to be extinct in 2006. Nevertheless, after more than four decades, multiple actors in-cluding different Indonesian, Balinese and Javan authorities, zoological parks, non-governmental organisations and even private breeders, have been able to keep and reproduce this species in captivity, protect natural sites, intensify the fight against trapping and reintroduce individuals back into the wild. The species is far from mak-ing a full come-back, but its future is undeniably a little less gloomy than it was 20 years ago.