A noisy chorus of birdsongs enlivens Jakarta’s dirty, crowded streets. In this city, birdcages hang from telephone wires, tree limbs, and awnings. I see dozens of caged birds a day in Jakarta: canaries, thrushes, doves and lesser-known wild songbirds of every kind.
Oddly, this obsession with birds originates in an expression of masculinity. According to an old Javanese legend, to be a real man one must have a wife, a house, a dagger, a horse and bird. The horse is widely interpreted today as a motorcycle (or car, if you can afford it). But the bird is still taken quite literally (though its meaning may have been figurative, such as hobby or a source of music). Consequently, many Indonesian men keep birds in cages hung outside their homes or shops. An Oxford study found that more than half of the households in Java’s main cities keep, or recently kept, a bird. In some cities, households keep an average of five birds, usually songbirds or doves. Birdsong competitions are popular pastimes — the national Perkutut (singing dove) competition in Solo attracts thousands of people from every corner of Indonesia.
Though folklore may be at the root of this phenomenon, today people report other reasons for keeping birds, such as companionship. However, the top reason for keeping a bird, according to a survey, is as a reminder of the owner’s home village. Today, more than half the population lives in cities, up from 21 percent in 1980. As rural Indonesians have migrated to cities, so have Indonesia’s wild birds.
Tragically, this hobby is robbing Indonesia’s countryside of birds. Many of the most popular birds cannot be bred in captivity; instead, they are captured from forests around the country. Bird markets such as the one we visited in Jakarta overflow with wild-caught animals, including protected species. Cages are stacked on top of each other, and the animals are crammed together.While the streets of Jakarta ring out with the chirps and cries of imported birds, rural Indonesia increasingly falls silent. “Eerily, … there are precious few birds in the Javanese countryside, most having been caught by traders,” according to a paper from the Brookings Institution, a think tank.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranked Indonesia fifth in the world in terms of avian diversity. That diversity is vulnerable, though: Indonesia also ranks third in the world for the number of threatened bird species. Some species, such as the popular Bali starling, a striking bird with snow-white feathers and a blue face, are nearly extinct. According to the Brookings report, the starling population had fallen to 31 individuals. Then, in July 2012, “poachers coated a few trees with glue and captured six of the starlings in [a national] park, eliminating one-fifth of the population in the wild.”
Jakarta’s bird markets trade mammals and reptiles, too. Many protected animals slip through these markets undetected (or ignored) by law enforcement. In the Jakarta market, one man tried to sell us a slow loris, a small endangered primate native to Indonesia’s forests. It stared up at us with fearful large eyes. A local animal-rights NGO found that 183 protected species were traded at the 70 animal markets in Java. Many of these were parrots and protected songbirds.
Given Indonesia’s social and political context, the problem of bird trafficking is especially difficult to address. The trade is estimated to contribute more than $110 million to Java’s economy each year. Many Indonesians are so poor that they will accept the equivalent of 50 cents for a day’s work trapping wild birds, especially as the payout may be higher for a coveted endangered species. When Indonesian law enforcement does pay attention to wild animal trafficking, they are interested in stopping the more high-profile international trade in large mammals. One NGO leader told Brookings, “The bird trade is just too difficult [and] too culturally sensitive. Attempting to stop it could get us shut down or hamper our other operations.”
Birdkeeping is deeply embedded in the culture, linked to Javanese tradition and a sense of home (the village). In a country with high poverty, lack of infrastructure, major environmental catastrophes, etc., challenging tradition to protect wild birds is not a priority.