Ruffled Feathers

by Rae Ellen Bichell:

SURABAYA, Indonesia—The Pramuka Bird Market is big and bustling, its open-air stalls packed with birdcages from floor to ceiling. Freckled lovebirds, baby owls tethered to stick perches, and iridescent blue kingfishers with curved beaks, among other exotic wildlife, stock the shelves of this avian superstore. Nearby, men load an official-looking jeep with fabric-covered cages, while across the parking lot uniformed policemen smoke cigarettes and enjoy their lunch.

The bird trade has gone on for 5,000 years in Indonesia, and open wildlife markets dot every major city. Today, the trade has taken on a darker tone.

Highly prized for its healing properties, the Bubut is among the slew of birds sold illegally to traditional medicine customers across Asia. (Bichell/TYG)

Bubut, big black birds with red eyes, are believed to be valuable antidotes to broken bones when boiled into a drinkable medicine. Crows serve as lucky charms for gamblers, though an exceptionally glossy black chicken will also do. Songbirds especially are of tremendous importance in Indonesia, as songbird competitions have evolved into a national pastime. “Bird keeping is part of the Javanese cultural identity,” said Paul Jepson, a senior researcher at Oxford who did studies with BirdLife International in Indonesia for years. It was Jepson who did the first and largest survey of bird keeping in Indonesia in 2005; he found that 22 percent of urban households keep a total of 2.6 million birds across Indonesia’s five biggest cities. Once they hit the international black market, the animals can end up anywhere from European cages to ground up into powder in traditional Chinese medicines.

The demand for rare birds rose sharply in 1998, when the fall of Suharto caused mass decentralization across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Wildlife traders took advantage of the power vacuum, employing the same export pathways as illegal loggers: out of the forest, past non-vigilant or corrupt customs officials, and into black markets in Singapore and Malaysia. Now, as logs roll down forest slopes and into barges bound for processing plants, middlemen shuttle birds from hunters’ nets into wildlife markets, traders’ warehouses, and even smugglers’ underwear, as in the case of a man this April who attempted to transport 14 songbirds taped inside his pants from Vietnam to Los Angeles. Traders continue to circumvent the Indonesian legal system with impunity, raising questions about corruption within the military and hinting at the trade’s links to other crime syndicates.

A 2009 report by the animal protection agency ProFauna indicated that individual sellers and crime syndicates traded a combined 183 protected species in 70 bird markets across the country. Demand has outstripped supply, posing great danger to many protected species as they continue to disappear from their natural habitats.

“I’ve seen that over the last 13 years, birds are vanishing,” said Neville Kemp, an ornithologist who discovered the imperial pigeon while hiking in the Foja mountains in May. Once, he ran into a group of military personnel who had just shot a kasuari, an Indonesian ostrich, for food. “They have the guns. So what are you going to do about it?” said Kemp. It was not the first time he observed poachers while bird-watching.

The Indonesian bird trade is money-driven , both within Indonesia and internationally. Winners of songbird competitions, for example, can receive up to u.S. $3,500, a fortune for the average Indonesian. These competitions are “a combination between a horse race and a dog show,” according to Jepson. “There are people shouting at the referee saying ‘you’re an idiot, you didn’t look at my bird long enough, what are you doing?’”

Songbird contests account for $105 million each year within Indonesia. Worldwide, the monetary value of the illegal wildlife trade ranks second only to the drug trade. “It’s another way to get cash, just like art, gems, you name it,” said Chris Draper, a senior scientific researcher with the Born Free Foundation. Like art and gems, however, there’s another side to the wildlife trade: elusive crime syndicates and their vast webs of corruption.

Bird hunting starts as a casual hobby. “You can trade a parrot for three pieces of clothing. It’s a side job,” said Butet Sitohang of ProFauna, referring to the poor farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan who hunt them for a little extra cash during the dry season. The transactions further down the line, however, are much more complex. Prices increase dramatically the farther the bird gets from the Indonesian forests, multiplying by tenfold once it reaches Malaysia or Singapore and 200-fold by the time it reaches Europe. Leaving Indonesia’s borders also means disease and death during transport— according to ProFauna, more than 20 percent of animals die in transit—and almost complete un-traceability. Though ProFauna research shows the highest demand for exotic birds comes from the Middle East, there is almost no way of knowing where, or in what form, the birds end up.

Well-organized smuggling operations are busted every few months, though many go undiscovered. They are highly planned, and, according to ProFauna, linked to arms, drugs, and human trafficking as well. “The wildlife traders are usually human traffickers and weapons dealers also. It all goes back to the same syndicates,” said Sitohang. On top of that, smugglers are intimately familiar with the inner workings of airports, seaports, and customs screening strategies, making it even more difficult for authorities to stop the trade.

“All sorts of illegal things are going on under the radar. I’ve been at the airport and watched officials with crates of birds,” said John Morrison, deputy director of Conservation Science at the World Wildlife Fund. “Smuggling is done by the army—the actual army and navy. They smuggle birds just like they smuggle timber, because they have access to the transportation, and because no one is going to try to stop them,” he said. “The wildlife mafias are always backed up by high-ranking military,” confirmed Sitohang.

As a result, “NGOs cannot publish information that the government doesn’t like.” In 2008, TRAFFIC, another NGO, was nearly expelled from the country for publishing a report calling on the Indonesian government to step up law enforcement involving Sumatran tiger hunting. “Sometimes the army will be on one side, and the police will be on the other. People are getting paid off in different directions. And the corruption…” said Caitlin Clarke of the World Resources Institute. It is common knowledge that the large navy ships floating in the coastal city’s port often embark packed with contraband, including furniture exported with tranquilized birds “ packed in drawers and shelves.

Most groups concerned with wildlife conservation say that the way to crack down on the black market bird trade is to increase punishment and regulations. But in a place where even automobile traffic laws are frequently brushed off—brown-uniformed traffic police can be frequently spotted sipping coffee together at posh hotels, even during rush hour—it’s hard to imagine enforcement having any success. The wildlife trade is “culturally embedded,” said Jepson: “All the police keep birds, so it’s hard for them to enforce.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the standard for international wildlife trade laws, is riddled with loopholes and easily evaded by governments and smugglers alike. “It’s very misunderstood. It doesn’t ban trade, it does nothing of the sort. It rests on individual signatories’ state governments,” said Draper. Additionally, though Jepson’s study found 29 species of birds in Indonesian homes, only three are protected and only two appear on the IUCN’s Red List, despite the threat to conservation that they all pose.

The government claims it is making improvements, and indeed, with former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani’s anti-corruption policies, the country has shown marked improvement. “Now we are going to be much better. Most people care, and they really want to help because otherwise we fine them,” said Raffles Panjaitan, head of Ex-Situ Conservation at the Ministry of Forestry. “We try to catch some people who sell the protected animals and people who have the animals in their home.” But, Sitohang pointed out, “They’re working only for what we call ‘sexy animals,’ like tigers and orangutans,” leaving other species in the dust. “It’s all superficial,” she said.

A screening operation this spring by INTERPOL caught millions of dollars of wildlife products on their way into European countries. 18 countries participated in the campaign. Indonesia was not among them, despite experiencing “rolling” extinction of songbirds like the long-tailed shrike, the orange-headed thrush, and the white-rumped shama.

The Bali starling is now extinct, and the straw-headed bulbuls are following in their wake. But, as Sitohang put it, with “with the judicial system here, money always talks.”

Rae Ellen Bichell ’12 is an Anthropology major in Davenport College. Her work on this article was graciously funded by the Eli Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner Summer Journalism Fellowship. Contact her at