Tue, 06 Mar 2001

Endangered Bali starling nearing point of no return

The Bali starling is on the verge of extinction with only 13 left in the wild of Bali Barat National Park. With an invitation from Conservation International, The Jakarta Post's Pandaya visited the birds' habitat from Feb. 20 to Feb. 22 and observed the efforts being made to save this endangered treasure. The following article contains his report and photos.

BALI BARAT NATIONAL PARK, Bali (JP): The man's eyes light up with anger when he recalls that fateful night in November 1999.

"It must never ever happen again," vows Wawan Suryawan, an employee of Bali Barat National Park.

Wawan was talking about how a gang of about 25 people armed with explosives, guns, crowbars and machetes broke into the Bali starling breeding complex.

The criminals, believed to have conspired with local residents, tied down the four on-duty rangers, snatched their rifles, set off two explosives, and ran away with 39 starlings.

All the robbers escaped in a motorboat that was standing by on the seashore near the Bali Barat National Park office, in Cekik, some three kilometers away to the south. Eyewitnesses said the bandits sped off across the narrow Bali Strait to Java.

And to add further insult, the criminals sneaked into the forest at night a month later and placed the rangers' rifles in a cardboard box near their post.

That was not the only robbery of the critically endangered birds. On Aug. 31, 2000, another 13 starlings ready for release into the wilderness were stolen from their aviary at another location in the 20,000 hectare park.

The incidents clearly illustrate the urgency of effort required to preserve the Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi). Official statistics show that there are only an all-time low of 13 starlings left in the wild down from 18 in 1990, while the minimum number considered "safe" from extinction is about 150.

In 1992, the population soared to 50 but poaching has cut it down again.

While the provincial government is criticized in not doing enough to safe the species, the situation has caused grave concern from local and international environmental organizations.

The temptation to hunt the bird is irresistible for those familiar with the illegal business of rare animals. On the black market, a starling fetches up to Rp 10 million (almost US$1,000).

"The demand for the starling is high," says Tri Siswo Raharjo, chief of the West Bali conservation office. "The rich like to keep the bird as a pet as well as a status symbol."

The bird is beautiful. It has shiny white feathers and blue spots on its face, wing tips and tail. The male starling is magnificent with its peculiar crest, dancing and chirping on branches to attract females.

In the wild, they stand out with their white feathers and graceful, rather slow flying style. They fly short distances. Rangers call them "stupid" for their tame behavior which periodically enables lazy snakes to catch them in trees.

Their natural habitat is confined to the monsoon forests of northwest Bali, declared Bali Barat National Park in 1982.

Poaching and robbery in the national park is believed to be carried out by very well-organized crime syndicates, which involve corrupt security officers and forestry officials.

This conspiracy was apparent from the November 1999 robbery incident as Wawan recalled, "They grabbed the young birds which were ready for reintroduction to the wild and they (robbers) seemed to know very well which cages to break into. I believe there was some degree of conspiracy with locals."

The five-year jail term and Rp 100 million in fine that conservation law mandates for any perpetrator has proved toothless. Some have been tried and jailed for stealing wood and dynamite fishing in the park area.

Forest protection and nature conservation bodies have attributed the major decline in the starling population to the large-scale export of the animals to the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s.

The starling was included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1970. Indonesia ratified CITES in 1978.

Poorly equipped

The 65 rangers of the national park are considered "enough" in numbers though are poorly equipped. Money is short and the rangers have to cut their fuel budget in order to keep the boats, motorcycles and vans running.

"We need about Rp 6 million a month for fuel alone but the budget is hard to keep to," says Tri when meeting with Russel Mittermeier, chief of the U.S.-based Conservation International.

Once you become accustomed to the terrain of the national park, you realize how smart these poachers are. They use mist nets to catch birds in tall trees in the jungle at night. Not only that, Tri said, they are equipped with sophisticated communication radios that allow them to avoid rangers.

Tri finds it difficult to conceal his dismay at Bali's provincial government's perceived ignorance of the critical situation. "The park contributed Rp 70 million last year to the state but they gave minimal funds in return. We have to rely on funds from central government for our budget."

This financial hurdle has prompted the park's management to initiate cooperation with other stakeholders which include the private sector in order to promote ecotourism as well as NGOs and local residents.

Currently, an ecotourist resort project is underway. Existing tourism operators in the area are required to contribute a portion of their profit for conservation. Local residents leasing their motorboats to surfers around Menjangan across the park are required to contribute 60 kilograms of rice to each of the six ranger posts in the area.

Last ditch efforts

Captive breeding, done in the park and in the U.S., is part of last ditch efforts undertaken by the park's management to save the critically endangered species with the help of NGOs like BirdLife International.

Now, the breeding center near Cekik boasts 55 starlings. The center is expected to breed 150 birds a year so that they can soon be reintroduced to the jungle.

The birds are usually released when they are one year old and after three months of "orientation" in an aviary at the western tip of the park.

According to Wawan, the bird lays two to three eggs twice a year in the wild but they can be much more productive in an aviary -- they lay eggs up to eight times a year. Of the three eggs, two usually hatch.

All the efforts to save the Bali starling have won sympathy from Conservation International's Mittermeier, who has spent a whole day touring the park and talking to conservation officials.

He concluded that what the park management needs is a small investment which involves incremental funding as the infrastructure has been inadequate.

Mittermeier promised to look into the possibility of helping the park with electricity, fuel, drinking water and offering conservation know-how.

"The government should give the rangers a little more incentive to show appreciation of what they are doing," he said.

In Indonesia, Conservation International is currently working in a number of important biodiverse sites in Aceh, Gunung Gede in West Java, Togean Islands in Central Sulawesi and Irian Jaya.