Tue, 01 Aug 2000

Shrinking habitat and greedy men endanger rare birds

By Kafil Yamin

BANDUNG (JP): A good soldier knows what he is supposed to give as a present to his commander when he returns from duty in the jungle. Not fresh fruit or live fish, but a rare species of monkey, bird or deer.

The importance of a military officer can be seen from his private collection of animals. A general holding a key position usually has a vast collection of animals, including rare species. The more protected species he has, the more strategic his position is, said Hapsoro, an activist of Telapak Indonesia, which campaigns for the protection of rare species in Indonesia.

Birds are becoming a popular gift as they remain one of the most popular hobbies. The bird business is also bullish, with private possession or trade of certain species being prohibited. Some protected bird species can be found in the back gardens of generals and other high-ranking officials.

Iwan Setiawan, a researcher with BirdLife, sees a big irony here. A present is regarded as being special if it is an animal from a protected species. He once saw the back yard of a general's house that was full of birds, including endangered ones.

The general proudly said that an endangered bird was a present from one of his subordinates who returned from Irian Jaya, others came from Kalimantan and East Timor.

They are not aware that their hobby further threatens endangered species, he grinned.

It is easier, then, to find rare species and other protected animals in the mansions of rich people than in the wild. A Bandung-based journalist, who once happened to come into a top official's home here described the backyard as a "small zoo". You can find a range of endangered animals from Javan tiger to Javan hawk-eagle, he said.

Under Law No. 5/1990 on Natural Preservation and Conservation, one trading in or possessing protected animals are subject to five years imprisonment and Rp100 million in fine.

Eagles highly imperiled

According to Iwan, the population of Javan tiger can be counted on one's fingers now, while Javan hawk-eagles (Spizaetus bartelsi) number some 300 individuals. Continuing pressures on the forests have dropped its population significantly, he said.

The Javan eagle lives only in primary forests in Java. Now that forests account for only 3 percent of Java's land, the bird's habitat is increasingly threatened.

BirdLife estimates that the population of Javan-hawk eagles has declined by 50 percent over the last five years.

Meanwhile, their area of distribution has been fragmented and decreased to only 10 percent.

Java boasts 18 resident birds of prey. Habitat fragmentation and hunting have put the survival of most, if not all these species at risk. Surveys on 27 islands conducted between 1981 and 2000 shows forest raptors survive in smaller patches.

Other endemic raptors on Java island are Crested Serpent-eagle (Spilornis cheela], Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis), Rafous- bellied eagle (Hieraatus kienerii). Outside Java, the Sulawesi hawk-eagle (Spizaetus lanceolatus) is going through a similar plight. Deforestation resulting from forest conversion to palm oil plantations and the enlargement of cacao plantations have become serious threats to the declining population of Sulawesi eagles.

A recent study by the Indigenous Natural Conservation [YPAL] found 20 raptor species in South Sulawesi province with Brahminy Kite being the most common species, followed by the Sulawesi Serpent eagle (Spilornis rufipectus), Lesser Fish-eagle and Sulawesi hawk-eagle.

According to Iwan, the pivotal value of the Javan hawk-eagle and Sulawesi hawk-eagle, both popularly called elang Jawa and elang Sulawesi, rests on their nature as top predators.

As a top predator, the Javan eagle can by manage the size of its prey population. So it serves as a sort of balancing power in nature, a role that men cannot do, he said.

If peasants in villages, are incapable of controlling rats that affect their paddy fields, they can rely on the eagle. It is their mistake not to care about the eagle, Iwan added.

Indonesia is not alone in terms of forest degradation. Massive industrialization in other Asian countries steps up pressures on natural forests and therefore causes continuing decline of raptor populations in this archipelago.

The dwindling population of Asian raptors was discussed in a seminar here from June 25 through June 27. Experts from Asia, Europe, Middle East and the U.S. discussed ways to save the animals.

The Second Symposium of Asian Raptor Research and Conservation [ARRC] recommended, among others, collaboration with governments and local communities to prevent and minimize habitat loss, compilation of local knowledge on raptors, and encouraging studies on raptor adaptation on the changing environment.

Geographically, Indonesia is crucial to the existence of raptors since it is one of the migration sites from the North during the autumn.

Periodically, raptors migrate from the North to Southeast Asia and return to the north in the spring.

The Javan hawk-eagle is better known as burung Garuda, which has become the mascot of Indonesian unity in diversity. Their population is now on the decline.