Indonesia adds hundreds of birds to protected species list

  • Indonesia has revised its list of protected species of plants and animals that are endemic to the country for the first time since 1999.
  • A total of 919 endemic species, most of them birds, are now banned from trading and hunting in one of the most biodiverse countries on Earth.
  • Wildlife experts in Indonesia have welcomed the update, but also warned that technical changes may hinder law enforcement against wildlife crime.
  • With the new list, conservation activists also expect people to hand over captive species that are now protected under the law.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has expanded its list of wildlife species banned from trading and hunting for the first time in nearly two decades, bringing the total number of protected species to more than 900.

The update takes the form of a revision to the appendix of a 1999 regulation that lists plant and animal species endemic to the country that have small populations in the wild and are on the decline because of overhunting and habitat loss. The list, signed off on July 11, now includes 919 species, mostly birds, up from 677 previously.

Besides adding new species, the update also struck off species whose populations are recovering or which are extinct, such as the Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica).

“We hope that this new list can better protect all of these species of animals and plants,” Amir Hamidy, a herpetologist from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), who was involved in revising the list, told Mongabay.

A Javan gibbon (Hylobates moloch) in Gunung Gede, Java, Indonesia. Image by Francesco Veronesi/Flickr.

Wildlife conservation activists have welcomed the update as a boon for the protection of Indonesia’s threatened animals and plants. The new list comes a few months after an effort to overhaul the nation’s 28-year-old conservation law stalled in parliament.

“The condition of Indonesia’s wildlife has experienced so much development ever since the first list was published about 19 years ago,” said Sofi Mardiah, a wildlife policy program manager at Wildlife Conservation Society-Indonesia.

The most significant group designated for protection are birds, including songbirds, which now make up 564 species on the list, according to Adam Miller, executive director of Planet Indonesia, an NGO that monitors the country’s bird trade.

“This new policy has potentially huge impacts for Indonesia’s avian species,” Miller told Mongabay. “Virtually overnight, with the release of this new policy, nearly every bird shop across Indonesia and thousands, if not millions, of households are owning protected species according to this new [list].”

Bird-keeping is a popular pastime among Indonesians, particularly the Javanese, for the most part because it signifies status and is thought to promote peace of mind. Songbirds are also prized for use in contests, which have spawned thriving networks of clubs, online forums and blogs. President Joko Widodo is an avid collector of songbirds, which he enters into singing contests. Earlier this year he even offered to buy a prize-winning bird worth up to $137,000.

The hobby has grown popular beyond Java, thanks largely to the government’s transmigration program that relocated residents from the densely populated island to other parts of the country. That allowed bird-keeping, among other Javanese customs, to take root in those regions.

Previous studies on the bird trade have exposed the rampant markets in urban centers on the islands of Java and Sumatra. A 2005 report estimated that an average of 614,180 native songbirds were trapped and traded annually throughout the two islands.

A caged bird found for sale at a store in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Image courtesy of Planet Indonesia.
Rural areas in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo Island, have seen the wild bird trade flourish, threatening local populations of bird species. Image courtesy of Planet Indonesia.

Another significant change to the updated list is the categories of the wildlife. The previous version often protected entire families or genera, as well as certain species. The new list, though, lists the protected wildlife at a species level.

This change could potentially hamper law enforcement against wildlife crime, particularly in cases involving closely related species, said Sunarto, a wildlife ecologist at WWF-Indonesia.

“Even someone like me who has a background in biology has a difficult time identifying which species is which,” he said. “Can you imagine how much more challenging it would be for law enforcers in general to do that?

“Having such a detailed list would only work out if we had supporting facilities, such as DNA testing, available easily everywhere,” he added.

Sunarto said another benefit of protecting an entire family or genus was that it served to safeguard wildlife species for which data might be lacking but whose population may be in decline.

“This new way of cataloging could potentially be misused,” he said. “A hunter could claim that the animal is not a protected species, and it’s going to be up to law enforcement to prove otherwise, which can be time-consuming and costly.”

Amir, from the science institute, said there was the potential for such obstacles to come in the process of tackling wildlife crime. But he said listing protected animals by species rather than by genus or family was meant to eliminate potential mistakes during the investigation of wildlife crimes.

He said a certain species may belong to a previously protected family or genus, but that particular species itself may not be facing extreme decline, or its population may still be considerably large.

Amir also noted the wording of the 1999 government regulation, which aims to protect plant and animal species. “If we wanted to protect by family or genus, then we would have to amend the regulation, which would require approval from more government institutions, including parliament,” he said.

He called for educating law enforcement officials and providing tools to help them and the public better identify protected species.

“LIPI must provide this information to help people differentiate similar-looking species, and law enforcement must involve the best wildlife experts to help during a crime,” Amir said.

The bleeding toad (Leptophryne cruentata) is the only amphibian species in the updated list of Indonesian protected species. Image courtesy of Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

With the new list, conservationists also expect a lot of people to hand over to the authorities captive animals that are now protected, although it’s not clear whether enforcement will be retroactive. Officials from the environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“These wild animals and plants must immediately be handed over to the authorities, and if possible, they can go into rehabilitation so that they can be released back to the wild,” Sunarto said.

Indonesian law states that anyone who trades, keeps, distributes or kills a protected species may be jailed for up to five years and/or fined up to 100 million rupiah ($7,000).

“I think it is still too early to say, but between the huge number of shops, the households owning birds, and the weekly songbird competitions, what’s clear now [is that it is] all illegal through the new legislation,” Planet Indonesia’s Miller said.

“Interesting times are ahead for sure, and protocols related to songbird rescue and confiscations are needed to ensure that sick or habituated birds are not released into healthy populations or into the wrong habitats.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo frees birds he purchased at the Pramuka wildlife market in Jakarta. Conservationists have called on him to shut down the notorious trafficking hub rather than patronize it. Image courtesy of @jokowi.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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