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Bali’s bird sellers, conservationists join forces to save endangered mynas

Tossing flowing crests back and forth, three snow-white Bali mynas share a branch, squawking and looking around with the trademark blue patches around their eyes catching sunlight. Minutes later, four more join — a sight that would have been impossible in the wild two decades ago.

But by working with bird breeders and sellers — the very group that contributed to the prized birds becoming critically endangered — conservationists are releasing them in Bali province, hoping to boost the wild population.

Experts say more research and monitoring is needed, but the conservation model has shown promise over the past 10 years and could be replicated for other vulnerable birds in Indonesia.

Endemic to Bali, the Bali myna has been a highly sought collector’s item in the international caged bird trade for more than a century because of their striking white plumage and song. Capture of the birds for sale coupled with habitat loss from land conversion to farming and settlements led to the bird being listed as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1988 and upgraded to “critically endangered” in 1994. By 2001, experts estimated only about six Bali mynas were living in the wild, with thousands in captivity across the globe.

Recognizing Indonesia’s deeply ingrained bird breeder culture and the dire need for Bali myna conservation, the nongovernmental organization now called BirdLife International paired with the government to launch a captive breeding program in the 1980s.

Breeders are able to apply for licenses to breed the birds. If approved, they’re given mynas by the government and are allowed to keep 90 percent of the offspring for private sale. The remaining birds are rehabilitated and released at West Bali National Park, where they can be monitored by park authorities.

The conservation method is compatible with Indonesian culture, where it is common to have caged birds and people rely on the bird trade for their income, said Tom Squires, a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University studying Bali myna ecology and other threatened birds in Indonesia.

“The national park began to understand that and . . . create the conditions where you could have a wild population that still thrives,” Squires said. “Bird keepers can still keep birds and follow their hobby without causing real problems for wild populations — which is, I think, a lot better than species going extinct in the world.”

Early myna releases were plagued with issues: some birds were infected with a parasite that caused high fledgling mortality, others were killed by natural predators. Poaching also continued — and the national park’s captive breeding facility was even robbed at gunpoint, with nearly 40 birds stolen.

Yet conservation efforts in the past decade have seen greater success through increased monitoring of the birds, stronger census data and more research, Squires said.

Agus Ngurah Krisna Kepakisan, the head of the West Bali National Park, also attributes the success of the breeding program to the creation and proliferation of “buffer villages” around the park. Villagers get assistance in obtaining permits to breed Bali mynas there.

“With the community being the breeders . . . they are helping us to take care of the birds that exist in nature,” he said. “There are also those who used to often look for and take Bali myna from nature.”

Squires said definitive evidence exists that some released birds have produced offspring. “So that leads me to believe that the population is certainly self-sustaining to an extent,” he said.

The breeding program’s strides are visible throughout the park. Kepakisan said 420 Bali mynas now live there and hop around in trees, pop their heads out of bird boxes and squawk at tourists passing beneath them.

Conservation efforts have spread to Tabanan Regency — a three-hour drive from the park — where mynas fly over lush rice fields framed by mountains and forest.

The area is a recent release site for Friends of the National Parks Foundation, an Indonesia-based nonprofit group that works with donors and breeders to buy, rehabilitate and release the birds.

Veterinarian I Gede Nyoman Bayu Wirayudha, who founded the organization and has worked in Bali myna conservation for years, said its conservation efforts focus in part on grass-roots community investment in the birds’ welfare.

Traditionally, communities around conservation areas have thought there is no money to be made from them, he said. But Wirayudha believes the rare birds’ presence will help draw tourists, which will provide additional tourism income to the region as it has in other parts of Bali province where mynas have been released.

Community outreach seems to be working. At the organization’s April release of mynas, groups of students, police, military and neighboring villagers eagerly watched as the mynas made their first flight into the wild.

Squires said the conservation model could be applied to other vulnerable or endangered birds in Indonesia, such as the black-winged myna. “For any of the lowland birds affected by the caged-bird trade . . . this is the sort of approach that’s going to be needed,” he said.

— Associated Press