Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nusa Penida: A sanctuary for the endangered Bali Starling

On a small island off Bali's coast, Nusa Penida, a little white bird with a vivid blue mask is successfully breeding in the wild.

Over the past six months, 45 of the 65 Bali Starlings bred and released by the Begawan Giri and Friends of the National Parks Foundations since 2006 have hatched offspring.

While not native to Nusa Penida, the Bali Starling has been released on the island in an effort to ensure its survival in the wild.

Back on Bali, where the Bali Starling is the province's emblem, the bird has become critically endangered through poaching and loss of habitat.

Bali Starling breeder and veterinarian, Bayu Wirayudha of Friends of the National Parks Foundation, said the reason for the difference in the birds' survival is simple; on Nusa Penida, traditional laws on the protection of birds and animals are still in place.

"But in West Bali, where the Bali Starling has been bred in captivity and released into the West Bali National Park for decades ... there is not this traditional land-based law," said Bayu.

Shifting breeding of the Bali Starling to Nusa Penida has drawn the ire of some organizations, Bayu said, however the recent bird count of 45 birds born in the wild on the island tells Bayu his experiment in creating new colonies in safe zones is working.

Creating new colonies for endangered birds is often a successful method of preventing extinction of a species. The United States Fish and Wildlife service is currently working with scientists to relocate the endangered short-tailed albatross from its volcanic Torishima Island breeding grounds in Japan to the Bonin Islands -- at a cost of US$5.67 million, writes the Environment News Service website.

The 45 Bali Starlings bred and hatched on Nusa Penida have brought wild populations of the Bali Starling back from the abyss of extinction.

For almost a century, the Bali Starling has been at threat of extinction. Bird counts from 1912 show a contraction in habitat range and by 1966 the bird was declared endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). In 1978, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed the Bali Starling on its critical list.

The Indonesian Government and bird protection organizations around the world saw, as early as the 1980's, that immediate action was needed to prevent the bird from being lost in the wild. Captive breeding programs were successfully established in Bali, however birds released into the wild were quickly poached and populations of the bird continued to plummet.

Unlike most starling species, the Bali Starling with its white feathers and vivid blue mask is a highly attractive bird. Its beauty spelt its downfall, with poachers collecting both wild and captive-bred released birds for sale; and at Rp 5 million to Rp 10 million per bird, poaching in Bali's national parks was a lucrative business.

"The only reason for their extinction is illegal poaching. All starling breeds are very adaptable and can live by the sea, in mountain zones, urban regions and grasslands," said Bayu.

"The Bali Starling is simply too beautiful and everyone wants one as a caged bird -- it's about prestige," said Bayu of the bird that is found in greater numbers in aviaries in England or America than in the wild on its home territory.

Bayu began breeding the Bali Starling in captivity at the Bali Bird Park in 1992.

"We were the first people to officially breed the Bali Starling. The bird had been declared endangered in 1966 by IUCN and on the CITES critical list by '78," said Bayu, adding if populations were numbered below 20, they were classified as extinct.

There were grave fears that the Bali Starling, with constantly falling numbers, could reach a crisis point in wild breeding viability.

"Until a recent release in the West Bali National Park, there were believed to be less than 10 birds in the wild. However, in 2005, I could only count five birds and of those only one was not closed-banded.

"Closed-banded birds have all been bred in captivity. That suggests of those five birds only one had bred naturally in the wild ...," said Bayu.

He added that bird counts in the Bali Barat National Park showed populations would grow with captive bred releases, then plummet sharply, suggesting a high level of poacher activity.

"Its easy work for the poachers when there are a lot of birds; we see the population grow and then overnight it collapses. Poachers can collect a lot of birds in a couple of days and make a lot of money."

And it is the poacher problem that has been the cause of population failures on Bali, Bayu said. Addressing that issue at the grassroots level is why Nusa Penida island was seen as a safe haven for released birds.

"We started the Nusa Penida program in April 2004. We located nine villages that still had traditional laws protecting birds, so we were not bringing in a totally new idea.

"We then met with 16 other villages to discuss bird protection person to person," said Bayu, adding that by June 2006, all villages on Nusa Penida had written bird protection into their traditional laws.

"Each village has its own bird protection law and punishments. One village even purchased all the caged birds in their village and released them ... their regulation states there is no reason to have caged birds, Bayu said.

Despite high levels of poverty on Nusa Penida, to date not one bird has been poached, says Bayu of a conservation project that depends on the support of local people for its success.

"In rural regions, people still have great respect for traditional laws. When birds are released from captive breeding we hold a ceremony in the temple and the birds are blessed. So the Bali Starling on Nusa Penida is protected by government law, local law and also by God, from the temple blessing."

Convincing people from impoverished villages that they had a role to play in protecting wildlife called for genuine support for those villages, said Bayu. But with sponsorship from Bank Danamon, American Express, Pertamina and Karya Tangan Indah, agro farming of white teak, mahogany and sandalwood trees for farmers as well as reforestation is now underway across the island.

"Nusa Penida had positive press for their protection of the Bali Starling and that made them really proud. Before that Nusa Penida was seen as a poor and dry area.

"If the bird release is the main course in this, the side menu must somehow help locals ... this is the idea behind the agro forestry and reforestation program, to improve the environment and economy," said Bayu of the grassroots approach to conservation and wildlife protection that is benefiting all.

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