By: Adam Miller, Executive Director
It was last fall when I had been called into a local village to evaluate the potential for their new ecotourism industry. What happened I could’ve never foreseen.
“My grandpa trapped birds, my father traps birds, and I will teach my sons to make these calls so we can trap birds”
The village leader was interested in developing their infrastructure to better attract foreign tourists to the nearby national park. The small lodge was nestled on a hill side with a backdrop of jungle covered mountains intermixed with flowing streams and waterfalls. Below the lodge a river flowed down from the rice fields that were tucked away at the feet of the mountains.
That evening the village was bustling with excitement, a group of foreigners had arrived in the area! As we sat eating our white rice, Indonesian fried chicken and seasoned tempeh, locals gathered on the far side of the river to watch this strange group of people who decided to stay in their newly built lodge.
“With estimates now reaching nearly 600,000 birds trapped and traded a year”
Having my strong love for making new Indonesian friends, I called across the river in my integration of Bahasa Indonesia and the local Bahasa Melayu language “Jangan malu! Datanglah” [Don’t Be shy, Come here!]. Quickly a young group of boys came scurrying across the bridge and sat a comfortable distance away. What followed will be a story I will hold with me till the day I die.
Almost immediately they began serenading us with the most advanced replication of songbird calls I have ever heard. Perfect songs flowed from their lips from trilling metallic high notes to deep clicks and clacks that were so often heard in the early morning canopy of the jungle. As a lifelong birder and enthusiasts, I was overcome with excitement and bliss.
A group of young birders? There are few things in the world that could put a bigger and more vibrant smile on my face. I quickly rushed over to the group of young boys, startling them with my onslaught of questions and excitement for their recently revealed abilities.
Overcome with excitement, it took me all too long to piece the situation together. Greater Green Leafbird, Long-tailed shama, Grey-cheeked Bulbul, they hit the notes of these complicated and long bird calls with perfect precision. But wait. I knew these species, I saw them everywhere. Never in the forests, there were few left, but in the thousands of bird cages that hung in front of the tiny houses that scattered the Indonesian countryside.
Could it really be? Where these young boys bird trappers? Someone had to produce these bird calls to lure them in. Was it really small children who were responsible?
I asked them if they went into the national park to trap birds, they quickly answered no and looked frightened. In this particular area, there was no forest left outside of the park, if they were trapping birds there was only one option.
So, reaching back into my arsenal of skills from my teaching days I knew I had to comfort these small children to get the truth out. Sadly, I told a small white lie. I told them when I was younger I also used to trap birds, but I realized it was not good for the environment so I stopped.
“Yes” one boy started, exchanging nervous looks with the others. “We trap birds. Our fathers’ voices are too deep to make these bird calls. So we do it for them.”
“But do you go to school?” I asked, shocked by their omission.
They shook their heads. “This is my family’s way to make money. So we dropped out. We help our fathers in the forest from sunrise until the afternoon. My grandpa trapped birds, my father traps birds, and I will teach my sons to make these calls so we can trap birds.”
Fighting back tears my greatest fears were thrown in my face. Poverty had not only caused older men to seek a livelihood in animal trafficking, but it had also trickled down to the younger generations. It was a new face of the animal trapper. A young boy, a child, a kid who has given up school, given up all chances of another life to help his father provide an income. Trap songbirds.
Adam with the 5 young bird trappers
This story brings great urgency to the work at Planet Indonesia. With current estimates reaching nearly 600,000 birds trapped and traded a year, we have little time before the world renowned avifauna of Indonesia disappear forever. New estimates now say that Indonesia has the 2nd highest number of endangered species in the world, much of it from habitat loss and the wildlife trade.
But now these statistics hold a new weight. Does this negative cycle of environmental degradation and human poverty now include young children?
I am excited about the work at Planet Indonesia and that we are the first organization in this region to address the issues of bird trading and its link to human poverty. Together, we can build a better world around us. A world where human-wildlife conflicts are minimal, and where livelihoods are no longer dependent, linked, and reliant on the exploitation of our natural resources.