ENVIRONMENTAL ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

The Javan Pied Starling Gracupica jalla used to be the most plentiful bird in Java and Bali islands, Indonesia. They roamed freely through human habitats in the lowlands, farmlands, and cities. Then they disappeared 70 years later, from 1990 – 2000, practically unnoticed.

Dr. Bas van Balen, lead author of the study, Ardea said “50 to 100 years ago the Javan Pied Starling was among the commonest birds in Java’s farmlands. Now, none of these birds are known to survive in the wild. Just a few occasional escapees can be seen.”

Ironically, this bird survived deforestation and thrived where humans lived. In the 1930s they were deemed common. It seemed like a perfect arrangement between the Javan and the people.

Instead, it was a time of mass entrapment. By the year 2000, this starling was considered extinct in the wild, although one million of them were caged. Dr. Nigel Collar, BirdLife International Leventis Fellow, Conservation Biology said, “for a species with a high tolerance of disturbed habitats, especially agricultural areas, and which used to be found in large roosts inside city limits, the current situation is truly extraordinary. Here is a bird that is extinct in the wild but which you can find quite easily in bird shops and people’s homes. There is no other case like this on earth”.

Javan birds nearly completely disappeared in the wild from 1990 to 2000. By 2010, a remnant originating from trapped birds was discovered in a remote part of Central Java. Another small group, most likely escaped birds, was found in Bali.

How they disappeared

There are five threats that affected the Javan Pied Starling’s population:

  1. Bird trade. The first and main cause of the bird’s decline is the caged bird trade. The Javan Pied Starling is trusting. Other birds fly beyond the reach of humans, but the Javan will enter a human dwelling and go to the kitchen for food scraps. Other birds build nests on treetops, but the Javan’s nest is within reach of poachers.

  2. Chemicals. The second threat was the use of herbicides and pesticides on crops. Javans eat fruits and land-dwelling insects, slugs, snails, and earthworms, among others, poking their beaks into the soil to find them. In doing so it may have absorbed or eaten pesticide chemicals as well. Also, as the soil bugs died, the Javans no longer had this food source.

  3. Culture. The third threat is culture. Javanese love their birds like Westerners love their dogs. Over 1.14 million caged Javans are kept in households. They’re also commercially sold in bird stores on Java island. An average of 614,180 native songbirds is trapped and traded annually between two islands alone — Java and Bali, Indonesia.

A study by Paul Jepson and Richard J. Ladle noted that in Java and Bali “bird-keeping is not strongly correlated with any age, income, professional or ethnic group, (which) underlines the ubiquitous nature of the pastime”.

The Javanese is the largest ethnicity in Indonesia. They believe caged birds provide a balanced life and social harmony. Owning one indicates wealth, education, and prestige.

  1. No legal protection. A fourth threat is the absence of legal protection for the Javan Pied Starling. Jepson and Ladle noted that implementing legal protection for Javans is potentially eruptive, especially among Javanese urban populations.

The Indonesian government won’t impose regulations to protect the Javan Pied Starling because bird-keeping is a cultural norm that stirs passion. And yet, a reintroduction program of the Java Pied Starling into the wild must have legal protection if it’s launched. While this can’t be done nationally, it may be possible on a provincial or district level as well.

  1. Avian flu. Another cause of death was the Avian flu in the mid-2000s that killed many birds including caged Javans.

Timeline

Here is a timeline of the Javan Pied Starling’s diminishing population in the wild:

1953. The Javan Pied Starling was a favorite pet for sale.

1960’s. The Javan Pied Starling was widely spread across Java, but Collar says trappings were probably so slow that people didn’t notice their dwindling numbers.

1979-1998. Indonesia’s agricultural pesticide use increased ten-fold affecting the diet of the Javan Pied Starling.

1980’s. The Javan Pied Starling was among the most common open countryside birds in Java and Bali, Indonesia.

1990. The Javan Pied starlings population dwindled in Bali.

1994. They probably vanished from Sumatra. However, because they aren’t endemic to Sumatra, it’s likely that they flew there to follow agricultural expansion.

2000’s. Before the start of the millennium, the species abruptly vanished in the wild.

2000s. The species were commercially bred to meet the market demand for the domestic cage bird trade.

2017. Eighty percent of shallot farmers blamed the complete loss of earthworms from their soils, which were a former Javan stronghold, on pesticides, which deplete the food of starlings that are found in the topsoil.

2014 – 2020. Nijman et. al. conducted 280 surveys on 25 bird markets in Java and Bali. Fifteen markets were surveyed at least six times. They counted 24,358 Javan Pied Starlings, (Most likely caged birds). Conservatively, this equaled 40% of birds sold in one week. From that number, Nijman et. al. concluded that 80,000 Javan Pied Starling songbirds were sold in Java and Bali — at a collective total price of US $5.2 million.

IUCN Rating

The Javan Pied Starling songbird (Gracupica jalla) was taxonomically separated from the Asian Pied Starling Sturnus contra, because these other species were doing well in the wild.

By isolating the Javan Pied Starling songbird (Gracupica jalla), the IUCN could rate it separately. Because a few birds were found in the wild, the IUCN ranked it Critically Endangered, meaning there was an over 50% higher likelihood of extinction within 10 years. This is why science must get involved with the caged Javan Pied Starling now.

What Zoos and conservationists are doing to repopulate the Javan Pied Starling in the wild

The following is being done to repopulate the Javans in the wild:

April 2021. The Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) contained data on 30 Javan pied starlings in two accredited zoos (Jurong bird park, Singapore, and Taman Safari Pasuruan, Indonesia).

The Prigen Conservation Breeding Ark, a collaborative breeding project in which, among others, Taman Safari Indonesia participates, has been established to set up an insurance population of purebred Javan Pied Starlings for a future release of Javans into the wild.

Captivity and interbreeding

Scientists are breeding Javans in captivity to be reintroduced to the wild. There are some limitations, such as interbreeding. Very few Javans are in the wild, and they may not be pure breeds. Scientists need to know the parents of a Javan to be sure that they released pure breeds into the wild.

What more is needed

Financial and technical support is needed to:

  1. Enable collaboration of zoos, commercial facilities, local, and international NGOs to educate people on captive-breeding programs for conservation.

  2. Awareness campaigns conducted by zoos and educational facilities on songbird conservation, so people can be open to protecting the birds.

  3. The Javan pied starling should be the flagship species in educational initiatives geared so that Javanese can review its long history and strong appeal, and meet the critical need for Javan conservation, and breeding caged Javans to eventually send them into the wild under safe, controlled in situ conditions.

  4. Dr. Anuj Jain, BirdLife International, and co-chair, ASTSG’s community engagement group, says the Javan should also be a flagship for pesticide-free agriculture, saying, “Maybe one day, we will have ‘Javanese Starling rice’ – rice free from pesticides where communities are incentivized and where eco-tourists and Javan Pied Starlings roam free.”

  5. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) produced several guidelines on the management of animal species in captivity, including the Javan pied starlings with a focus on low costs and maximized output.

  6. These manuals can help zoos develop better husbandry and best practice guidelines for breeding the Javan pied starling.

  7. Zoos can inform research on areas to prioritize for the Javan pied starlings. Proper research is needed on the Javan’s in situ status, its genetic load, original range distribution, and knowledge of the events that led to their near-extinction in the wild. They can also promote fundraising to conduct further research.

  8. A reintroduction to the wild program using protocols approved by international bodies.

  9. A “pure” population of Javans can be maintained if zoos collaborate with commercial breeders who take pride in raising pure-bred Javans. These birds can be rewilded if they are released to a natural space that meets all their needs, is suitable in size, and is protected from poachers and chemical agriculture.

Successful rewilding

On 1 September 2020, two fletchings of purebred Javans empty nested 3 weeks after being hatched. They comprise Prigen Conservation Breeding Ark’s (PCBA) F2 generation. Their parents, the F1 generation, were also born at PCBA, which is committed to the conservation breeding of Javan Pied Starlings.

PCBA exists to counterbalance the high practice of hybridization of caged birds. Javan pied starlings are also threatened by poaching. PCBA hopes that if these two threats are contained, they can safely release their pure Javans into the wild.

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