IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Theme Wildlife



The Trade in Songbirds in East Kalimantan

The use of birds for food, ritual, omens, art, and trade has been and continues to be common among the peoples of Borneo, particularly the indigenous groups of Dayak which inhabit the mountainous interior. In the Bulungan District of the northern part of East Kalimantan, birds are collected in the forests of inland villages and traded downriver by ethnic Chinese and Dayak merchants to the growing coastal towns and cities. Songbirds are just one of the many forest products such as timber, rattan, rhinoceros horn, and bird's nests that have been traded in this manner and along this well-travelled route for centuries.


In this analysis of the trade in songbirds I would like to make two points. First, whereas much of literature on the impetus to trade in endangered species focuses on the use of wildlife for food and medicines, this analysis demonstrates that non-material causes can be significant as well. Historically as well as currently, there has been a Bulungan-wide and cross-cultural desire to denote social, political, and economic status through the display of birds. This phenomenon drives the trade in live songbirds. Second, whereas conservationists and legal instruments such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) tend to focus on the movement of wildlife across international boundaries, this case study demonstrates that intra-national trade driven by local values and patterns of consumption can also have dire consequences for the survival of local populations of wildlife and therefore should also be a concern of conservationists. The information discussed here is drawn from my field studies of wildlife use among Penan and Kenyah peoples and my survey of ethnobiological knowledge among 18 ethnic groups across the Bulungan District, an area of 64,000 km2 and more than 288,000 people.

As is the case of trade in most products, both supply-side and demand-side forces are pushing the trade in songbirds. Local people in the largely subsistence economies of inland Bulungan are constantly searching for ways to increase their cash income, and trade in wildlife is often a lucrative and relatively easy means to do so. In recent years, the Asian financial crisis has caused prices of almost all goods to rise. Prolonged drought due to the 1997-98 El Niño phenomenon has caused crop failure and increased demand for rice purchases. Thus the demand for cash has increased and correspondingly, the likelihood that anything that can be collected from the wild and sold, will be (Donovan 1999). Not surprisingly then, throughout the area birds are being sought by farmers who need cash to buy basic food stuffs. Of some 250 species of songbird only about half a dozen are traded and of those only two fetch large prices. Therefore, the search for songbirds is focused on only a few species making it more likely that these local populations will quickly be extirpated.


But what drives the demand for essentially decorative songbirds? They are not used for food or medicine and only a few songbirds are in fact traded out of Bulungan, generally to Java, Bali, and Malaysian Sabah. Consequently, the prices fetched are not as extravagant as those paid for exotic birds, such as those from Irian Jaya, in Jakarta's famous bird markets. Based on interviews with bird owners, it is my belief that the songbirds have come to be the audible displays of wealth and social status among today's traders and government officials, virtual indicators of their owners' level of disposable income. The nouveau-riche often have a caged songbird on display on their front porch. The birds are the ultimate in natural status symbols, for with their beautiful songs every morning they broadcast their owner's wealth and prestige to the neighbourhood. Like gibbons, helmeted hornbills, and argus pheasants, through songbirds humans announce their presence, their territory, and in many ways their dominance over all the creatures of the Bornean rain forest to the world.

I would also argue that this demand is not necessarily new; it appears to derive from the fact that birds have often been used to symbolize high social status in traditional Dayak societies. Formerly, among the Kenyah tribes, the hornbills were considered aristocratic, and thus could only be possessed and displayed by the aristocratic leaders of the tribe. The two long tail-feathers of the helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) were worn in the head dress of a Kenyah warrior who had taken a human head in battle. In modern Indonesian Borneo, where most Dayak people are practising Christians and most of their communities are well integrated into the market economy, birds have lost much of their ritual function. Their symbolic function has shifted from one of sacred and ritual power toward one of wealth and political power.

That songbirds can indicate social and economic stratification is evident in an examination of who owns the birds commonly traded today. The curious blue-crowned hanging parrot (Loriculus galgulus) is the most common cage-bird observed in the homes of inland and Dayak villages of Bulungan. Caught by children in the surrounding mature forests, this bird is occasionally sold to neighbours or local officials. Despite being listed as an endangered species in Appendix II of the CITES treaty, the bird is fairly common, not a particularly rousing singer, and thus not very valuable. The white-capped shama thrush (Copsychus stricklandi), once an Iban omen bird, and only rarely traded in the Bulungan in the early 1990s, has become a moderately valuable songbird. In 1998 some of these birds were being sold for as much as IDR 70,000 or roughly USD 7. It is decidedly middle-class, but in some areas, it is even becoming more popular among the rich traders than the two most prized songbirds, the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) and the talkative hill myna (Gracula religiosa). Both of these birds, now found only in very remote areas expensive to reach, are bought only by very wealthy ethnic Chinese traders or high level Indonesian officials. Both birds, now rare throughout Southeast Asia, are listed as endangered species in Appendix II of the CITES Treaty: they cannot be traded internationally without permits.

Breeding bulbul

Since the economic crisis, which began in late 1997, and with the increasing rarity of these birds, prices have sky-rocketed to as much as IDR 1,000,000 per bird, roughly USD 100, with daily wages only reaching as much as IDR 10,000. Despite the price hikes, birds are selling as well as ever. The buyers tend to be traders, government officials, and sometimes small-scale city merchants that have been able to profit handsomely from the differential between the rate of domestic inflation, held in check by government subsidies for staples, and the rate of local currency earnings on foreign trade in forest products such as rattan, gaharu (Aquilaria spp.), and illegal timber.

Instead of an expected reduction in wildlife captures in the wake of the economic crisis, the trade in songbirds is expanding. As a consequence, several species are facing extirpation and new species are becoming targets for collectors and buyers. A survey of birds in late 1997 found very few of either the bulbul or the myna in the wild (Puri 1998). The survey crew, myself included, witnessed the capture of a breeding female bulbul sitting on eggs in her nest. We were unable to convince the collectors to leave the mother to raise the chicks. In one coastal town, 17 of 170 houses kept a total of five species: two doves, two myna, five bulbul, sixteen shama, and four magpie robin. The presence and high number of shama and magpie robin indicate that in this particular area, collectors are starting to exploit new species. Although as yet undocumented, this kind of trade, confined to local social and economic networks, is probably replicated across much of Kalimantan and on other islands in Indonesia. While the international trade gets most of the attention, these local trade networks, taken collectively, probably cause more damage to lesser known species, and thus need to be addressed by conservationists. Unfortunately, the future for creatures such as songbirds looks bleak as people's desire to display their wealth and status is as strong as ever. *


­ Donovan, D. G.
Strapped For Cash, Asians Plunder Their Forests And Endanger Their Future
In AsiaPacific Issues No. 39, Honolulu: East-West Center, 1999

­ Dove, M. R.
Process Versus Product In Bornean Augery
A Traditional Knowledge System's Solution To The Problem Of Knowing
Pp. 557-596 in Redefining Nature, eds., R. F. Ellen and K. Fukui. Oxford: Berg, 1996

­ Puri, R. K.
Hunting Knowledge Of The Penan Benalui Of East Kalimantan, Indonesia
Ph. D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i, Honolulu, 1997
The Biodiversity And Ethnoecology Of The Punan Tubu
A Preliminary Study
Consultant report submitted to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Jakarta, Indonesia: CIFOR, 1998

­ Richards, A.
Iban Augery
Sarawak Museum Journal 20: 63-81, 1972

Dr Rajindra K. Puri, East-West Center, can be reached at e-mail: 104505.2441@compuserve.com.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 20 | Theme Wildlife