Watch The Birdie
Many of Indonesia’s bird species are dying out. According to IUCN (the International Union for Conservation Nature) 2015 records, 131 bird species in Indonesia are at the brink of extinction, among others because of damaged habitats and poaching. The country is home to 1,666 bird species, 426 of which are endemic, including Sulawesi’s maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) and Papua’s bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea minor). Several groups have chosen not to simply let these rare birds disappear. In Tompotika, South Sulawesi, the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation and local residents patrol the forest to protect the maleo, while the Dorei Jaya community in Papua encourages villagers to help safeguard the bird-of-paradise. In commemoration of the World Habitat Day on October 2, Tempo English reports.
Before They Are Gone Forever
Poaching and forest encroachment are threatening the maleo, a bird endemic to Sulawesi. The Alliance for Tompotika Conservation is working together with locals to protect the endangered species.
Agustian Laya spends a great deal of his time patrolling the forests and beaches of Taima village, South Sulawesi. He dedicates up to three weeks in one month to surveying these areas, home to the maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), a large terrestrial bird with black plumage and red iris.
The unique species is endemic to the island of Sulawesi and is listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, with only 8,000 to 10,000 birds left in the wild. "Even now, they're not found in all parts of Sulawesi, only in Central and North Sulawesi. They've already disappeared from other regions, such as Makassar, South Sulawesi," said Agus.
The 32-year-old began focusing on maleo conservation in 2006, when he joined the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo). Prior, he was a member of the Niguana Nature Lovers Organization and would sometimes guide visitors who wished to see the maleo's nesting ground.
But local villagers would take the eggs. Oftentimes, when Agus brought people to the nesting ground, he would see that the area had already been tampered with and that the eggs were missing. Agus realized that the bird would soon go extinct if things continued as they were. "Usually people would take the eggs to be eaten or sold. But they weren't even expensive. Back then you could only get Rp7,000 for one egg," he said. His village's economy had prompted villagers to opt for the easy way to get food.
When he became a program officer at AlTo, Agus tried to work together with the villagers to protect the endemic bird. It was difficult at first. Eating maleo egg had been a decades-old practice in the Taima village. But many of the villagers had a change of heart.
They decided to form a village group with 82 members. The group would work in shifts to assist AlTo staff patrol forests and beaches, where nesting grounds are usually located. Each member works an eight-hour shift at the patrol posts. "They get Rp50,000 in a day for eight hours of patrolling. That's a lot more than what they can get from digging for eggs in a day," Agus said.
The incentive system is one of the ways to get people to help protect the maleo. AlTo also campaigned in the village and schools in the area. These days, villagers no longer disrupt maleo nesting grounds and often inform the alliance when they find the birds' eggs. But Agus worries that locals will continue to rely on the non-profit organization for extra income
"It's good they don't hunt for the eggs anymore, but now their mindset is more economy driven, so sometimes they would ask for more (money)," Agus said. "We are trying to make them understand that we have limitations, and that our purpose is simply to protect the birds."
AlTo was established in 2006 by Marcy Summers, a scientist with more than 13 years of experience in the environmental sector. She came to Indonesia in the early 2000s, when she was still working for the Nature Conservacy. In addition to the United States, her home country, Summers had also worked in Papua New Guinea.
According to Noval Suling, a local who now works for AlTo, when Summers visited the Taima village in Tompotika for the first time, she realized the maleo was in danger of going extinct. Villagers often poached the eggs and disturbed the nesting grounds. Summers returned to Sulawesi after her first visit, this time bringing donors to help establish the non-profit organization.
The foreign conservationists at first had to partner with Indonesian organizations- the Environmentalists Foundation (YPL) and the Niguana Nature Lovers Organization- because they were seen as outsiders, said Noval. Niguana members such as Noval and Agus later became AlTo's permanent staff. "Our director said this area could be conducive as a conservation area for the maleo, especially its forest corridors and nesting grounds," they said. Menawhile, the NGO had noted, the bird's population continued to decline from year to year.
Two areas with the best potential for maleo conservation were Taima village and the Bakiriang Wildlife Reserve. The birds would often lay eggs on the beach of the village or deep in the forest near a hot spring. Unlike most avian species, the maleo digs a hole to lay its eggs and keeps them there until they hatch. The hatchlings are superprecocial, born with a full set of wing feathers and the ability to fly.
AlTo also works with the Central Sulawesi Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA). The local government helped the Alliance by building protective fences around forest corridors and observation posts. "They're very supportive of our efforts," said Noval, "Especially because the maleo is a kind of icon for the regency."
The endemic bird is also said to be monogamous in its mating patterns. The maleo would have one partner and when its partner dies, it would refuse to mate with other birds. Novel explained that the group is trying to prove the rumor by tagging birds who come to the area, and observing whether they continue to come with the same partner.
Some locals believed maleo eggs were five times the size of chicken eggs. "They said when a maleo lays an egg, it would faint because of the size of the egg. In fact, that's not what happens. They had never seen a maleo lay an egg," Noval said.
Misconceptions occurred because locals knew little about the endemic bird. AlTo informs local residents by spreading awareness among youths. The organization visits schools in Central Sulawesi every month to provide information on the maleo and alter the mindset that allows locals to poach maleo eggs.
Both groups are also trying to protect maleo birds in the Tanjung Matop Wildlife Reserve and Bakiriang Wildlife Reserve, said Talisman, head of the local BKSDA. They collect eggs found in both areas and put them in a hatching enclosure.
"We can't breed the maleo in a cage. They have to lay eggs in the wild. Meanwhile, if we don't do anything, they are vulnerable to predators such as monitor lizards and of course, humans," he said.
Along with conservation groups such as AlTo, the BSKDA continues to raise awareness among locals to prevent them from poaching maleo eggs. But sometimes their efforts to protect the endangered bird clash with local tradition.
Some villagers use maleo eggs for ceremonial purposes, said Talisman. The indigenous people in the Banggai Regency, for example, use maleo eggs as medium in the Molabot Tumpe, an annual prayer ritual.
"What can we do? We want to inform them, but at the same time they are indigenous people with their own traditions. All we can do is build communication, so that they realize they need to put some effort into protecting the bird as well," he said.
Last year, the BKSDA launched an intensive effort to conserve the maleo. According to the agency's data, the region has seen a 10-percent increase in maleo population in the wildlife reserves. "We hope to see more increase this year," said Talisman.
Now AlTo has 10 full time staff working in the field, all of whom were members of the Nature Lovers Organization. Meanwhile, Summers continues to routinely visit the non-profit that she started over a decade ago. "Marcy comes every three or six months to supervise," said Noval.
AlTo also expanded their conservation efforts to turtles since 2009. "In the end, we still focus on the maleo. But we have other programs for other endangered species, such as turtles," he added.
The organization recently launched programs to conserve the anoa (Bubalus quarlesi) and babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa), who live in high-elevation forests. But all animal species are at risk because of forest encroachment and fires.
Agus mentioned rumors that a cement company wanted to open a factory in the conservation area. Furthermore, some land around the forest corridor where many maleo birds nest has already been cleared for farming and plantation.
In 2015, AlTo staff managed to subdue forest fire in the area. "There were only five of us at the time. We didn't know how, but we were able to prevent a disaster, and the fire didn't reach the nesting grounds. Other parts of the forest were ravaged," said Agus.
He hopes the local government will be stricter in dealing with people or organizations with the potential to damage the environment and cause extinction of creatures endemic to Sulawesi. "You can't find them anywhere else. If they disappear, they are gone forever."