Birdlife of Indonesia

If you have ever walked through the jungles of Java or Sumatra, or in the lush areas of Bali’s northern regions, then you would know of the richness in bird life. Generally, when I am trekking through any isolated area then I carry my small but powerful binoculars.

Looking at birds (not the ones lying on Kuta Beach!) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but you will be amazed at what you actually see up there in the treetops. In Irian Jaya, there are the stunning and colourful Birds of Paradise and a definite must-see when you visit that part of the archipelago.

Pete Wood is an expert on the subject of Indonesia’s birdlife:

Birds in Indonesia: Extraordinary riches and ominous threats
Pete Wood, Contributor, Bogor

Whether you noticed it or not, you almost certainly heard the sound of birds when you woke up this morning.

Wild birds of have managed to find food, shelter and a place to breed even in the heart of a mega-city like Jakarta. Birds like the Black-naped Oriole and Spotted Dove along with nearly a hundred other species can be found in Jakarta’s gardens and green spaces.

The Krida Loka jogging track in Senayan and Muara Angke nature reserve next to Pantai Indah Kapuk are just two examples of the many places where you might see 20 or 30 species of birds in a morning.

Indonesia has an astonishing 1,585 bird species, making it the third- or fourth-richest country in the world in terms of sheer numbers of species. Nearly a quarter, 381 species, are not found anywhere else on the planet. This wealth of birds is matched by forest, wetland and marine diversity which make Indonesia the number-one country in the world for biodiversity.

The reason for this extraordinary diversity is twofold. Indonesia lies between two great land masses, Asia and Australia. As oceans have risen and fallen and vegetation zones advanced and retreated over the eons, species have invaded Indonesia from both sides.

Some still show links with their Asia ancestors — the Scarlet-rumped Trogon is a representative of a family that is found throughout the tropics, but in Indonesia is only found in the forests of the west, in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The ancestors of the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, on the other hand, came from Australia, and this species is only found in eastern Indonesia from Nusa Pendida and Lombok to the east.

The other reason for the immense wealth of bird species is that Indonesia consists of over 17,000 islands. These are mini laboratories for evolution, and over thousands of years extraordinary and unique species have evolved on them. The Sumba Button-quail is one of 91 bird species in Indonesia that is found only on a single island — in this case Sumba, in the south.

The majority of Indonesia’s birds live in forest. It is no surprise, therefore, that they are severely affected by loss of their forest habitat. Indonesia has become synonymous with forest destruction — over 500 hectares a day has been lost over the last 15 years. As a result Indonesia is now the country with the highest number of bird species threatened with extinction — 121 species.

It was concern for the future of this fabulous wealth of species that lead to the creation of BirdLife Indonesia. We started out life as a branch office of the BirdLife International partnership, but now we are a fully independent Indonesian charity, though still affiliated with the BirdLife International family. We have around 40 staff and receive funds from a number of charities, foundations and Government aid agencies.

Our programme on Sumba Island in East Nusa Tenggara province is our oldest field programme and illustrates the way we work to face some of the challenges I have just described. Sumba was not chosen by chance, but after extensive surveys to identify the places which were the highest priorities for conservation action.

Although not the richest island in terms of species, Sumba has nine bird species which are found only on the island, eight of them entirely dependent on the island’s shrinking forests. The largest remaining areas of forest are protected by two national parks, and BirdLife Indonesia chose to focus on one of them, Manupeu-Tanadaru.

Manupeu-Tanadaru National Park is surrounded by 22 villages. The people in these villages still live very traditional lives, mostly as farmers and herders.

They are very poor in material terms, and still have strong traditions and culture. There is no doubt that they do some of the forest clearance, burning and logging that threatens the forests of the park, and as a result they were initially identified as the source of the problem for conservation on Sumba.

However, studies undertaken by BirdLife Indonesia, the local Forestry Department and local development organisations showed that this view was too simplistic.

The study demonstrated three things: people have traditional rules and sanctions to protect forest; people depend on wild plants and materials taken from the forest for a significant part of their livelihoods, especially in hard times such as when crops fail; and finally, people have been farming areas of land inside what is now the National Park for generations, and feel alienated by the declaration of the forests as Government managed land.

The focus of BirdLife Indonesia’s work therefore became how to enable the traditionally conservation-minded people of the villages to work together with the national park for their common interest.

The main obstacle to this collaboration was the issue of community farmland inside the national park. BirdLife Indonesia was able to help people map their land and present their aspirations to the Forestry Department and local government.

The result has been small scale, but for the communities, dramatic. In a number of villages, the national park boundary has been moved to exclude village farmland from the national park. In others, the community has been granted the right to continue to use their traditional lands.

Either way, the community now feels secure to farm their land again, and their objections to the national park have been dealt with. They have begun to take action themselves to protect forest which are inside the national park but which they recognise as their own.

This way of working with local people and government authorities to identify and resolve problems is typical of the way we are working in all our field sites: Halmahera, in North Maluku; Sangihe-Talaud, an archipelago to the north of northern Sulawesi; Tanimbar Island in South-west Maluku; and in Sumatra, on the borders of Jambi and South Sumatra.

With 121 threatened species of birds, and at least 227 sites that are critical for the conservation of habitat, BirdLife Indonesia will not make much progress if we work only through field projects, where we may work at a single site for 10 years. Our field sites must become demonstrations of how management of forests can be improved for conservation of biodiversity and for peoples’ livelihoods, and we need to promote them to the people who have the resources and power to do similar work elsewhere.

The problem is that most of these important sites, with their rich and unique bird faunas and complex social and political problems, are a long way from the decision makers, power and money of Java and Jakarta.

So we see one of biggest challenges not in the remote islands of eastern Indonesia and the forests of Sumatra, but in the urban centres of Java where we have to build support and sympathy from the public and decision makers.

BirdLife Indonesia aims to bring birds and people closer. Every year, in October, thousands of migrant birds of prey migrate from eastern and northern Asia to southern Indonesia and Australia. These birds follow corridors of high land down through Malaysia, cross to Sumatra, along the mountains of Java and then to Bali, Lombok and onwards.

At Puncak Pass, only 90 minutes’ drive from Jakarta, the shape of the mountains funnels the migrating birds into a narrow pass. In a day you can see over 5,000 birds of prey pass through this pass. BirdLife Indonesia has organised public and media events each October for the last 4 years. In that time hundreds of people have come and learnt a little bit about birds and conservation at the same time as experiencing the spectacular phenomenon.

To harness those sparks of interest — that support — BirdLife Indonesia formed Sahabat Burung Indonesia (SBI or Friends of Indonesian Birds), a free group whose members receive a simple newsletter and have the chance to participate in bird watching activities and trips.

SBI has over 1,500 members. With the support of volunteers drawn from SBI we have been able to introduce birds to people through events in schools, and at factories and offices.

There is a tendency for people who care about the quality and richness of our environment to be overwhelmed by tales of unstoppable destruction and unfettered greed.

Without minimising the seriousness of the issues Indonesia faces, it is good to remember that there are examples of success that show that things can improve — that is something in which we can each play a small part.

Bian be contacted at Jl. Dadali No.32, Bogor 16161,
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