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Home » 2009 - Issue 3, Issue, Making a Difference

Reducing the Trapping of Endangered Parrots

By Bonnie Zimmermann and Stewart Metz, MD
The Synergistic Roles of Sustainable Alternative Incomes and Non-Monetary Incentives
The Indonesian Parrot Project
© 2009 Indonesian Parrot Project


The root causes of parrot trapping are multifactorial. Despite this, there is a tendency, probably ill-placed, to focus overly on legal measures designed to reduce poaching. However, by the time parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets can be recovered from the authorities, their fate is practically sealed and is usually characterized either by death, or a lifetime of neglect, poor treatment and imprisonment in tiny cages.

This, in turn, is due to poor training and facilities given to government officials to care for wild animals. And since penalties are usually non-existent or pitifully weak, it is clear that interdiction of smuggling - while a band-aid in the war against the illegal trade in birds - comes too late in the chain of events to help the parrots much, in and of itself.

We shall focus on Indonesian parrots, but many - if not most - of our conclusions apply to parrot trapping elsewhere.

Provision of Sustainable, Legal Economic Alternatives

One of the critical driving forces leading to parrot trapping is certainly poverty - in Indonesia, all but a few parrot species are found in the eastern half of the archipelago, whereas the western half is far more affluent.

In addition, given that owning a rare and illegally obtained parrot or cockatoo is a sign of power and prestige in the western cities, there exists an unavoidable flow from the forest to the cages of the elite - a phenomenon which holds for illegal logging and therefore destruction of parrot habitat as well.

To keep Indonesian parrots in their forest homes, this ‘playing field’ must be leveled to some degree. The provision of sustainable, legal economic alternatives is one approach. Incredibly, a trapper on Seram will receive only $15-30 for a Salmon-crested cockatoo; on the Masalembu Archipelago - and specifically Masakambing Island, where only 8 to 10 individual Lesser Sulphur-crested cockatoos of the abbotti race still exist in the wild - the price is only about $15.

Lories, lorikeets and some other parrots draw less money. So the “good news” is that not much of an income need be provided to induce trappers away from poaching - provided that the income is sustained and clearly linked to conservation. Providing them with only a sporadic income might only lead trappers to hunt on those occasions when they need extra money.

What kinds of economic alternatives are there? The simplest in some ways may be to involve villagers, including ex-trappers, to engage in income-producing work not directly involving wildlife. For IPP, this involved the trappers collecting and processing the nuts from the “kenari” trees which are abundant on Seram and many areas in the Pacific, albeit under a variety of names.

The processed and vacuum-packed nuts were then shipped to us in the US, where we sold them as speciality parrot food, and returned all profits to the villagers for the next round of harvesting.  Although we tried to make it clear that this work was linked to the cessation of bird trapping, this cannot be easily monitored, nor does it directly increase pride and awareness about their endemic avian species. Similar mini-agricultural projects can be brought into play, including the provision of  seeds and the expertise to plant and cultivate other crops.

Usually when we think of conservation, we think of eco-tourism first, with local villagers sometimes working in an eco-lodge. However, this model will only provide jobs for a relatively few villagers, and the message - to preserve the birds who attract the tourists - might not permeate a very large area of the country.  And while it may increase the income of the workers, it might do little to directly stimulate pride in preserving locally endemic species.

The Indonesian Parrot Project -IPP ( - feels that fancy lodges are not needed for the majority of our guests - at least in the areas where we work in Indonesia. Rather we focus on providing former trappers with work which relates to the birding experience.

These include helping to guide eco-guests (while pointing out flora and fauna which they know so well); assisting in getting guests up to our bird-viewing and overnight sleeping platforms in the canopy (85-150 ft. high); and additionally, helping as porters for camera equipment and other supplies. They also show the culture of their villages to visitors. These ex-trappers might earn about $15/day plus gratuities. And so, if there are eight visitors and the tour comprises six days of active bird-watching, in theory a substantial number of cockatoos might be saved by each eco-tour.

The problem, of course, is that the number of eco-tours per year is limited and therefore the money (and pride) stemming from this work is not yet sustained, and does not permeate beyond the north-central Sawai distinct on Seram, where IPP mostly focuses its attention. The model DOES, however, succeed within those limitations: after IPP had worked on Seram for about six years, an undercover investigation carried out by ProFauna Indonesia and IPP revealed the virtual absence of cockatoo trapping in the Sawai district, whereas smuggling elsewhere was rampant.

Other variants of this model which get closer to activating the “pride factor” include hiring ex-trappers to be “Forest Wardens” whose job is to guard nests from poachers and, in doing so, possibly accrue important information about the ecology of the parrots in question.  They may also construct artificial nest boxes, where a paucity of good nest trees is “rate-limiting” for adequate breeding success.

The activity most fulfilling the criteria for conservation is the hiring of  former trappers to help run the Avian Rehabilitation Center - named “Kembali Bebas”= “Return to Freedom” - which we constructed, with the paid help of local villagers, of course, on the edge of the forest of Manusela National Park.

Birds confiscated from trappers or smugglers by the Indonesian authorities on Seram Island, Ambon Island and especially Ambon port, are turned over to IPP for care. Birds of those species endemic to Seram, and meeting rigorous pre-release criteria, are eventually released back to their forest homes.

Thus far, approximately 150 parrots have been thusly released, with the first 41 being released under the close supervision of IPP. The ex-trappers participate in all steps in this process. But it is not the numbers which are important, since even 150 birds comprise merely a drop in the proverbial bucket. Rather, the major goal is to increase the pride of the villagers in their birds, to teach them the principles of conservation, and even to greatly increase their esteem in the villages - since these are considered honored positions. Their salaries, while tiny by our standards, are not only much greater than they could earn by trapping, but they are both legal and sustained.

Furthermore, schoolchildren come to witness the big event of each “pelepasan”, or “release  to freedom”, and begin to develop pride in their birds which they now want to protect.  This model works very well; however it is time-and labor intensive; geographically circumscribed, logistically very complex; and very costly. So this approach - while worthy of establishment in other parrot-rich areas of Indonesia - has major limitations as well. (In this overview, we will not broach the controversy about releasing rehabilitated parrots back into the forest…)

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