(The brief article that follows here is just a quick condensing of my thoughts shortly after BirdLife’s ‘Bird Trade in Asia’ webinar. It’s not intended in any way to be a full overview – for that please go to the soon-to-be provided YouTube link – but more of a quick answer to the question, are these things worth taking part in? Apparently over 800 people registered for this particular webinar, and more than half of us turned up (imagine the organisation, cost – and size of room – that would have been involved to make that happen). I also took several screenshots throughout the webinar as I scribbled some key points for this write-up, and these are reproduced here. All original slides are copyright BirdLife International and I’ll remove these images if requested to of course.)
Has the way we all do business changed as a response to Covid-19? Six months ago relatively few people knew what Zoom was, but by the end of March Zoom’s daily users had already ballooned from a previous maximum total of 10 million to more than 200 million. At its peak, the firm counted more than 300 million daily participants in virtual meetings, while paying customers have more than tripled. It has become something of a trope for people to humblebrag about how busy they are by detailing the number of Zoom meetings they’ve had to attend. But, for those of us with a curious mind who’ve always craved more access to the debates being had by conservation’s inner circles, the rise of the Zoom-based webinar has been entirely welcome. And of course Zoom allows the whole meeting to be recorded and put up on YouTube within hours.
Take, for example, BirdLife International‘s webinar two days ago. Sure, webinars have been around for a while now, but the audio and video quality has come on leaps and bounds. They are far more interactive than they used to be too. And for those more e-weary members of the potential audience, the carbon savings of not flying around the world to a meeting is well worth the additional screentime a webinar might involve. It all sounds so obvious now: set up a Zoom meeting, send out some invites, and – voila! – but if you began taking an interest in these matters when dial-up modems seemed revolutionary, this still feels like a huge advance. Yes, there is the possibility of ‘information overload’, but they’re free, you get to choose the webinars you want to attend, and anyone who complains of ‘having too much stuff coming at them’ probably can’t remember that in the not so distant past we’d have been reliant on waiting for an edited write-up (if the staff resources were available) weeks or even months further down the line.
All of this seems like a ‘very good thing’ from where I was sitting…though of course I’m speaking from the privileged position of having good internet connectivity, the time to watch, and the fact that the presentations were in English.
So what did we all get for an hour of our time? Quite a bit actually. To begin with, most of us will never find ourselves in the same room as Patricia Zurita (BirdLife CEO), Richard Grimmett (BirdLife’s Head of Conservation), Anuj Jain (Preventing Extinctions and Bird Trade Coordinator (Asia)), and Adi Widyanto (Head of Conservation at BirdLife Partner Burung Indonesia) even though we may have a deep interest in trying to understand what is happening in Asia’s bird markets (a ‘war on wildlife’ if there ever was one).
After an introduction from Patricia Zurita, Richard Grimmett (presumably at home or in the Cambridge (UK) office) gave us an overview of BirdLife’s work and reminded us that ‘birds are indicators of the health of our planet as they’re so well studied – they are canaries in the coalmine‘. He explained that a staggering 62% of threatened birds in Asia are impacted by hunting and trade. Richard briefly discussed Covid-19 and the impact of wet markets, and stated that we need to change the way we use and treat wildlife but we also need to recognise that tackling the bird trade is more than just enforcement as so much of the keeping of wild birds is cultural. He listed three key BirdLife responses to the problem: protecting important sites. working on science and policy, so, for example working with TRAFFIC on supply chains; and changing public behaviour (on the latter it’s been said that there are more birds in Javan households than in the wild and that some people believe that a bird is safer in a cage than in the forest – which, ironically, using circular logic is probably true given the way the bird trade is emptying forests of birds across the region).
Richard was followed by Anuj Jain, BrdLife’s Bird Trade Coordinator for Asia who was speaking from Singapore. He was focussing on the beautiful Helmeted Hornbill, a metre tall forest species and the only one with a solid casque – which is a highly-prized ornamental product across Asia fetching up to $1000 on the black market (organised crime is now involved in the trade). Large forest birds are threatened anyway by habitat clearance (nest holes are at a premium when mature trees are logged) but add in trade pressure and the results are catastrophic: whilst probably never abundant, the Helmeted Hornbill was uplisted from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2015.
Ajun detailed the coordinated response to this unsustainable pressure on the species. He explained that thirty conservation organisations came together in 2017, and an action plan was launched in 2018. At the time the exact range of teh hornbill was unknown, and the first job was to map sightings and field studies were used to ‘secure safe havens‘. ‘Hornbill guardians‘ have been created amongst local communities.
Ajun also spoke about the (perhaps now well-known) work done to protect the Amur Falcon at staging sites in north-eastern India where huge numbers were being trapped for food every year but where they are now protected by locals. Eco-tourism has been key to the survival of these wonderful falcons, but, Ajun noted, the restrictions on travel because of Covid-19 could throw up enormous problems in the near future.
Trapping birds for food is probably a poorly understood problem outside of the region, but the statistics are just incredible: it’s estimated that tens of millions of birds killed annually for food! Ajun stated that a solution to the killing of birds for food has to be community-based as only they understand what is or isn’t sustainable.
The widespread use of mist nets is a serious issue, and that was raised in the Q&A at the end of the webinar: apparently a ban was discussed at the 2020 Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals COP in India – a review will be carried out, but there is a need to raise funds to ascertain where impacts would be most effective.
The final speaker was Adi Widyanto from Burung Indonesia who was focussing on parrots, a group of birds particularly targeted in Indonesia for trade and suffering severe consequences as a result (for example, both White Cockatoo and Chattering Lory are now at just 20% of 1990s population levels). Adi explained how birds are being smuggled – I may well have not been writing fast enough, but it appears to be a complex chain where local hunters sell to local traders who ship inter-island then onto larger cities in Indonesia then to Jakarta or overseas. Indonesia’s numerous ports and docks make easy access points for smugglers.
However amidst the rather bleak stories of relentless trapping and trading (birds in cages are everywhere), there have been successes which Adi detailed (please see the YouTube recording for those), including work on North Maluku (part of the Moluccan Islands). Burung Indonesia is also securing safe havens for songbirds in western Java.
One point that Adi raised that really struck home was that there is little point (at this stage anyway) simply working for a ban on keeping cage birds as the demand for birds for, for example, singing competitions is both cultural and economic. Regulations banning trade in some species already exist anyway but are widely ignored and rarely enforced. He mentioned the work being done to encourage the keeping of captive-bred birds rather than wild-caught (it seems African Lovebirds are becoming popular, but presumably not for their song!) which is a pragmatic viewpoint but for anyone with an ethical opposition to keeping any birds trapped in tiny cages for their lives is deeply unsatisfactory. That’s easy for me to say from here in the UK, of course, where ‘bird keeping’ is not such a huge part of everyday life. The reality on the ground (as anyone who has been to the region will know) is that owning a bird – which has usually been stolen from the wild – is so normalised that other strategies beyond demanding a ban need to be evolved.
This part of the discussion elicited another interesting audience question: is BirdLife aiming to stop trade altogether or aiming for sustainable trade instead? Richard Grimmett answered, saying that, “We wish to see illegal trade brought to an end…to ensure that any trade that’s unsustainable is brought to an end and that there is adequate enforcement…and any transport of birds is hygienic (so doesn’t threaten human health). That’s our position as of now and is in recognition of cultural and economic realities“. Adi commented that he would love to see society stop keeping birds in cages but that it will take years – ‘changing behaviour of today’s schoolchildren is key’, he suggested. I have to agree but wonder at the same time whether some of the more heavily-traded species (like the Straw-headed Bulbul in the slide below, a species uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered in 2018) have that sort of time left to them…
The webinar wrapped up with a reminder from Patricia Zurita that conservation work is expensive and that maybe an hour wasn’t quite enough! A matching fund is available if anyone would like to contribute to the vital work being done across what is a vast and heavily populated region that is being rapidly depleted of its wildlife.
There will be more webinars from BirdLife in the future. When I can I will certainly attend them. The information is current and relevant to what we’re trying to do on this site. Perhaps there will be some people who will always prefer the intimacy and networking opportunities of face-to-face meetings, but those aren’t going to be happening anytime soon. And most of us won’t be invited when they do anyway! Besides, do we really want to spend a day (or more) travelling for an hour’s meeting?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a horrible way to learn that much of what we’ve been doing in the developed world in terms of our meetings and our work structure is simply not necessary or even sustainable. Webinars take up far less of the day than piling into offices or convention halls, and while they may not make much of a dent in our carbon footprints compared with, say, jetting off for holidays twice a year, they’re better than nothing and hopefully are here to stay.