What the Cluck: Unregulated Bird Trade in South-East Asia

Bird trade in Southeast Asia is approaching unsustainable levels, threatening endemic species…

Written by: Sicily Fiennes

Art by: Winnie Lei


Wildlife laundering is amongst the most successful criminal activities in the world, surpassed only by the arms trade and the drug industry. One of the most widely unacknowledged  trades is that of birds.

Why birds?

Birds are a pan-global favourite pet. We have all been in a pet shop as a kid and wanted a budgie or a canary, or an owl like Hedwig in Harry Potter.

Fads like this in the Western world have a far deeper cultural root in some countries in Southeast Asia. A bird is a symbol of status, a treasured pet and even a source of income, as a breeder, trapper or songbird competitor. In Indonesia, for example, a man is considered to be a ‘real man’ if he has a house, a wife, a horse, a keris (dagger), and a bird.

It is common knowledge that the source of birds in Asian markets is likely illegal; the real difficulty is in identifying this source.

How can you get one?

There are several methods of sourcing birds for trade; the trapping of wild birds is one major problem. For certain species, large numbers of immature individuals may be available, likely from a ranching origin. Eggs and chicks are taken from the wild and then raised in captivity before sale. Ranching is an extinction pressure on species such as the red breasted parakeet, which has been directly affected by the trade and has now been upgraded to an Endangered status. In Vietnam, the number of birds on sale has noticeably increased in the time since previous market surveys. Ranching is a large problem in the big city markets in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi), which have a high and ever increasing, number of available and native species.

The songbird extinction crisis

The word ‘extinction’ is often thought to be a buzzword that conservationists are all too dependent on. But unfortunately whole populations of animals are at risk, and the impact of this is yet unquantified, especially in bird populations. The media often focuses on big money trade, such as the rhino crisis or trophy hunting of the big carnivores, but rarely on less ‘glamorous’ animals like birds. This may be because they are more difficult to get conservation funding for. However, the sad reality is that several bird species are threatened due to their extensive market sale.

Huge numbers of birds are shifted daily in notorious markets, such as in Chatuchak, Bangkok and the Pramuka market, in Jakarta, which alone may see over 1 million birds a year. Songbird competitions are especially popular in Indonesia. A recent TRAFFIC report found that the most highly sought after birds are the songbirds. The more beautifully a bird sings, the more expensive it is. Murais, famed Sumatran songbirds, can fetch up to USD 10,000 in Pramuka market, if trained. A recent BBC investigation found that the first prize at prestigious bird competitions can be as high as USD 100,000.

But each market differs. Take Singapore: as a city state, it is an important global transhipment hub. Singapore has been heavily implicated in the unregulated trade of Psittacines such as the African Grey Parrot, one of the world’s most heavily trafficked birds, imported to meet Asian demand.

CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) remains the international body for the monitoring of wildlife trade, but therein lies the problem: CITES are only responsible for international trade. Domestic trade often goes unregulated, especially since many animals are allowed to be legally bred within countries, despite having been illegally imported.

But, luckily for the birds, we can utilise common technology to help introduce systematic and regular monitoring of these markets: the power of citizen science. Planet Indonesia are working to develop a mobile app that allows users to collect data in bird markets and transmit it to a shared database in the format of a game. This allows users to avoid the clandestine nature of market surveys. It is a far less obvious method than a datasheet or a dictaphone, and reduces the risk of aggravating the sometimes-secretive traders. Furthermore, by capitalising on hobbyist knowledge, this creates more efficient species identification, which in turn has huge benefits for identifying trade routes and advocating for greater market monitoring.

The bird trade is an ever growing operation; as globalisation increases, we are seeing a similar expansion in urban areas. Particularly in the Southeast Asian region, we will likely observe an increase in bird ownership and lucrative associated elements such as songbird competitions. Therefore, it is probable that bird markets will become the focus for the conservation of valuable endemic species in the Southeast Asian region. Breeders and conservationists alike agree that birds ought to be left in the forests. It appears that market-driven approaches to reduce the taking of endangered birds  the major emergent solution to this growing problem.

If you are interested about the songbird extinction crisis, check out this campaign: https://www.silentforest.eu/about/

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