Six pairs of one of the world’s rarest bird species – the Javan green magpie – have been flown to Chester Zoo from Indonesia in a bid to save them from extinction.
In an effort to establish a vital insurance population, bird experts at the zoo hope to develop the first ever captive breeding programme for the species outside of Indonesia in a last ditch attempt to ensure the continued survival of these highly threatened birds.
In Indonesia, a culture of keeping caged birds as a status symbol has seen huge areas of forest fall silent as millions of birds are taken from the wild. As the birds become rarer, their value increases, leaving many species on the brink of disappearing altogether. The Javan green magpie is now believed to number less than 100 individuals in the wild and is listed as critically endangered by BirdLife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
For over five years, Chester Zoo has both financed and lent its expertise to its conservation partners in Indonesia, which have been running conservation initiatives working to breed the birds in their homeland and create safety net populations of the species threatened by the songbird crisis. But, with Javan green magpies being the main target of a series of recent break-ins at the breeding centre, the zoo and government officials in Indonesia have been forced to take drastic action and move 12 of the birds to Europe.
The zoo’s curator of birds, Andrew Owen, explains:
“We really are fighting against time to save the incredibly rare Javan green magpie from extinction. Sadly, there is evidence that the species is fast disappearing in the wild as they have fallen victim to the pet trade and an ever shrinking habitat. In fact, they have only been found once in the last 10 years in the wild by ornithologists.
“By bringing twelve of the birds to the UK, we are hoping our new conservation breeding programme will begin to address the desperate plight of this species and ensure a protected population for the future.
“We’ve been working with the Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre in Java for five years and our mission to track down the birds with the beautiful green plumage has included trawling markets and interviewing traders. Over time we have managed to rescue a handful of birds and set up a breeding centre and, together, we have been successful in breeding the birds on their country of origin. However, so prized are they in Java, the breeding centre has suffered from a number of break-ins – the magpies being a prime target given their beauty and increasing value on the pet trade.
“The keeping of birds as pets and the markets from where people buy them are a huge, huge problem – it’s pushing species like Javan green magpies to the absolute brink. It’s a sad fact that the forests in Indonesia are now so silent but the markets are full of the sounds of caged birds – most of them in awful condition. Even fledglings are taken from their nests. It is thought that over a third of the captive birds in Indonesia are originally harvested from the wild, with well over one million being caught every year. Caged birds can be found hanging outside houses, restaurants, shops and just about everywhere you turn in Indonesia. Many of these birds are thought of in the same way we think of a bouquet of flowers – something beautiful to admire for a few days until they wilt away and die. Songbirds are still sought after by hobbyists who enter them into song contests – forever seeking birds with the most original and unique songs. Unfortunately, these markets are some of the last places you can see many species because the demand for captive birds is devastating wild populations and driving many species to the brink of extinction.
“The situation is desperate but we’re certainly not giving up and that’s why we are committed to supporting our partners in Java and have now brought these beautiful birds to Chester. The new breeding programme is quite probably the only viable way of securing their future in the short term. It will be incredibly hard to change the culture of people keeping song birds in small cages but, with more education, awareness and protection of suitable secure habitat, we hope we can one day return this beautiful species to the wild.”
The birds are native to western Java in Indonesia and inhabit dense montane forests and their bright green plumage is attained through the food the birds eat – insects, frogs and lizards