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publications of tony tilford
The Bali Starling
The Bali Starling
Bali Starling Recovery Plan
Bali Barat National Park
Bali Starling breeding/release centre
Bali Starling Foundation
The Bali Starling
New Hope for the Bali Starling?

The island of Bali appears as no more than a tiny speck on a map of the great Indonesian archipelago. Barely the size of Rhode Island, it nevertheless has a reputation out of all proportion to its size. Visitors flock to Bali from around the world, lured by palm-fringed beaches and luxury resort hotels. Yet the real magic of Bali lies in its people and their amazingly rich cultural tradition. Visitors to Bali who leave the tourist enclaves and venture into the picture-postcard countryside quickly discover that the Balinese live in close harmony with their surroundings and have a deep and enduring understanding of nature.

One manifestation of this is the Balinese love of birds, which figure prominently in folklore and the arts, and which are widely kept as pets for the beauty of their song. Indeed, to the Balinese, song is more important than appearance. Wherever you travel in Bali you will see cages hanging from the eaves. Made of bamboo, they are often elaborately decorated and brightly painted. Tucked away in inner courtyards, even simple homes will often contain substantial aviaries housing a large variety of songbirds - and occasionally even kingfishers and woodpeckers. Abundant fruit, supplemented by insects and locally made pelleted food makes it possible for the enthusiast to keep many indigenous species.

Birdwatchers in Bali have noted a marked decline in wild bird populations in recent years, and attribute it largely to increased trapping, exacerbated by habitat loss and disturbance. Although cage birds have been kept in Bali for centuries, the human population has tripled in the past 70 years and its purchasing power, fuelled by a booming tourist industry, has likewise exploded. The resulting increase in demand for birds has been dramatic. Not only have cage birds grown in popularity, but the newly-affluent now compete for the rare and exotic, which lamentably have become important status symbols.

Bali's long-established bird market is open from 8 till 4 seven days a week. Largely supplied by itinerant dealers from other parts of Indonesia, it can be an unbearably depressing place. Here you can see hundreds of birds crammed into cages, where they mostly change hands for a dollar or two and are carried home in paper bags. Less conspicuous and often hidden away, are the protected species selling for very high prices, and of these perhaps no species is more sought-after than birds like the critically endangered Bali Starling.

The Bali Starling, also called Rothschild's Mynah, was first described as new to science in 1912. It was named Leucopsar rothschildi in honor of the British ornithologist Lord Rothschild, who financed its collection from Bali. Now confined to one very limited area of western Bali, the wild population has always been small and with a restricted range, but over the last half century its decline has been precipitous. The latest reports in October 2004 indicate that only 1 wild individual remained at large. Several factors have contributed to this sorry state, including habitat loss, natural disasters and, above all, trapping for the pet trade.
During the 1960s and 1970s several hundred birds were legally exported to the US and Europe, to both zoos and private collectors. They and their descendents, perhaps as many as a thousand birds, still live in captivity around the world, but this number is less encouraging than it appears. Many birds are kept as single individuals, without hope of breeding, and many more are now too old to breed. Most of the younger birds capable of breeding have come from just a few very successful pairs and in consequence lack the genetic diversity necessary for the continuing health of the species.

Bali's only endemic bird, the Bali Starling is an important symbol and has been adopted as the National Bird of Bali and is widely represented in art. Yet curiously the Indonesian authorities acted slowly to protect the dwindling population and failed to implement the few safeguards that were enacted into law. Not only did poaching continue - fuelled by increasing prices as the numbers declined - but a large camp for Maduran coconut plantation workers was allowed to become established in the heart of the remaining breeding area, despite it being within a special protected area inside the West Bali National Park, already a wildlife preserve!

In years past the few outside agencies that have attempted to provide for the continued survival of the Bali Starling in the wild have met with little success, their efforts being thwarted by the authorities, who naturally resent what they considered to be unwarranted outside interference. Happily, it seems that at the last minute a new realism has emerged and finally concerted efforts are under way worldwide to create a solution. One only hopes it is not too late!

Success, it is believed, hinges primarily on two factors. Strict enforcement of anti-poaching measures and reintroduction back to the wild of genetically diverse captive-bred birds. Both depend, in turn, on local cooperation and funding that is both adequate and continuing.

One novel approach being tried is to gain the cooperation of village priests to invoke religious interdicts as protection against poaching. A precedent for this already exists, community participation proving far more effective against poaching than policing by a handful of low-paid guards. In the mid-1960s a large egret colony suddenly appeared in the village of Petulu, roosting there at night but radiating out to feed in the surrounding rice fields each day. Believed to be the souls of those killed in the great anti-Communist slaughter in 1965 that brought President Suharto to power, the egrets (popularly called herons) have become a great tourist attraction. Their safety is assured by the will and vigilance of the villagers themselves, who thereby benefit from the birds' presence.
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