Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Migratory Birds Problematique in Indonesia

Wetland conservation vital for bird migrations
Features News - Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Trisha Sertori, Contributor, Melbourne

Wetlands across Indonesia and Australia are vital to the survival of the millions of migratory sea birds that take to the skies over those countries twice each year, covering a staggering 24,000 kilometers en route.

Called waders, the birds fly during March to May from Australia's feeding grounds in the southern hemisphere to breeding grounds in Siberia and Mongolia in the northern hemisphere, returning to the feeding grounds from September to November.

Traveling along the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, a chain of wetlands stretching across Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and China, the waders are dependent on the environmental health of those wetlands, coupled with enforcement of hunting bans, to survive the journey, said Dr. Rosalind Jessop of the Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG).

As signatories to the international Ramsar convention that protects the migratory birds, Jessop says much can be done by Indonesia and Australia to conserve the needed wetland rest zones, and to understand the breeding success and health of the birds during their annual migrations.

"Waders such as Oriental Pratincoles, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlew Sandpipers and Red Necked Stints have specific colored bands on their legs called flags. Each country has its own color scheme, so when people observe the birds in migration they know where the bird was flagged," said Jessop. "Receiving this feedback from countries such as Indonesia tells us a lot about the routes they are taking and the wetlands they are resting in during the flight."

Understanding the routes taken by the waders allows for better and more targeted conservation of the birds and their needed habitat, added Jessop. However, little information is received from Indonesia on the archipelago's leg of the flyway.

The AWSG is keen to have more Indonesian bird watchers contact the study group with sightings, according to Jessop. To date, just a handful of sightings of Curlew Sandpipers in Benoa Bay, Banuasin Delta and Bangai Percut on Snake River have been recorded, despite more than 120,000 waders of 50 different species being leg flagged in Australia during the past 26 years.

"There is an enormous amount of information we can establish from the flags, but we have very few reports from Indonesia and we are keen for feedback. The numbers of waders traveling the flyway over Indonesia is very high and the problems are the lack of observation and feedback on the birds, and illegal hunting of the birds for sale in bird markets," said Jessop.

She said hundreds of thousands of migratory birds are at risk from hunting, and greater awareness of the legally protected status of the birds was needed at the grassroots level.

She pointed to the most recent study in 1998 on the illegal capture of waders in West Java, where it is believed as many as 200,000 waders and resting water birds were hunted and sold in bird markets.

"One example is the Oriental Pratincole. It is believed as much as 20 percent of the migratory population is lost to hunting practices for sale in (Indonesian) bird markets. While that study was carried out nearly a decade ago, there has been little change in those numbers," said Jessop.

Aware of the dependence on hunting for subsistence farmers, Jessop said some work had been done to "try and divert hunting" of the waders. But the economic reality in areas such as Krangkeng in West Java show that the capture and sale of the birds brings in almost 50 percent of a family's annual income.

Writing in Inside Indonesia, John McCarthy of the Asia Research Centre at Perth's Murdoch University said up to 1.5 million shorebirds or waders, including several endangered species, were hunted each year in Indonesia. Of these, about 200,000 migratory and local water birds were hunted within a 60-kilometer coastal stretch of Krangkeng.

"From a national or an international perspective, bird hunting in Krangkeng degrades valuable components of the world's biodiversity -- the common heritage of all mankind. But from a local perspective, migratory water birds are an `open access' resource," writes McCarthy.

He continued: "Poor villagers are affronted by the thought that some people and organizations would care more about the migratory birds than they would about the impoverished villagers. Hunting of water birds in Krangkeng shows the wide gulf between conservation values most often associated with the West and the survival needs of the poor."

Tracking the waders on their journey across Indonesia through observation of their leg flags enables governments and conservation organizations to better target grassroots education on the importance of the birds and their protected status, said Jessop, while increasing understanding of the birds' behaviors.

"People can report sightings to the AWSG through our website. When people are watching for the migrations that start from Australia in March until May, then the return journey from September to November, they need to know the species and report the color of the leg flag," she said.

She added it was also valuable if people could count bird numbers by flock, starting with small flocks then extrapolating to include all the birds of each species observed.

"This method of counting is not highly accurate, but it gives us an idea of the numbers of birds, whether it is in the hundreds or thousands," she said.
Most commonly sighted species in Indonesia are the Oriental Pratincole, Red Necked Stint and Curlew Sandpiper.

Knowing the numbers of waders en route between feeding and breeding grounds gives biologists an indication of the health of wetlands along the flyway, she said. That information can in turn be used to target wetlands under threat.

"In some ways it (wader counts) is an index of the health of wetlands throughout the flyway. Each part of the flyway chain needs to be in good condition for the species to survive their migratory lifestyle," said Jessop, suggesting that if numbers of waders decreased in sections of the flyway, it was an indication of inadequate food or safe resting roosts for the birds -- and subsequently, that the wetland systems are under threat from development, hunting or pollution.

Global warming can also potentially be read through the success of failure of wader breeding, according to Jessop.
"Some people say waders are a good index of global warming because they breed in the Arctic. They suggest bad breeding years may be due to global warming, but this is still under investigation. It is hard to tell if breeding success or failure is part of a long-term cycle or due to a complete shift in weather patterns due to global warming," she explained.

"When the threats are understood they can be addressed. Hopefully, through science and people on the ground working together, we can safeguard these extraordinary birds well into the future."

The AWSG can be reached at