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Racing To Save Bali's Endangered Starling

Trappers and traffickers are threatening many endangered species in Indonesia, perhaps none more so than the Bali starling, an exquisitely-feathered songbird that can fetch as much as $400.

Bali Starling
Bali Starling
Nicole Curby
PAJANGAN — A successful man must have a house, a horse, a wife, a dagger and a songbird in a cage. That, at least, according to a well-known Javanese proverb.
And yet as fanciful as the old saying may sound, its lasting influence is a big factor behind Indonesia's trade in caged birds, a trade that is pushing some endangered species to the brink of extinction.

A prime example is the Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi). The beauty of these small birds has been their curse: At one point it was thought that there were just six left in the wild.

"They're all white, with black on the tips of their wings and a blue mask around the eyes," explains Mehd Halaouate, breeding and release manager with the the Begawan Foundation, which operates a bird sanctuary on the island of Bali. "The kids here say the starlings have a Zorro mask. A blue Zorro mask. It's a beautiful species. And this beauty made them very sought after by collectors."

Halaouate has approximately 60 Bali starlings, also known as Bali mynas, under his care. "We look for a good pair, one that's always spending time together, with the male always trying to seduce the female, get close to her. Then we move them to the "honeymoon suite." They're housed on their own, with plenty of food and a nest. That way they start a family," the breeding and release expert explains.

The strategy is helping increasing the number of birds within the sanctuary. But outside the sanctuary, the Bali starling — despite laws that make its capture and trade illegal — is still under threat, with only 75-100 birds thought to exist in the wild now.

"They are still being trapped in Bali Barat National Park and on the island of Nusa Penida, because they fetch quite a high price, about $400 each," says Halaoute.

Powerless to protect

Last year, the wildlife NGO Traffic counted 1,900 birds, from 206 different species, sold at Jakarta's three bird markets in the space of just three days. Not all of those sales are legal. This past May, another NGO, the Scorpion Foundation, found 1,500 birds and animals being sold at Muntilan Wildlife Market in Magelang, Central Java, without the necessary permits.

Gunung Gea, director of the Scorpion Foundation, says it's not hard to find protected species being sold in wildlife markets across Indonesia. "It's been a year since we started monitoring wildlife markets in Indonesia," he says. "We always find protected animals in the markets, and the law enforcement is very slow in tackling this illegal trafficking of wildlife."

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Jane Goodall releasing Bali starlings bred in captivity in Bali — Photo: Carolyntk/GFDL

Despite the efforts of independent organizations to monitor wildlife markets, without the support of law enforcement authorities, they have no power to stop the illegal trade.

In June, 25 different wildlife NGOs from across Indonesia formed a coalition to urge the Indonesian government to do more to stop wildlife trafficking and illegal sales. The groups want to see better enforcement of wildlife transportation permits, and more effective policing when cases of illegal wildlife trade are reported.

"We want the government to be more serious in dealing with wildlife crimes in Indonesia," say Gea. "The forestry police have something called a rapid response unit. But in reality they're very slow."

"We found traps"

In Nusa Penida, in southeast Bali, 65 starlings were released into the wild between 2006 and 2007. Initially the population grew, but then, in the space of just three years, the numbers dropped from 120 to 12.

"The last audit we did we found only 12 birds," says Haloaoute. "We found traps. We found ropes hanging on trees. We found nest holes, large enough for hands to fit into, human hands — to get the birds."

Sanctuaries like the one run by the Begawan Foundation are successfully increasing the number of endangered birds in captivity. But as long as the Bali starlings and other species continue to be captured, there's nowhere they can be safely released.

The Begawan Foundation is hoping to improve the situation through education, by encouraging students and young people to care for and protect the rare bird.

"It all depends on the young generation," says Haloaoute." We can do so much here. But if the young generation isn't convinced these birds need saving, then we accomplish nothing."

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A Brazilian Plea For Science, Religious Freedom And The Right To Samba As You Wish

An evangelic group has threatened to take legal action against a samba school because of its mix of religious iconography at the 2023 Carnival festivities. A Brazilian secular institute has a response.

Photo of Rio's carnival 2015

Rio carnival in full swing

Daniel Gontijo E Pirula


SÃO PAULO — To celebrate religious diversity at 2023 carnival, the samba school Gaviões da Fiel in São Paolo combined Christian symbols with imagery from African religions — for example, Christ with Oxalá (a deity from Candomblé, an African diasporic religion).

Gaviões received a disclaimer note from the country's conservative Evangelical Parliamentary Front (FPE). In these politicians’ view, "one cannot compare Christ and Oxalá … under no circumstances", and there would only be one god, one Son, and one Holy Spirit.

Having interpreted this artistic syncretism as an immoral, vile act, the FPE is now threatening to take legal action against the samba school.

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