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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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For years, Singapore has topped education rankings and inspired other school systems. Among the keys to its success is a playful approach to education and highly paid teachers. But many worry about the pressure the system places on children.

Students at Sri Mariamman Hindu temple in Singapore

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SINGAPORE — Every year in mid-October, social networks are set ablaze in Singapore. Upset parents attack the Ministry of Education on Facebook, Twitter and other forums, accusing it of having organized tests that were too complicated for their children. They say their children came home from the math section of the PSLE – the Primary School Leaving Examination – in tears. The results come in late November.

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