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 â€" 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 â€" despite laws that make its capture and trade illegal â€" 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."

Jane Goodall releasing Bali starlings bred in captivity in Bali â€" 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 â€" 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.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!