- A web trawling tool developed by researchers in Indonesia has identified more than a quarter million songbirds in online listings from a single e-commerce website between April 2020 and September 2021.
- More than 6% of these were species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List, including the Java starling (Gracupica jalla) and straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), both of which are critically endangered.
- In a newly published article, researchers say that online bird trade is very successful thanks to well-developed e-commerce infrastructure such as internet and mail order services.
- The researchers have suggested adopting their tool from Indonesian authorities to monitor online bird trafficking as there is no other platform to crack down on the trade.
JAKARTA — Researchers in Indonesia have harnessed the power of big data to monitor the thriving online trade in songbirds, proposing it as a crucial conservation tool as there is no other platform to crack down on the trade.
Researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) developed their Support Vector Machine or SVM to collect all publicly available lists of songbird advertisements from an online marketplace in Indonesia between April 2020 and September 2021. This web-scraping tool found 326,201 records of relevant ads, equivalent to 284,118 songbirds, the researchers wrote in an article published Sept. 5 in the journal Global ecology and nature conservation.
“If you look at our result, trading via online platforms has a high success rate,” lead author Beni Ocarda Mongabay said in an email.
Keeping songbirds is a popular pastime in Indonesia, especially among Javanese people, who see it as a status symbol and as a means of promoting peace of mind. Activity has expanded beyond Java, largely thanks to the government’s transmigration program, which relocated residents of the densely populated island to other parts of the country and allowed aviculture to gain a foothold in those regions.
Previous bird trade studies have highlighted urban markets in Java and Sumatra. A 2005 report estimated that an average of 614,180 native songbirds were caught and traded annually between the two islands.
Songbirds are also valued for use in competitions, which have spawned thriving networks of clubs, online forums, and blogs. President Joko Widodo, himself a well-known songbird collector and fan, said in March 2018 that bird husbandry had contributed an estimated 1.7 trillion rupiah ($114 million) to the economy.
Ocarda said the species they identified in the online lists largely reflected the composition of songbirds kept by households, as identified in a 2020 study. Okarda’s team also found that more than 6% of the displays, or just over 18,000 threatened species such as the Java starling (Gracupica jalla) and the straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), both of which are considered critically endangered.
Another pattern highlighted by the study was that most sellers were not traders by trade, meaning they did not buy and sell the birds for commercial purposes, but as hobbyists. Most were based in Java, with most transactions taking place within the same city or island.
“I believe the [e-commerce] Infrastructure … is one of the key factors behind successful online trading activities,” study co-author Sonya Dyah Kusumadewi told Mongabay in the email, citing the widely accessible internet and a plethora of shipping services, including same-day delivery Day.
According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring group, Indonesia is home to the largest number of threatened bird species in Asia. The Southeast Asian country has a protected species list that prohibits any capture or trade in some endangered wildlife. Anyone convicted of trapping protected species in the wild faces up to five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah under the Conservation Act 1990.
But the government also allows a quota for registered breeding facilities to capture a protected species from the wild for breeding purposes. These facilities can then sell offspring that are crucially not marked as protected.
The main problem, conservationists say, is that many captive breeders don’t register themselves or the songbirds they breed, making it increasingly likely that the birds they claim to have bred were actually caught in the wild and washed through the facilities became. According to TRAFFIC, excessive animal breeding quotas at Indonesia’s commercial conservation facilities appear to be fueling the illegal wildlife trade.
Additionally, collectors prefer wild-caught birds, which they believe have better song quality than captive-bred ones, TRAFFIC said. The premium they are willing to pay gives traders plenty of incentive to stock wild-caught birds rather than bothering to breed birds of the same species.
Conservationists have been urging the government to update the Conservation Act and regulate online wildlife trade for years, but to no avail. While existing electronic transaction laws address online wildlife trade, observers say they fall far short of curbing the actual practice.
In 2017, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which works with Indonesia’s law enforcement agencies to catch human traffickers, said at least 40% of illegal wildlife traffickers in the country have used online platforms like WhatsApp to conduct their transactions since 2011. She also estimated the value of this illegal pet trade at 13 trillion rupiah ($868 million) a year.
Okarda said he hopes his team’s findings and the SVM tool they developed could serve as a model for Indonesian authorities to monitor the online marketplace. Given that Indonesia is a global wildlife hotspot and one of the largest online markets in the world, it’s confusing that there is no monitoring system for the online songbird market, he said.
“Monitoring of the trade in songbirds needs to be extended to the online marketplace as well,” Ocarda said.
Okarda, B., Muchlish, U., Kusumadewi, SD, & Purnomo, H. (2022). Categorizing the Songbird Market by Big Data and Machine Learning in the Context of the Indonesian Online Market. Global ecology and nature conservation, 39, e02280. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2022.e02280
Marshall H, Collar NJ, Lees AC, Moss A, Yuda P, & Marsden SJ (2020). Spatio-temporal dynamics of consumer demand driving the Asian songbird crisis. Biological preservation, 241108237. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108237
Basten Gokkon is Senior Staff Writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.
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