Paradox of the Bali Starling (Wheeler, 2009)

The Paradox of the Bali Starling.

Catherine Wheeler on Bali's most fabled and highly-prized mascot

Bali's most famous bird is also its most elusive. The species is highly endangered. But the rarity of the Bali starling in its own territory has been contrived to maintain an artificially high price. The cost of these birds is higher inside Indonesia than anywhere else, and breeding permits here are almost impossible to obtain.

bs tunjukpusehThe Bali starling should be as common as the pigeon in Bali. The glossy little white bird breeds freely in captivity, even thriving in outdoor aviaries in the English winter. Artificially incubated, a single breeding pair can parent up to 25 birds a year. In more natural conditions, a pair of birds produces between one and four eggs every three months with a survival rate of about ten chicks a year. They begin breeding at about the age of two and continue reproducing for ten years. That's a lot of birds.

So why is the Bali starling still so scarce that almost no body has ever seen one? Unfortunately, the little bird is a lot more valuable as a rarity than it would be if it was allowed to reproduce with its customary enthusiasm. And there are vested interests in keeping it that way. It's extremely difficult to obtain a captive breeding license; in Bali, only the Bali Bird Park, Bali Barat National Park and the Begawan Giri Foundation have them. Illegal trade in Bali starlings is rampant, with each bird fetching about $1000 on the black market. In Java there are two commercial breeders of the Bali starling. In Bali there are none. Captive breeding programs at Bali Barat National Park, the Bali Bird Park and Begawan Giri Foundation have all experienced robberies of their Bali starlings. Poaching in the National Park is common.

Bradley and Debbie Gardner, former owners of Begawan Giri estate, had long been intrigued by the paradox of this artificially rare bird. In 1999 they began to set the wheels in motion to import and breed the Bali starling, since they were unable to obtain permission to breed local birds. Drh Bayu Wirayudha, a Balinese veterinarian specializing in birds, helped start the captive breeding program. After a grueling four months of paperwork, the Gardners were able to import two breeding pairs into Bali. From these four birds, and with exchanges of birds to increase the breeding stock, many generations have been hatched and the Begawan Giri Foundation (BGF) Bali Starling Recovery Project was established in 2001.

Bayu, who had successfully bred Bali starlings at the Bali Bird Park since 1993, began to build up the collection. The birds bred well in Begawan's high, wet location. He began to look for a safe place in which the birds could eventually be released back into the wild. Although he located several areas that would be ideal, he was unable to get official approval.

In 2004, Bayu approached the communities on Nusa Penida with the concept of making the island a bird sanctuary for Bali. Over time, all 35 of the traditional villages agreed to support the program. Reforestation, conservation education and other support activities began in the villages. In 2006, the BGF moved all its Bali starlings to Nusa Penida, and began releasing them in July. A second release took place in December of that year, following the success of the first release. The adult birds have paired, nested and begun breeding in the island's coconut plantations. At the time of writing (September 2009), 65 birds have been released and 62 chicks have hatched in the wild.

Bayu has high hopes that the program will succeed. Through his approach to all the villages individually Bayu, in his role of founder of the Bird Sanctuary, has concluded a traditional agreement, known as awig-awig with all 35 villages to declare Nusa Penida as a sanctuary for birds. Awig-awig is a religious commitment to protect the birds, which are individually dedicated to the temples before release. Highly trained local staff monitor the birds and continue local education programs. Not a single bird has been poached. Tourists are already beginning to visit Nusa Penida to see the Bali starlings, the beginning of an eco-tourism that could bring badly needed income to the island.

In April 2007, President Yudhoyono of Indonesia visited Nusa Penida and personally opened the cages to release 12 young Bali starlings. He thanked Bayu for his work conserving the species-the first official support the initiative has ever received.

‘The Paradox of the Bali Starling’ and other stories appear in her book ‘Dragons in the Bath‘. (2009), which saw its revised edition in October 2009. Environmentalist and writer Catherine Wheeler has lived in Bali 9 years. Her work explores issues, cultural bafflements and the minutae of daily life in Bali.

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