Common only 20 years ago, three black-winged mynah species now face extinction in the wild, with an estimated 500 remaining. Meanwhile some 40,000 live in captivity in Indonesia, according to new research.
Researchers fear the black-winged mynah could go the way of the scimitar-horned oryx, an antelope native to the Sahara that went extinct in the wild around 2000 from overhunting but still exists in large numbers in captivity.
Black-winged mynahs, gray-rumped mynahs, and gray-backed mynahs are closely related species in the starling family that are endemic to Indonesia. Until recently, they were considered the same species, and researchers still often colloquially use the term “black-winged mynah” to refer to all three. They’re prized for their striking plumage—white body, black wings, and a band of bare, bright yellow skin behind the eyes—and for their beautiful songs full of varied trills, whistles, chirps, and other peculiarities, which owners show off in songbird competitions. Indonesia has a long history of keeping birds as pets, and demand for caged birds has led to the so-called “Asian Songbird Crisis.” (Read: “New Evidence Shows the Illegal Pet Trade Is Wiping Out Indonesia’s Birds.”)
Vincent Nijman, an anthropology professor at Oxford Brookes University, in England, who studies the interactions between humans and wildlife, is the lead author of a new study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, which assesses trade in black-winged mynahs.
He first started visiting and observing bird markets in Indonesia 25 years ago, but he wasn’t that interested in black-winged mynahs at the time. Over the years he noticed that as mynahs became more common in the markets, they grew ever scarcer in the forests. While many of the birds observed in the markets were likely bred in captivity, others were certainly caught from the wild because it’s cheaper than breeding them.
“It became very clear that the decline was at least in part due to trade,” Nijman says.
For this assessment, Nijman and his co-authors visited seven bird markets in Indonesia, sometimes dozens of times during a 10-year period, to assess the trade in the birds. The researchers counted 1,253 black-winged mynahs and 32 traders selling them.
Matthew Jeffery, director of programs at the New York-based National Audubon Society, has previously worked on wildlife trade issues. He praised the recent study, which he was not involved in.
“It’s obviously very disappointing but not that far-fetched for Southeast Asia,” he says about the findings. “It defines that there is an immense issue with illegal trade in the species.”
He says it’s very difficult to tackle the mynah trade problem in Indonesia, particularly as it means going up against wealthy individuals. In some cases, a mynah that’s a proven breeder or that has won major songbird competitions can be worth as much as $1,000, more than five times the average monthly income of $183, according to CEIC Data. But the extent of captive breeding has caused the sale price of an average mynah to drop to around $85, low enough that the birds have become a fairly common pet for the middle class, the authors say.
“In Southeast Asia, the wildlife crime is so rampant that it’s almost impossible to stay on top of,” Jeffery says.
Even though Indonesian law protects wild black-winged mynahs by banning their capture, transport, and trade, it’s legal to breed them in captivity.
Captive breeding can cause its own set of problems for wild birds. Nijman says that many of the birds the researchers saw in markets appeared to be hybrids of the three closely related species, which can successfully interbreed. This could be a problem if birds escape or are released into the wrong range because they could essentially breed the wild birds out of existence over time.
Captive breeders are supposed to release 10 percent of the birds they raise back into the wild, and while this often doesn’t happen in practice, Nijman says, he notes that in at least two known cases, birds have been released into the wrong ranges.
Furthermore, because regulations are enforced weakly, there’s little to stop people from recapturing the birds after they’ve been released.
Jeffery says one solution may be to piggyback the release of mynahs on the release of other captive species such as primates, as the habitats they’re put in sometimes receive stronger protections.
“There are some safer areas that could perhaps become refuges for some species,” he says.
Another problem with captive breeding is that there’s now no way to tell the difference between an illegal wild bird and a legal captive-bred one, making law enforcement difficult.
Nijman would like to see the government institute and enforce leg banding as a way to differentiate the two. The closed ring band can fit over a bird’s foot and onto its leg only when it’s young, something breeders, but few poachers, have the opportunity to do. If all breeders were to band their mynahs as chicks, it would mean that any non-banded adult mynah for sale in a market likely would have been poached from the wild.
Without any such measure, the future at best seems uncertain—and at worst disastrous—for these three species of mynahs.
Joshua Rapp Learn is a freelance science reporter who contributes to publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Hakai, and The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter.