Songbirds: Unsung heroes getting recognition at CITES
Kanitha Krishnasamy, Director—Southeast Asia
Document 79 tabled by the governments of Sri Lanka and United States at the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP18) meeting currently taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, draws attention to possibly one of the most critical yet widely underappreciated wildlife trade issues today: the widespread over-exploitation of songbirds for the cagebird trade.
As the document highlights, this is now a global issue, with trapping of songbirds taking place in large quantities in parts of Latin America, Africa, and in particular—and arguably best-known—in Asia.
TRAFFIC’s trade studies for over two decades, particularly in physical markets in Southeast Asia, have shed light on the scale of this trade. In recent times, tens of thousands of birds have been recorded in markets of Indonesia, Singapore and Viet Nam at any one point in time. But the picture that is only slowly emerging is of the extent of the trade involved. Previously, the songbird trade has largely been considered a domestic trade issue—and thus outside the remit of CITES. However, the international dimensions of this trade are slowly becoming apparent.
TRAFFIC’s survey in Singapore in 2015 for example noted that 80% or more than 11,000 birds recorded in the bird markets were species not native to Singapore; 97% the birds traded were also not listed in CITES, with many being non-native species. Recent TRAFFIC bird market surveys in Singapore—historically the epicentre of the bird trade markets in Asia—found numbers of Abyssinian White-eyes for sale. Their origin can only be from Africa and their appearance in Asia appears linked to their close similarity to the white-eye species of Asia. Hugely popular as cagebirds, there is gathering evidence of the near total extirpation of what were formerly common white-eye species, like the Javan White-eye, from large parts of their former ranges in Asia, doubtless because of relentless trapping pressure. And nor are white-eyes isolated examples.
As evidence has emerged of the widespread declines in Asian songbirds, so has the conservation community begun to rally to their aid. The first Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit was held in 2015 and led to the development of the Conservation Strategy for Southeast Asian Songbirds in Trade, which identified 28 songbirds most threatened by trade and the critical actions needed to protect them.
Among them is the White-rumped Shama—a hugely popular cagebird, kept as a pet and for its use in dedicated songbird competitions. The widespread disappearance in Indonesia of this common species would have been unconscionable just a few years ago. And as a new TRAFFIC study released a few days ago revealed, trade in the species is international in nature: some 10,376—two-thirds—of the 15,480 White-rumped Shamas seized in Southeast Asia between 2008 and 2018 were destined for international trade.
But the list of 28 songbirds that includes the White-rumped Shama is by no means exhaustive—two years after the first Summit, 16 more species were added to the list of species threatened by trade, emphasising the quick changes in trends. We urgently need far more information about the true extent of the trade in global songbird species, particularly those being traded internationally.
At the current CITES meeting, Parties are likely to adopt a call for further research into the extent of the global songbird trade and the impact it is having on species. It is a challenge to which TRAFFIC would be more than happy to contribute our expertise as the picture of this conservation crisis unfolds.
Update: Following discussion of Document 79 at CoP18, Parties asked the CITES Secretariat to undertake a preliminary study on the scale and scope of international songbird trade and its conservation implications, to convene a technical workshop of appropriate technical experts and to report back their findings to the Animals Committee who would make recommendations to the Standing Committee or 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, as appropriate. This course of action is subject to the availability of funds to carry the work out. The draft decsions outlining the above can be found here.