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Sumatra, Indonesia

The hard-knock life of an Indonesian bird catcher

A yellow-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier) the size of an adult’s thumb frantically moved its wings in a futile attempt to fly. Both its feet were glued to the branch of a bush in the Konak Conservation Forest in Kepahiang Regency, Bengkulu. 

From around 20 meters away, 43-year old Afrizal, the person who made the trap with glue used to catch rodents, started to approach the green and beige feathered bird. He wrapped his palm around the bird and released its tiny feet from the trap. After a brief examination, Afrizal tossed the bird into the air, setting it free.

“It is a female, better for her to just lay eggs,” he said. “Besides, the price is too low if I sold it.”

Afrizal, a resident of Bengkulu, had been hunting songbirds all afternoon. He is among the senior pemikat - the term used to refer to bird catchers- in Bengkulu. A tattoo of a peacock decorates the right arm of this man, who has spent decades hunting for birds. Despite Afrizal's experience, however, that day he came home empty handed. The birds were reluctant to come out due to the steady drizzle.

Afrizal said he catches birds to support his wife and three children. The job, he said, only provides enough income to cover their daily needs.

“We will not be able to go on the hajj pilgrimage,” noted Afrizal, who often works odd jobs when not catching birds to help pay for their rented house in Bengkulu City.

Afrizal had had his heyday as bird catcher a few years ago. Back then, he could catch dozens of birds in a day. Aside from Yelllow-vented bulbul, he usually caught Purple-throated sunbirds (Leptocoma spreata), Javan white-eyes, (Zosterops flavus), and various other birds. Afrizal sold these male birds to collectors for Rp4,000 to Rp6,000 each. If lucky, he could bring home up to Rp200,000 at least three times in a week.

At present, Afrizal’s income is just half of what it used to be. Songbirds are now nesting deeper inside the forest, he said. Their numbers have also dwindled. Two years ago, Afrizal could catch them on the outskirts of the jungle. Now he has to walk through the conservation forest for two hours in order to find the birds’ habitat.

Agung, a bird catcher in Dharmasraya Regency, West Sumatra, is experiencing a similar situation. Despite his hunting ground being located near the Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park forest, he has been having more difficulty finding birds in the area, at least for the past year.

“White-eyes used to be common in bushes, but now it is hard to find them,” he said.

The situation is made worse by rampant illegal logging around the forest. The trees where the nests are felled, and the roar of the loggers’s chainsaws, scares the birds away, said Agung. Bird catchers are afraid of going into the forest because dangerous animals like bears and tigers are often seen wandering down from the mountains because of the logging.

Agung said that he often encounters large snakes in the trees when trying to attract birds.

“Catching bird these days means putting one’s life at stake."

Agung would often keep the catch for himself, because he does not want to sell them off after going through such great effort to get the birds.

Aside from glue, sometimes Agung also snares the birds using a net tied to the treetops. He uses recordings of birdsongs played from a cellphone near the trap to lure them in. This is a substitution of the old method of placing a live bird near the trap to get other birds to approach.

Nabila Fatma, communications director at wildlife trade watchdog Flight: Protecting Indonesia’s Birds, said that the massive catching and smuggling of birds to Java Island have contributed to the decline of the songbird population around the jungles of Sumatra Island. On average, around 3,250 birds are caught from the forest every day, she said. Flight estimates that Sumatra’s songbird population has been reduced by more than 1 million in the past year due to illegal catching.

Afrizal acknowledges this phenomenon. But he continues hunting for birds because the demand remains high. He occasionally hunts protected birds for their higher price. The Crested jay (Platylophus galericulatus), for example, sells for Rp400,000. In the hands of traders, the bird may fetch more than twice that amount. Afrizal is aware that the Crested jay is a protected animal. If caught hunting for the bird, he could face up to five years in prison and a fine of Rp100 million. “But I have to feed my family,” he said.

Hunting for the Crested jay or the Blue-winged leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis) requires even more effort. Afrizal would have to spend a night in the middle of the forest because the birds live on the other side of a heavily vegetated hill. The Crested jay’s protected status, he said, makes the bird more sought after and therefore more expensive.

Yet the high sale's price does little to improve the bird catcher’s life.

Fatma said that the catchers - whose numbers are estimated to be in the dozens spread all across Sumatra - are living from hand to mouth because they sit on the bottom of the songbird catching and smuggling chain.

“The lion’s share of the profits goes to collectors and traders,” she said.

In the hands of traders, songbirds from the catchers multiply in price. That is why a bird trader may earn up to hundreds of millions of rupiah per month or billions of rupiah per year. One bird trader in Bandang Lampung who goes by the name Nur Kios affirmed the volumes, saying that the birds sold in a week number in the thousands.

Nur once got into trouble with the Bandar Lampung Natural Resource Quarantine and Conversation Office after being accused of smuggling songbirds to Java Island. The trader’s allegedly illegal birds were confiscated. Nur, who owns several vehicles, sold a car to a collector in an area in Sumatra to cover losses from the confiscation. Nur was not discouraged by the incident, though. 

“I am an official and registered merchant who has to start over,” he said. 

Bird catchers like Afrizal do not envy the collector’s apparent welfare. In order to become a songbird collector or trader, he said, one must have lots of capital. Afrizal thinks he could not become a trader because he lacks a network of buyers, either in Bengkulu or Java. So far, he has only been able to “promote” himself to be a coordinator of bird catchers.

“When an order comes, I could assign other bird catchers,” he said. But Afrizal's income remains small because he has to share it with those other catchers. The only difference, he said, is he no longer needs to go in and out of the forest as often as before. 

This story was originally published in Tempo Magazine on 7 September 2020. This version has been edited for clarity and style. Tempo conducted this coverage in cooperation with Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: Afrizal, a chirping bird charmer from Bengkulu, demonstrates how to attract birds using special glue in the forest area of Kepahiang, Bengkulu, on 3 July 2020 / Credit: Tempo / Mustafa Silalahi