WORKING TO CONSERVE COCKATOOS IN INDONESIA:
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
by Stewart Metz, Associate Director
Working with the Indonesian Parrot Project to conserve cockatoos (and other parrots) in Eastern Indonesia has been an exciting, rewarding, and life-changing experience overall. However, such work is bound to be comprised of a balance between successes and failures. The two stories below offer such a dichotomy but advance warning: parts of each story might be quite distressing to some.
Palm Cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus)
We have seen only about 15 Palm cockatoos in the wild, since in Indonesia, they are found in Papua. We had the opportunity to visit a few of the Raja Ampat (Four Kings) Islands in West Papua
|Palm cockatoo in the wild; photo courtesy Mandy Andrea|
These cockatoos are striking not only in their unusual black coloration and huge beak, but in their noble and imposing way with which they seem to bear themselves in the wild. Their huge beaks are used to crack open the extremely hard shell of the ketapong nut. The Palm cockatoo is the only cockatoo which can open this nut.
|Palm cockatoo opening ketapong nut; photo courtesy of Stewart Metz|
Likewise, we saw only four Palm cockatoos on Seram. All of these had been trapped in the wild but then were confiscated by officials. These four Palms ended up on Seram Island rather than their true homeland , because the officials knew that we (the Indonesian Parrot Project) had a Rehabilitation and Release Center on Seram. The toll on them after trapping is, sadly, all too evident, not only by their placement in tiny cages and lack of exposure to sunlight, but also physically, especially in the skin around the beak. This characteristic feature of Palms (the cheek patch ) is probably a reflection of the blood vessels just underneath, and most commonly is a deep salmon color although that is variable.
However, when these cockatoos are stressed, that color fades, as in photo below, often approaching grey or even white.
|Captive Palm cockatoo; photo courtesy Stewart Metz|
The look on the faces of the cockatoos which we saw in captivity, seemed to me no longer imposing, but perhaps one of acquiescence.
Unfortunately, they could not be released on Seram, but only in their Papua homeland. This would require prolonged quarantine followed by extensive rehabilitation. Otherwise, there is the possibility of introducing foreign "bugs" from Seram to Papua, which might create significant disease issues. Most directly, there was no such release center in West Papua.
Salmon-crested Cockatoos (C. moluccensis)
In contrast, we saw many Salmon-crested cockatoos on Seram Island, their natural home, many of them in the wild.
|A pair of wild Salmon-crested cockatoos; photo courtesy Mandy Andrea|
Whereas, many others were seen in our Rehabilitation and Release Center located near the village of Masihulan.
|Photo courtesy of Stewart Metz|
In contrast to Palm cockatoos, Seram is the homeland for Salmon-crested Cockatoos. Therefore, some many of the issues concerning this complex procedure can be circumvented. This is an example of the gratifying aspect of conservation work: even in the nascent years of IPP between 2005 and 2009, over 180 Salmon-crested Cockatoos were returned to the forest, using so-called "soft release". In soft release, following extensive rehabilitation, the cage door is opened and the bird is able to fly out-if so desired. If they choose not to, or if they return, food is left to feed them and the cage door remains open. In contrast, a "hard release" basically involves forcing any birds from their cage even if they choose not to leave. IPP was the first group ever to release these cockatoos using soft release.
A very happy event concerned... the firstborn 'child'of a pair of cockatoos! In the world of conservation, especially regarding birds, it can be difficult to trace the outcome, not only for a group of birds, but even more for individual birds. Therefore, conservationists often consider reproductive activity to be a good sign of a successive release.. Thus we were excited to observe two of the first cockatoos to be released, forming a pair bond, nest searching, producing a chick, followed by its fledging and eventually, the new cockatoo flew off on its on, and returned to the wild.
Photo to left was taken by local villagers using a cell phone. Despite the poor quality, one can make out a grown cockatoo at the nest hole, with chick barely visible below. A small but exciting step!
However, even in the midst of success, many of the other Salmon-crested cockatoos suffered some horrific treatment during their trapping and/or smuggling. The following is an example of this:
|Photo courtesy of Mandy Andrea|
This cockatoo had been the captive of a particularly cruel smuggler, who beat him about the head and elsewhere on his body. As a result, he came to us apparently totally blind, as could be seen by the cloudy appearance of his eyes. Not surprisingly, he lashed out at anybody who approached him. He died within a day or two. Sadly, he represents some of the worst treatment that befalls these helpless birds. It is the smugglers, not this cockatoo, who are blind to the suffering they inflict on the parrots they trap.
Yes, it is always painful to witness the beauty and intelligence of cockatoos and other parrots to be reduced by the cruelty and the spiritual blindness of trappers and smugglers. But these difficult aspects of parrot conservation are more than outweighed by the sense of satisfaction of working to reduce trapping and smuggling. I also present them with the hope that they might stimulate some of you to "do something about it."
One thing our time in Indonesia has taught is that one person-and more than one-can make a big difference for parrots, either one-by-one, or working on behalf of a larger grouping such as a species or subspecies.
Either way, it is a thrilling ride! Any takers?