Island birds living on a wing and a prayer

Manrara - Herman Dedi recalls when yellow-crested cockatoos were pests on Sumba, swooping out of the forest to steal his papaya. Now the bird, unique to the Indonesian island and adopted as its emblem, is on the brink of extinction with fewer than 300 remaining.

"Our people tell stories about the cockatoo, it is our symbol, but soon there will be none and stories will be all that's left," says Dedi, a resident of Manrara, a traditional village on the edge of the bird's dwindling habitat.

Across the Indonesian archipelago and Asia, the plight of Sumba's cockatoo is shared by scores of exotic and beautiful species as illegal logging, the demands of a rapidly expanding population and bird trafficking take their toll.

Conservation group Birdlife International earlier this month warned that unless action was taken, 100 Asian bird species will be extinct within a decade, most of them from among Indonesia's 117 endangered bird types.

'The forest can only survive if the birds survive'
On Sumba, an island of ancient rural communities to the southeast of Bali, the vibrantly-plumed Sulfurea citrinocristata cockatoo is joined by three other birds that are found nowhere else on the planet and could soon vanish entirely.

Less than half a century ago, Sumba was a paradise for wildlife, with more than half the island's 10 000 square kilometres covered in lush greenery. Today only 6.5 percent is forest while most has become parched and bare scrubland.

"The decline on Sumba has been steep," said Pete Wood, project co-ordinator for Birdlife Indonesia, which opened an office on the island several years ago in the hope of reversing the fortunes of its feathered population.

Wood said that while few would notice the passing of Sumba's little-known hornbills, quails and fruit doves, their demise has wider implications.

"Places that are good for birds are good for other wildlife. When they are under threat, the environment around them is also suffering," he said.

The national park is a chance to revive cultural practices
Sumba's birds suffered heavily as villagers tore down trees to build traditional houses and cleared lands for crops. In recent years, the main threat has been from trappers who illegally sell the prized creatures as pets.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, rampant logging which annually chainsaws an area of forest almost as large as Belgium has continued largely unchecked thanks to the same corruption that lets bird trafficking flourish.

In ravaged landscapes across 28 Asian countries from India to Japan, Birdlife has identified about 2 300 "important bird areas", of which 43 percent lack any formal protection.

But although the future looks bleak for Asia's avian world, there are glimmers of optimism - even on Sumba, where villagers now realise that protecting the birds also guarantees their own future.

"The forest can only survive if the birds survive, because they are the ones who spread the seeds and without them the wildlife suffers," says Dedi.

His village, a collection of 150 wooden houses topped by enormous thatched towers seen throughout Sumba, borders the newly-created Manupeu Tanahdaru national park, a project Birdlife believes could offer hope beyond the island.

When the 135 000-hectare area is fully operative, access will be restricted, farming and felling heavily limited and bird trapping actively outlawed. If successful it is hoped the park will become a model for other areas.

Several villages, including Manrara, have already agreed to co-operate and in a sign local authorities and communities are committed, Sumba recently fined and jailed a bird trafficker for eight months - a heavy sentence for a crime seldom punished in Indonesia.

For Dedi, who has become an adept tracker of birds, attuned to their whistles and calls, a thriving national park offers a new livelihood in the shape of tourists eager to hire him as a guide to help them glimpse such rare species.

And for Manrara's 55-year-old chief, Umbu Rajang, the national park is a chance to revive cultural practices steeped in Sumba's spiritual folklore that are in decline under the pressures of modern life.

"Once, all we knew was the forest around us. Because of the growing needs of people this has been reduced," he said, surveying the undergrowth from under the straw eaves of his wooden house.

"It has always been a traditional practice to protect the forest, not to cut certain trees and not to hurt the birds."

If you must cripple a creature
to keep it, perhaps you should
reconsider its suitability as a pet.