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Killing the bird with the golden voice

Agustus 3, 2010

The Jakarta Post, 3 agustus 2010

In the house of Bagya Rahmadi in Yogyakarta is a small bird that is worth, literally, more than its weight in gold.

This bird is an orange-headed thrush, or Zoothera citrina, a species known generally across Indonesia as punglor or cerbang. This particular individual thrush goes by the name of Juventus.

Like the rest of his species — and as the name suggests — Juventus has an orange head, breast and underparts; his wings, back and tail are gray and he has whitish parts on

the wings.

But pretty as he is, his value is due not to his looks, but to his voice. For when Juventus sings, it is a pure and beautiful sound. And as he sings, he performs the “drunken dance” characteristic of the breed: He spreads his wings a bit, and shakes his head to the left and right, a movement people liken to that of a man affected by too much liquor.

Such is Juventus’ skill that he has won numerous songbird competitions; recently, his song and dance won his owner, Bagya, Rp 23 million (US$230) in prize money in a punglor contest in Jember in East Java.

Bagya claims that punglor lovers from Kalimantan and Jakarta once offered him Rp 450 million for Juventus. “But I wouldn’t sell it because it’s hard to find another of the quality of Juventus,” he says.

With its beautiful song and distinctive movement, the punglor is one of the most popular birds among Indonesian songbird lovers. In a 2006 study by Burung Indonesia, the punglor, whose rise to fame began in the mid-1990s, was named as third most popular after canaries and gray parrots.

The popularity means it fetches a high price, and not just for proven champions like Juventus: In Bali, a week-old punglor chick can cost as much as Rp 260,000.

Which means, of course, that plenty of people want to get their hands on one.

Although some people breed punglor, the hunt for this bird in the wild – it can be found in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java and Bali – is ongoing in a bid to meet the high demand for them among songbird enthusiasts. Although Birdlife International has not yet recommended it be listed as an endangered species, its population, in Java at least, is declining.

Bali, where one of the names given to the species of songbird is kendhis taien sampi, meaning “cow dung”, as the bird frequently eats the worms around cow manure, is the main source of songbirds for trade, according to Ige Kristianto, director of environmental NGO Kutilang for Bird Conservation.

“Nearly 95 percent [of the birds in captivity] come from Bali,” he says.

According to his rough calculations, tens of thousands of punglor chicks leave Bali each harvest

season.

In Bali, the punglor tends to make its home among the coffee plantations in the middle of the island.

Kutilang’s research on punglor exploitation in Bali during the past six months has identified the four regencies – Jembrana, Buleleng, Tabanan and Karangasem – with the largest punglor populations.

As coffee plantation workers tend to be poor, this “golden” songbird offers them another source of income. Kristianto said that as estate owners, concerned only about getting a good harvest of coffee, cacao and cloves, do not care whether the bird lives and breeds in their plantations, the presence of the punglor “fully becomes a bonus for the estate workers”.

Ketut Artame, known as Bobi, is one of the workers on a 1-hectare coffee plantation in Tista village in Buleleng regency.

“In one season I can usually get 11 punglor chicks on average, but in this last season I caught only five,” says Bobi, who lives in a modest wooden hut amid the coffee estates. By collecting the songbird chicks, the 30-year-old father of two can earn about an extra Rp 1,250,000, without breaking a sweat.

Made Sujana Arta, a coffee grower from Tangis village, Tabanan regency, claims to have taken 40 chicks worth a total Rp 10 million in the past season.

“Selling the punglor chicks gives more additional income in a time of crisis,” he says, noting that the

enterprise means he can still earn money when it is not time for the coffee harvest.

But despite the extra money that helps ease the hardship of plantation workers, isn’t the survival of this songbird in Bali threatened by the removal of the chicks from their nests?

No, says Lemon, a punglor seller from Mengenu village, Tabanan.

He points out that every season, some chicks escape the attention of the estate workers, growing to adulthood and breeding in turn.

“When we’re busily harvesting coffee, some punglor will still lay eggs and sometimes we don’t even notice it,” Made Sujana Arta says in confirmation. He can even show punglor nests not far from his home during the dry season, as farmers were harvesting coffee beans.

The workers sell their punglor chicks to middlemen, mostly in the district town of Pupuhan in Tabanan regency.

One prominent dealer in Pupuhan is Wachid, a pioneer of the punglor business in Bali.

“In a season I can buy 5,000 to 7,000 punglor chicks,” he says. He delivers the birds as ordered to various cities, most of which are in Java, at Rp 350,000 per chick.

At that price, he points out, a punglor chick is worth more than a gram of 22-carat gold, which is priced at about Rp 230,000.

Kutilang has no exact data on the number of coffee estate workers gathering punglor each season. It is possible that thousands of people profit from the bird business. According to Wachid, in Pupuhan district most coffee estate workers collect chicks for sale.

To regulate this trade to some extent, community rules have been introduced in villages.

For instance, a worker is only allowed to gather punglor chicks from the coffee estate where he works.

In Padangan village, Tabanan, during the punglor hatching season, it is forbidden to enter another coffee estate.

“There’s also an agreement that shooting a mother punglor is prohibited,” says Ketut, the secretary of Tista village.

Anyone found breaking the rules is punished according to the local tradition.

What remains unregulated, however, is the collection of the chicks, in both method and amount.

Without any limits set, there is concern that the sustainability of the punglor population will be threatened, Kristianto says.

“To guarantee its conservation, every season, coffee estate workers should leave a number of chick nests untouched,” he says.

Conversationists will point to the case of Bali’s starling, which has become an endangered species

because of hunting, in the demand for Bali’s communities or government to consider seriously the protection of the punglor.

After all, it is in the coffee estate workers’ own interests not to kill the bird with the golden voice.

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