Citron Crested Cockatoos in the Wild: The Last Stand

Citron Crested Cockatoos in the Wild: The Last Stand

Jul 6, 2006

Notes from the Field – July 2006

By Stewart Metz, MD Director, Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch


The Citron- crested or Sumba cockatoo (or, technically, Cacatua sulphurea citronocristata) is physically the largest subspecies of Cacatua sulphurea, except possibly for the extraordinarily rare C.s. abbotti. In terms of numbers, it accounts for about half of the Yellow-crested cockatoos remaining in the wild, whereas there are less than 10 individuals of the abbotti race left on Masakembing Island. They are native to only a single island (Sumba) in the Nusa Tenggara chain (also called the Lesser Sundas) of Indonesia.
Who doesn’t love these adorable, uppity little Sumba ‘toos? They endear themselves to us with those long recursive (narrow, forward-curving) crests [ref.#1] which they flip forward in cheeky, characteristically staccato bows, as if always finishing an audition for “Cockatoo Idol”. Unfortunately, that’s the problem—everybody loves them as pets.

If loss of habitat and the illegal pet bird trade wipes them out on Sumba, they will be lost from the wild forever. Sadly, both of these factors have existed side-by-side for many years on Sumba, reducing the remaining number of cockatoos to critically endangered levels. This is despite a national domestic ban in their trade since 1992 and a local (island) ban since 1996. In 2002, a single collector exported 52 cockatoos [Ref.#2].

When I visited Sumba in 2002, I had some interesting discussions with trappers/ex-trappers. One was that the cockatoo appeared frequently in the mythology of Sumba and with some reverence, and is frequently depicted as bringing souls of the dead to heaven in the famous Sumba funeral weavings called ikat. Second, the cockatoo is the only bird which disperses the seeds of a tree (the name of which I could not get) which produces the wood which is the only one used for certain holy/sacred buildings and which even illegal loggers will apparently not take. Nonetheless, this beautiful bird is still trapped.


Sumba is a somewhat atypical island in that it is one of the driest in Indonesia, especially the Eastern part of Sumba. Not only are large areas relatively arid, but as other areas were deforested, the damage was done piecemeal, tending to create forests islands. Since Sumba cockatoos prefer large blocks of undisturbed forest larger than 10 square kilometers, the concern is that cockatoos might be reluctant to fly large distances between such ‘islands’ even if they had to. Therefore, several years ago, PBW/IPP funded the radio-telemetry studies of Dr. Margaret Kinnard which were able to demonstrate that Citrons are very strong fliers (up to 32 km/day) and will cross at least 7 km. of open land to bridge these forest fragments [ref. #3].

The figures for the rates of deforestation are frightening: In 1927, 55% of Sumba was covered by forest; in 1996 this figure had fallen to 13% and by 2000, to only 8%. Thereby was lost trees critical for both nestbox creation and availability of preferred foods.

Concomitantly, the population of cockatoos declined from more than 100 cockatoos per 1000 hectares in 1970, to about 13 in 1980 to about 3 by 1990 and 2 by 2002, a stunning decline of 98 % in 32 years! In terms of total populations, census studies in the 1990’s suggested that only between 1150- 2644 individuals existed on the island; it was reported in 2002 that total island population might be relatively stable since 1992. When I visited there in 2002, I was only able to see 4 cockatoos, although a 6-month drought doubtless didn’t help that figure. In 2004, the entire species of C.sulphurea was uplisted to Appendix I of CITES.

The Sumba cockatoo is not the only bird to suffer under conditions of such marked deforestation. The Sumba Eclectus (Eclectus roratus cornelia) actually has a density [number of birds in a given area] as low as that of the cockatoo. The Sumba Great-billed Parrot (Tanygnathus megalorhynchos) (see ref. #4 for details) and the endemic Sumba Hornbill (Rhyticeros everetti) are also in trouble. Interestingly these birds often nest together in the same tree, usually giant(> 35 meters) Tetrameles trees, a single one of which might contain multiple cockatoo nests, a few Eclectus nests, and a hornbill [Ref. #5]. Avian condominiums on Sumba!! — and even here, it’s all about “Location, Location, Location”.


Two groups have systematically approached the plight of the Citron-crested cockatoo: the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, based in the Bronx, N.Y.) and BirdLife-Indonesia (BL-I). PBW-the Indonesian Parrot Project has contributed to the efforts of both. The work by WCS was led by Dr. Margaret Kinnaird, and two post-doctoral students, Alexis Cahill and Jon Walker. One critical contribution was to carry out the radio-telemetry studies cited above, working with in collaboration with Dr. Nurul Winarni; another was to initiate work on a rehabilitation and release program for confiscated Sumba cockatoos (see details below).

Alexis and Jon have also worked with Dr. Stuart Marsden to study the nesting and breeding ecology of the Citron-crested cockatoo, including the first studies of the use of artificial nest boxes. These preliminary attempts were limited, however, both by occupancy of the nest boxes by other animals, and the ill effects of heavy rainfall.

BirdLife Indonesia (BL-I) has had an extended presence on Sumba. Their program for the Sumba cockatoo specifically has several ‘prongs’ to it:

  • Education for children
  • Education for adults
  • Appointing community Parrot Wardens
  • Developing protection groups
  • Working to reduce illegal trade
  • Developing anti-smuggling groups
  • Research

And, changing attitudes to make the cockatoo a symbol of their special heritage and the exploitation of the bird as “anti-Sumba.” (One BL-I slogan on banners reads “Maukah anda dikurung seperti burung?” , which means “Do you want to be caged like a bird?”)
Rehabilitation and Release of Confiscated Sumba Cockatoos. This program is funded by PBW/IPP. To date, the following initiatives have been accomplished:

1) Trained government officers to improve handling of confiscated birds (2003); 2) Paid for Bali vet to come to Sumba to train staff and develop standard procedures (2003), 3) Coordinated with local communities, government and media (ongoing). Arrests of poachers have been made and jail sentences handed out (rare in Indonesia for bird smuggling), in large part due to information coming from local informants. As a result, 47% of local trappers and collectors are no longer active. 4) Released first cockatoos (3) and Eclectus (4); August 21, 2003. As of 2004, the total number of birds rehabilitated and released reached a total of 13 (cockatoos, Eclectus and Green-naped lorikeets; breakdown not yet available). Dr. Kinnaird reported that ” released birds[cockatoos] appeared to pair in the wild” (personal communication to S.M.; 5/24/2004). 5) Last year, moved the rehabilitation center from town to a facility inside the forest of National Park and markedly expanded and upgraded entire facility.Three cockatoos are currently there being rehabilitated for possible release.


Other good news is that two new national parks have been created on the island relatively recently: Manupeu-Tandaru and Laiwanggi-Wanggameti. To achieve success there, it was necessary to appreciate the practical significance to the major stakeholders (the local villagers, who are very poor) of removing from their use, major tracts of cultivatable land. Complicated agreements had to be worked out that were both ecologically- wise for conservation, but satisfactory to the community. [In contrast, many past efforts in other locations in the country were doomed to failure by simply decreeing the expulsion of the local peoples from the national parks]. Such approaches are more likely to assure the long-term help of the community.

So the good news is that there are a lot of people fighting now to make certain that this is NOT the last stand for kakatua kecil jambul kuning (the Little Cockatoo with the Yellow Crest).

We have just initiated talks with BirdLife to possibly broaden our collaboration and set up a joint PCR/DNA laboratory in Bogor to assay for viral and other diseases— a step which we consider critical prior to releasing any psittacines back into the forest. This would involve also working with LIPI, the Indonesian Institute of Science.

(Ref 1) In contrast, the recumbent crest of the Umbrella or Salmon-crested cockatoo is broader, fans out when opened, and lies flat: Carol Highfill, “Those magnificent cockatoo crests”, (For more info, click on Quick Link at bottom of newsletter) (Ref 2) cited in Persulessy et al, Population Survey and Distribution of Cacatua sulphurea citronocristata. Report of Birdlife Indonesia. Bogor. 2003 (Ref 3) Kinnaird, M., “Cockatoos in Peril” PsittaScene. Vol 11, #2: May, 1999, pp. 11-13 (Ref 4) Metz, S., Tindige, K. “Great-Billed Parrots in Indonesia ” PsittaScene 15, #3: 2003, p.8 (Ref 5) Marsden, SJ., “The Ecology and Conservation of the Parrots of Sumba” PsittaScene. Vol 7, #2: May, 1995, pp. 8-9


The Bird Markets of Jakarta

By Bonnie Zimmermann, Vice President, Indonesian Parrot Project

This past June, our Scientific Advisor, Dr. Donald Brightsmith and I visited Jakarta and Seram for meetings and to work at Kembali Bebas. The contrast between these two places is unfathomable.

Jakarta is a dirty, noisy, frantic abomination of civilization, the antithesis of what is Seram. Driving to the hotel the traffic is chaotic and random. It takes ten minutes to move two blocks – and you are assaulted by faces pressing against the window of the car – vendors selling anything from newspapers to faucets, beggars, children reaching their hands out for money – and the entire mass of humanity is surrounded by thousands of motor bikes. The smog is so bad that most people wear kerchiefs over their nose and mouth. What is especially accentuated is the differences in class – the very rich and the very poor. The poor are sleeping in ditches, living in hovels beneath the freeway and have a look of desperation and sadness in their eyes. The rich drive along in their new cars, talking on their cell phones and take no notice of the world around them. There appears to be very little middle ground. This is the perfect environment to harbor the illegal bird and animal trade.

While we were in Jakarta we attended several business meetings, and Don presented a lecture on H5N1 at the Indonesian Institute of Science in Bogor. We also decided to visit one of the notorious bird and animal markets of Jakarta to see first-hand the harsh reality of the illegal trade.

Why? We know it is going to be a terrible experience. But remember the adage — “know your enemy.” We went to a smaller market where it would a little safer to take photographs but would give us a good feel for what goes on. So we dressed up like a couple of geeky tourists, plastered fake smiles on our faces and went to the market.

I won’t go into the details, but there were birds of all kinds, in small cages, many sick, with plenty of parrots, lories and cockatoos displayed publicly. One man handed me a Slow Loris (which is a small nocturnal mammal) right on the sidewalk and asked me to buy it, and another pursued me through the entire market trying to persuade me to buy an eagle.

Ironically, with the global fears about H5N1, it could be a factor (and a blessing in disguise) in closing down some of these markets. However, thus far, officials have shown no inclination to use these fears to close down these profitable markets. And honestly, visiting this market was horrible. But it made me all the angrier and more passionate about doing what we can to effect change for the future of these birds.

The photo at the top shows a Green-winged macaw. Sadly, these birds are now “hot” items in Indonesia (and are not protected under Indonesian law) so there is little that can be done. Although some of the birds are being provided by breeders, this one was not. He was an older bird, obviously a wild caught, and seeing him along with other cockatoos chained to a perch on the city streets of Jakarta broke my heart.

Spread the word! Speak out and share the mission!


Petition to the President of Indonesia – New Update

As many of you know, a petition addressed to the President of Indonesia, was circulated internationally last year. The petition requested that Indonesian cockatoos, parrots and lories be protected from all trapping, export, and sale at domestic bird markets.

Furthermore, the petition requested that members of the Indonesian Military no longer be allowed to take these birds as “oleh-oleh” (souvenirs) at the conclusion of tours of duty, and that severe penalties be given to government Conservation Officers who issue illegal permits, ignore quotas, or themselves perpetuate the illegal bird trade.

The petition was signed by citizens from 58 nations, and was 305 pages long. It was given to the President’s press department to deliver to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Minister of Forestry Kaban . We have had no direct feedback from the President about the petition (nor did we expect to), nor did we receive any communication after a similar petition was mailed to the previous President (Megawati Soekarnoputri ) and the then-current Minister of Forestry in 2003.

Rather, it is to be hoped that in the aggregate and over time, such advocacy campaigns—and international pressure—will have an impact on Indonesia’s political response to the rampant illegal wildlife trade. Judging from the encouraging enthusiasm for anti-smuggling measures in the Moluccas, we are optimistic that this is indeed the case.


News from Kembali Bebas

Presently we have just over 100 birds at KB and during the June trip every bird was vet checked and microchipped. Most of the birds were in good health, a few are still recovering from starvation or physical injuries that occured during the trapping or smuggling process.
New caging is under construction and shortly we will be moving almost sixty birds to sanctuary (pet birds or birds not native to Seram),including Umbrella, Seram, Citron-crested, and Eleonora cockatoos, Eclectus, Lories, and a hornbill.

Many other birds will continue in the socialization process, awaiting that special day when they can go back to their forest homes.


IPP Receives Two New Grants!

SeaWorld – Busch Gardens Conservation Fund

As anti-smuggling efforts in the Moluccas of Indonesia increase, a major problem which has become increasingly apparent: that is— how to provide suitable placement for the confiscated parrots, cockatoo and lories. This placement must both to: support a proactive conservation program, and simultaneously assure a humane outcome for these beleaguered birds.

We are proud to announce that we have recently been awarded a competitive grant from the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund to further these goals. Those areas of the program receiving partial grant support from SWBG were:

1) Increasing our housing capacity for confiscated birds at Kembali Bebas by adding additional quarantine and flight cages;

2)Training an ex-trapper in the specialized care of parrots at one of the Indonesian Wild Animal Rescue Centers;

3) Training two government officials there;4)Improving housing quality and capacity at Governmental Offices to serve as quarantine and temporary holding sites prior to their transfer to Kembali Bebas

It is our hope that the improvements in these areas which will be funded in part by this grant from SeaWorld-Busch Gardens, will begin to fix major deficiencies in the current system for the handling smuggled parrots, cockatoos and lories following their confiscation.

Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund

The Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch has been selected by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund (DWCF) for an award for its work with wild Indonesian cockatoos and parrots, with the Seram or “Salmon-crested” cockatoo as its flagship specie. Specifically, the DWCF funds will go towards improvements in the outdoor flight aviaries at the Kembali Bebas Avian Rehabilitation Center at the edge of Manusela National Park on Seram Island in Indonesia. This Center receives parrots which have been confiscated by Indonesian governmental officials from the illegal pet trade, mostly from Maluku Province (the Moluccas or “Spice Islands”) and West Papua. These birds are then transported to the Center, receive veterinary treatment, and are either rehabilitated for release back into the forest (wherever possible) or maintained in a lifelong sanctuary in a natural rainforest environment.

The Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch is assisted in all of its work by Yayasan Wallacea, an Indonesian non-governmental organization which oversees the day-to-day operations at the Kembali Bebas Center. The Center hires former bird trappers of the area to assist in its daily operations. The Sanctuary part of the Center will provide a setting in which to promote local pride in the villagers (especially the children) in their unique and beautiful bird life, and to teach lasting conservation values.

Project Bird Watch, and the Indonesian Parrot Project (its operational name on the ground in Indonesia) was selected from more than 240 applications reviewed by scientists, veterinarians and other animal experts. The organizations range from large national groups to small community efforts, from Africa to Florida, and in total received $1.4 million in awards, bringing the DWCF total to more than $10 million in conservation projects supported.

“The ability to enable such important work to protect wildlife and wild places is a key component of Disney’s mission,” according to Jerry Montgomery, Sr. Vice President of Public Affairs, Walt Disney World. Montgomery oversees the DWCF program through Disney’s office of conservation initiatives. He said the programs chosen demonstrate solid science, engage local communities, and measure the impact being made to protect the environment. “We also appreciate the fact that many of our Guests who visit Walt Disney World Resort and Disney Cruise Line contribute to DWCF, showing their own personal commitment to conservation.” Disney pays all overhead costs of the program and Disney’s corporate outreach program supplements DWCF awards.

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