JAKARTA, Indonesia – Walking into Banteng Square one Sunday morning in December, music from a sea of songbirds filled the air. All along the pathways, under every tree, and lounging in the grass, were men and their birds. It was lovely, odd, and soon to be unsettling.
Birdsong soon gave way to the yells and screams of men. The two main lawns were dominated by large tent structures with perimeter fencing, separating the pleading men from the performing birds. Inside the tent hanging neatly in rows were several dozen cages containing songbirds. Under each cage rested a stool, upon which the judges would place ribbons of distinction for the birds with the most prominent and beautiful song.
Prizes for songs might bring from 30,000,000 to 350,000 IDR (approximately U.S. $2,280 – $26), thus explaining the animated enthusiasm of the crowd. Pressed against the perimeter barricade, owners–both excited and anguished–screamed and gesticulated in desperate bids to get their birds to sing. To the ear of an outsider, not a single birdsong was distinguishable in the cacophony.
Male songbirds are extremely territorial and will go to great lengths to out-sing other males in their vicinity, and it’s this habit that the birdsong competitions exploit. A winning songbird must have stamina, a diverse vocal repertoire, and the ability to keep singing even in the presence of a more dominant singer. Competitors must sing for up to 25 minutes non-stop if they are to stand a chance in the competition arena. _ Jenna Blakely, “Wild Java”
While the practice of bird-keeping has long played an important role in Javanese culture, songbird competitions are a relatively new form of entertainment in Indonesia. Some research supports that the rise in the sport can be attributed to the 1997-98 economic crisis in Asia as an opportunistic moment for small businesses to make money from the well-entrenched hobby of bird-keeping.
Indonesia lays an impressive claim to wildlife diversity. Home to some 380 endemic species of birds and host to many more during the winter months, the size and voracity of the animal trade market carries equal scale. Pramuka Pasar, located in the heart of Jakarta, is Southeast Asia’s largest bird and wildlife market. As described in a recent National Geographic article by Rachael Bale, the market is teaming with “thousands of wild birds–ranging from tiny brown finches and brilliant rainbow lorikeets to small-bodied, large-eyed owls–(to be) sold as pets to local collectors.”
The effects of such markets on wildlife populations cannot be overstated in importance. TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring organization, states in its latest report that Indonesia has the second highest number of threatened bird species in the world–largely due to illegal and unregulated trade across the archipelago.
When asked, most traders in Pramuka Pasar claim that their birds are raised on farms near Jakarta (though most birds are not tagged); some are anxious to boast of the rareness of the birds they keep; while others express indifference or lack of knowledge. Nearly all traders are male, ranging from young boys to old men.
Surrounded by birds and busy with paperwork at a crowded desk, one trader happily offered his own story of a lifetime spent in the bird market. In 1968, Pak Hendra started accompanying his father for work (as a trader) in the market. A couple of years later, he convinced his father to let him drop out of school (7th grade) to work in the market full-time after a customer suggested that he get a bank loan to start his own business. That customer happened to hold a powerful position in one of Indonesia’s largest banks, BCA.
For years, Pak Hendra sold only local (Indonesian) birds and was able to build a successful business–moving from the Jatinegara Pasar to Pramuka. However, in the 1990s, he decided to take out another loan and focus on imported species. Today, he sells birds from the Netherlands, Taiwan, Belgium, and Africa. Communicating only through email, he has never seen the conditions from which he sources his bird stock, trusting what he is told. Many of the most exotic and beautiful birds in the market can be found at Pak Hendra’s stall.
Hanging outside of small shops and cafés and under home awnings of the rich and poor alike, colorful birds in cages are one of the most common sights in Jakarta. Yet, their song is one of the rarest sounds in the city. Throughout the ages, birds have occupied prominent and mythical positions across cultures. In the chaotic, polluted, and concrete streets of contemporary life, what role do they play today: tokens of what is being lost or reminders of what is still out there?
Alfred Russell Wallace, upon seeing one of the mythical birds of paradise alive and in its natural habitat, wrote in The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise—A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature, published in 1869:
“I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course – year by year being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness; to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty. Such ideas excite a feeling of melancholy. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild, inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently from his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyments, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.”
Christina Leigh Geros, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is a designer, researcher, and educator whose project gives voice to the communities of the Ciliwung River through an interactive website mapping stories that expose the relationships between urbanism, ecology, and politics.