Will You Hear Us is a documentary about the tradition of caged birds in Indonesia.
In Indonesia, owning a bird is an ancestral tradition; "A man is considered to be a real man if he has a house, a wife, a horse, a dagger and a bird". It is a sign of wealth and social success. The more colorful the plumage, the more melodious the song, the more value a bird has on the market. As a result, millions of Indonesians own caged birds. The scale of the bird trade has long worried conservationists and ornithologists. They say the hobby has become unsustainable because of the enormous pressure on the wild bird populations in Indonesia.
The film is an investigation into the meaning of this tradition led by the young Noka, an Indonesian curious boy passionate about nature. His investigation leads him to meet all the parties involved, as he tries to make his own opinion on this tradition. The film comes up with alternatives to stop wild bird harvesting and avoid the rapid decline of Indonesian bird populations. .
'The birds need your help, Will You Hear Them?'
Update on bird populations in Indonesia
The 'wildlife trade' refers to the commerce of animal sourced products, for non-domestic animals, whether it is the animals themselves which are traded, live or dead, or other products, like skin, bones, meat, horns or tusks. Although the wildlife trade is subject to laws, illegal trafficking is widespread.It is the third most lucrative illegal market in the world, after weapons and drugs. The wildlife trade causes major conservation problems and has serious consequences for wildlife, to the point that many animal species are now in danger of extinction. Birds are not spared from illegal traffic.
In terms of biodiversity, Indonesia remains one of the world's richest countries. It is one of the top 17 megadiverse countries. The immense archipelago consists of almost 17,000 islands and is the second placed country with the most species of mammals (515 which accounts for 12% of all mammal species on the planet). It is also home to 16% of the world's reptile species and 270 species of amphibians. Indonesia is also home to 17% of the world's bird species, putting it in 5th place. This includes 1592 individual species of which 419 are endemic. Needless to say, the birds roam the forests in great numbers...or at least that is what the data would suggest.
However, current statistics tell a different story. Of these 1592 species, 132 are classified as either Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable by the 2017 IUCN Red List. There are many contributing factors. The loss of forests and therefore bird habitats to make way for palm oil plantations for example, or just the dramatic increase in human populated areas, all of which lead to a decrease in bird biodiversity. Another factor is the monstrous amounts of bird poaching that occurs in the wild, to fulfill hobbies, or sometimes only to feed civets. The unfortunate birds that are caught are destined to be sold at pets in Indonesia's vast bird markets. The amount of birds captured is no longer sustainable as it once was. A correlation has been established between declining bird populations of some species and the increased sales of birds of this species on bird markets in Indonesia. Furthermore, a 2011 study by Oxford University showed that approximately one fifth of households in six of Indonesia's largest cities were bird owners. That equated to 3.5 million caged birds, and Indonesia’s population has since continued to increase as has the number of birds in cages.
Every year, for over ten years now, the conservation status of several bird species has to be modified on the IUCN Red List. The Rufous fronted Laughingthrush, Garrulax rufifrons, for instance, has plummeted from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered in a frighteningly short time. “The imbalance between supply and demand has caused this species’ market price to rocket tenfold from 2000 to 2012 – since when it has almost entirely disappeared from the market”, says Andy Symes, BirdLife International’s Global Species Officer. Similarly the Javan Myna (Acridotheres javanicus) has fallen from Least Concern to Vulnerable in 2016; it has now largely disappeared from west Java. Yet TRAFFIC found more than 2,000 for sale in the island’s top three bird markets.
Solutions to tackle the illegal bird trade in SE Asia, and how to help?
A tradition is a cultural practice that has been passed down through generations, an intangible inheritance that allows to live some of the past in today's modern world and offers a sense of consciousness to individuals. Each individual or group will have their own beliefs that may be influenced by family, religion, ethnic origin or even their geographical location. Whether it is assimilated to a custom or a habit, what characterises a tradition is the duty to transmit it and enrich it.
From one country or region to another, traditions differ greatly. The doctrines or customs have always dictated people’s actions and behaviour. Indonesia is strongly marked by its traditions, be it food, music traditional clothing, dancs, sport ... or its tradition of keeping caged birds.
The roots of the tradition can be found on the island of Java. In Java, the belief is that a man has become successful once he possesses a wife, a house, a ceremonial dagger, a horse and a bird. The acquisition of a horse is now only relevant for those who work the land, however keeping a bird at home as a pet remains steeped in in tradition. The tradition spread throughout the country. Today, each and every individual can buy himself a bird in the local market at a very reasonable price. It is often said that the bird’s song will bring inner peace and good fortune to the family to which it belongs.
However, in recent years, a new trend has begun to influence this profane tradition: one no longer possesses a pet bird solely to bring peace and high status to his family; some bird owners become collectors, always wanting more. The more colourful the plumage, the more melodious the song, the more expensive is the bird. It would seem that one cannot get enough and the ever increasing human population exacerbates the demand for pet birds.
Another aspect has been added to the picture: bird song competitions have become a very profitable activity, practiced and followed by thousands. To the extent that bets on these competitions have an effect on the local economy and winners can pocket hundreds of dollars, up to 20,000 US dollars in the case of a national competition. The price of a bird that has won competitions can reach exorbitant heights. Consequently, there is an increasing number of birds sold on the markets. The domestic bird sector represents nearly 50 million US dollars in the three largest cities of Java.
As a result of the bird flu epidemic, the importation of birds has been banned. It was then necessary to find an alternative to replace the birds that came from outside. Consequently pushing the demand for Indonesian bird populations to impossibe levels. This has triggered a major turning point turning this once simple traditional practice into an unsustainable craze. The pressure has become too great. The perennity of this tradition is now threatened due to overconsumption.
Hundreds of birds are sold each and every day in bird markets across the country: a 2016 study by TRAFFIC found that 23,000 birds from 240 different species were sold in the space of three days in three of Java’s main markets. 98% of these birds were native to Indonesia and illegally taken from the wild of which 20% were endemic to Indonesia. 28 of the species sold were protected.
This abusive trend has other negative consequences. The survival rate of caged birds is usually very low due to them being subject to stress, poor living conditions even mistreatment. Up to 30% of the captured birds do not survive the first days of imprisonment. There are animal rights abuses, such as amoral detention conditions, abuse, or even such appalling practices as dyeing birds pink or bright green. Following the same trend, the tradition has even been extended, for reasons that have nothing to do with caged birds, to birds of prey, bats, civets, reptiles, even monkeys.
Environmental conservation NGOs are sounding the alarm. So why haven’t concrete measures been adopted yet? There are already certain laws in place that prohibit the capture of certain species of birds in the wild and their trade, and that have imposed quotas. However, it would seem these quotas have never been implemented and are apparently not verified. Addressing biodiversity issues is not a priority as their solutions do not generate any profit whereas the bird trade contributes to the economy. It would appear, however, that the trend has recently been reversed. The attention the issue is attracting has meant that the government has reportedly been strengthening the measures taken against wild bird traffickers.
Another reason why the situation has taken time to evolve is due to the ignorance that surrounds this issue. It is highly probable that the farmer that is adding to his income by catching birds around his farm and selling them for a few rupiah does not know a great deal about the long-term impact his actions are having on bird populations. This also applies to the typical Indonesian who, when buying a certain species of bird in the market, does not know how this species is doing in the wild.
The world's human population has increased exponentially for several decades. At the time of our grandparents, in the early 1900’s, we were less than 2 billion, we are now an astonishing 7.5 billion. The projections show that in 2050, we will be 9 billion. With so many people on Earth, traditions must evolve in a sustainable way. Otherwise we risk seeing biodiversity collapse even more around us.
As a result, we must question ourselves: are traditions untouchable by nature and by definition? Or can we dare question them? Should traditions evolve with their time and their context? Can they be adapted ethically and sustainably? Our audience will decide for themselves.
What the governments can do:
1. Indonesian authorities legally allow for specific quotas of native birds to be collected from the wild. On the ground, however, these quotas are rarely applied. The government has a crucial role to play to enforce those quotas in the markets, where the smuggled birds are sold, but also online, where the wildlife trade is happening more and more, with buyers and sellers who openly advertise on social media.
2. Secondly, in order to keep this tradition alive yet highlight the important cultural, social and economic benefits that this practice generates, the Indonesian Government might consider reducing the environmental impacts of bird-keeping and thus implement a national system to certify bird-breeders and support conservation efforts. In order to reach that goal, it is the demand and therefore the attitude of bird owners that needs to be adapted. We need a switch of preference of the bird consumer from wild-caught to captive-bred birds.
Besides, we need to create a network of genuine bird breeders, promote certified captive-bred birds and implement a system to financially support bird breeders.In order for this to work, commercial breeding must produce cheaper and “better” birds compared to the ones caught in the wild.
This must be a market-led approach to reforme bird-keeping, as opposed to an authoritarian legal approach, because it could be perceived as an attack on or interference with cultural identities. Finally, the bird farms could engage with some sort of accreditation and labelling scheme that would provide assurance that wild-caught birds cannot enter the supply chain of breeded birds.
What YOU can do:
3. Eco-tourism has the potential to be a win-win solution: If the importance of the natural world of each country, each region, each community is included in the daily lives of each and everyone of us, we will thrive together, whether it is economically, socially and spiritually. Eco-tourism creates jobs and help preserve the environment, go for this type of tourism!
4. You can donate money and time to nature conservation NGOs, like WWF, Burung Indonesia or Birdlife International. They have various projects around the world that need your help in order to continue to protect and conserve our planet.
5. We all have power in our wallets. The choices we make in regards to what we buy should reflect our values. Try to boycott products that are not sourced sustainably, like products containing palm oil for instance, as palm oil is responsible for most of the deforestation in Indonesia. Avoid products wrapped in too much plastic. Reduce your meat consumption, which is responsible for a major part of gaz emissions in the atmosphere, as well as deforestation.
If we all boycott unsustainable products, these companies will not have any reason to produce them anymore...We are all connected!
Help us show the world the immense beauty of these birds and enlighten on the dark future they hold and how you can make a difference.
Follow us behind the scenes
We consider our species, Homo sapiens, to be one of many on this beautiful planet we inhabit. We actively stand for nature conservation and animal rights. Through our various travels to Indonesia, we have been able to learn about the many traditions that make it so wonderfully rich and beautiful. There was one tradition however that our heart could not fully appreciate: the tradition of caged birds. We went through different stages of emotions. First, we were amazed at the diversity of birds we could observe. Then we were grateful for the opportunity of having such a close look at bird species that are so rare and so difficult to see in the wild. Next came a feeling of pity for the fate of those beings, who normally freely roam the skies and are now trapped in tiny cages for the rest of their lives. Afterwards came a feeling of miscomprehension for the perpetuation of a tradition that had become so destructive. At that moment we knew we had to investigate this further. Together, we brainstormed and decided to spend a few months in Indonesia in order to better understand the issues and document them.
Statement of intention
Again, owning caged songbirds is a tradition that has been firmly embedded in Indonesia’s culture for generations. It is a sign of a high social status, and a source of inner peace. It is also a potentially lucrative pet.
But who are we to judge? In Denmark, hundreds of pilot whales are killed each year under the guise of tradition. In Kenya, the rite of passage for young Maasai men is to kill a lion with a spear. In Spain, bullfighting continues to end the lives of thousands of bulls each year. In this documentary we will try not to judge this tradition but to portray a current and complete picture.
However, traditions are sometimes used as pretext to try and justify unsustainable practices. In some countries, such as China, traditional medicine is encouraging people to provide themselves with animal products to cure their illnesses, to the point of putting the animal species at risk: rhinos for their horns, pangolins for their scales or the sharks for their fins. All of these species, among many others, are now in great danger of extinction because of traditions and so-called traditions. The members of Bighorn Studio, directors of the film Will You Hear Us, all naturalists and conservationists, believe that a tradition that becomes unsustainable must be re-evaluated and adapted according to today's context. This will be the main message that the film will try and convey.
As for the form, we will present our viewers with things as we will have discovered them in the field throughout the course of our investigation. The film project intends to present the facts to a worldwide audience, but especially to Indonesians, to show them what is happening in the most objective and comprehensive way possible. In fact, the ignorance and apathy of men is the greatest danger that threatens wildlife. We believe that a moralising documentary, whose message would be "to ban a destructive practice", would not be constructive and would ultimately have no positive impact. We therefore hope that the viewer can make his own opinion on the matter and decide, freely, but this time knowingly.
We will present the results of our investigation by including the interviews of the various characters: bird owners and sellers wishing to perpetuate this remunerative tradition and conservationists wishing to warn us about the impact of this tradition. The investigation will also highlight some specific examples of bird species that are threatened on different levels to further illustrate the problem. In addition, we wish to explore some fundamental conservation issues: for instance, is it justifiable to spend vast amounts of energy, time and money to reintroduce a species that has gone extinct in the wild, rather than investing that energy, time and money to limit the decline of another threatened species by taking the steps necessary, before it becomes extinct. Finally, the purpose is also to offer sustainable and acceptable alternatives to harvesting birds in the wild.
Knowing the impact that a film can have, knowing that the pressure of a population can be a source of change, our wish is to make the film freely available online, accessible to all. Thus, it may be seen and understood by as many as possible. Only pressure from Indonesians and other international populations can trigger a reaction from the decision-makers to finally take real action.
We all have our part to play in this world, this film is our way of contributing to environmental conservation and more specifically bird biodiversity. It is for this reason, and also to preserve a certain level of freedom in the storyline and making of the film, that we have distanced ourselves from production companies. We want to finance this project through donations and crowdfunding.
With our respective experience, we spent two years in Indonesia to put together this documentary, which, needless to say, means a lot to us.