Watching the Indochinese green magpie going about her business in the Australasian (upper) Aviary, it’s easy to see why people enjoy keeping birds like this as pets. She is small and elegant, brightly colored and dainty as she flits about, feeding, preening, and bathing. And then there are the bright and lively songs she sings, every bit as vibrant as her plumage. But many species of small songbirds like the Indochinese green magpie are vanishing from their native habitats in Southeast Asia because they are so very desirable as pets. The Los Angeles Zoo is now home to 13 Asian songbirds (representing eight species) who are survivors of the illegal pet trade. The most recent arrivals came to the Zoo in April.
In March, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) agents at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) intercepted a man traveling from Vietnam with 28 songbirds packed into the lining of his suitcase. Wildlife authorities often track people who are known players in the illegal wildlife trade, but in this case, a random inspection thwarted the attempt. In most cases, the songbirds being smuggled are netted from the wild, the first stage of the illegal pet trade and one that many do not survive. The birds that do can be caged for sale in local markets or exported. One popular method is to pack individual birds into socks or empty water bottles to immobilize them and make it easier to conceal them in suitcases and other baggage. Depending on the destination, the birds, stressed and without water or food, can spend 12 hours or more in transit. Most expire, but the trade is lucrative enough (since the birds are generally acquired for “free” from the wild) that these losses do not impact the profit margin.
The survivors from the first stage of this particular confiscation were transferred from LAX to a federal quarantine facility in New York, where they were kept for 30 days. (The only federal quarantine facility on the West Coast was closed a few years ago due to budget constraints.) During that time, officials contacted the L.A. Zoo and San Diego Zoo. Although the birds remain federal property until the pending court case against the smuggler is resolved, zoos serve as custodians and, most of the time, ownership is eventually transferred to them. Curators can incorporate the animals into their collections if feasible or, using Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) networks, help find other zoos that can rehome them.
On April 11, having traveled some 14,000 miles, the 11 birds that survived the March smuggling attempt arrived at the L.A. Zoo. Five of the more sensitive birds succumbed to the stress of the lengthy journey despite being in overall good condition. “Of course, you usually see thin, dehydrated, stressed birds, but these birds looked good,” comments Zoo veterinarian Dr. Jordan Davis-Powell. “We took each one out of their crates, gave them physical exams, and weighed them. They had normal feathers and no lesions or parasites. Only one, the white-rumped shama, had clipped tail feathers. This was most likely done to fit the bird on the plane, since these birds have long tail feathers. This bird looked normal other than the cut feathers. All the birds were extremely small, so no blood was taken. A week later we re-weighed them and all had gained a little. We collected a couple chest feathers on the bulbuls so that we could get DNA to determine their sex and all turned out to be male.” Male birds are in greater demand because they are often more colorful and are more vigorous singers.
As parts of the developing world become more affluent, an increasing number of people have the discretionary income to purchase goods that were once unaffordable. This is partly what has fueled the market in wildlife poaching for traditional medicine. Where once only the elite could buy products such as rhino horn, tiger bones, and pangolin scales, increasing wealth has created demand for these items from a broader range of people. Organized crime networks recognize how lucrative this expanding market is and exploit the conditions. Employing professional poachers plus modern transportation and communication technologies, the situation is a perfect storm for the extinction of many species.
In recent years, demand in parts of Asia has increased not only for animal parts erroneously believed to have medicinal value or are perceived as luxury gifts, but also for another status symbol—pet songbirds. According to TRAFFIC, the NGO whose mission is to ensure that trade in wild plants and animals is not a threat to the conservation of nature, snapshot surveys in key bird markets reveal unsustainable numbers of birds being sold. Although breeders raise the more popular species, in many cases it is easier to catch wild birds, and often people believe that wild birds sing better and are stronger. As with traditional medicines, keeping pet birds is a deeply rooted part of many cultures and it takes time and effort to change attitudes and beliefs.
In 2018, the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) and TRAFFIC signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to intensify collaboration on areas of mutual interest, in particular on furthering the aims of EAZA’s Silent Forest campaign. This focuses on the songbirds of Southeast Asia that are being trapped and traded in unsustainable numbers to supply the domestic trade, particularly in Indonesia.
If the story of these newest avian arrivals seems familiar, it’s because in May 2017, a Fountain Valley man was arrested on suspicion of smuggling 93 Asian songbirds from Vietnam to LAX. All but eight died in that instance. Among the species he was smuggling were several that are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The surviving animals were transferred to the L.A. Zoo, where they received veterinary care. These included two red-billed blue magpies, one Indochinese green magpie, one Bali mynah/starling (a species that the Zoo has worked with for some time), one golden-crested mynah, one black-collared starling, and one gold-fronted leafbird—all of which found permanent homes here. As for the new group, the tiniest—an Indian white-eye—will take up residence in the Zoo’s off-exhibit Avian Conservation Center and the others will soon be on view with Bornean crested fireback pheasants in a roundhouse exhibit between the hippo and black bear habitats
“In situations like this, knowing that wildlife smuggling is rampant worldwide, we try and do our best to turn a negative into a positive,” observes Curator of Birds Mike Maxcy. “The goals we focus on include finding appropriate homes for them here at the L.A. Zoo or at other accredited zoos where these birds can regain some normalcy for the remainder of their life as well as using their story to educate the public about their plight in the wild. Additionally, we hope to create breeding programs in North American zoos to ensure there will always be populations of these birds in existence. This is especially important when so many wild populations are threatened.”