Denpasar, Bali – Endangered wildlife is on open sale at a market only a 30-minute drive from a convention centre in Bali where United States President Joe Biden and other world leaders will meet to discuss pandemic recovery strategies at the G20 Summit later this year.
The current inventory on offer from the market’s various outlets includes metre-long iguanas – kept in cages a third the size of their captives amid dead rodents on the floor – porcupines, pythons from Indonesia’s remote Papua Province, frill-necked lizards, civets, large-eyed owls with clipped wings, parrots, and critically-endangered Bali starlings.
One shop displayed a filthy tub of water containing three African spurred tortoises, the third largest tortoise in the world, which comes from the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and is prone to respiratory infections when kept in humid environments such as Bali’s.
Spread over two city blocks, Bali’s Bird Market is a fraction of the size of Jakarta’s Pasar Burung Pramuka, the largest bird market in Southeast Asia, and the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 is believed to have emerged after it spilled over from bats, possibly to another species, before infecting humans.
But wherever wild animals and people are crowded together, experts say there is a risk to health.
“I’ve been to the wet markets in China and you will never see such a large number of animals and people in one area anywhere in the world, which is why a large proportion of new diseases today are first identified in China,” said Udayana University’s Gusti Mahardika, the island’s most senior virologist.
“But there does not have to be a very large collection of animals in one place for a new pathogen to emerge. It only takes one event for a virus to cross the species barrier, whether directly from a wild animal to humans or by jumping through other species. The Bird Market provides the perfect ecosystem for that.”
Part of a vast national network of open-air animal markets catering to Indonesia’s booming pet trade, the Bird Market is popular among locals looking for domestic animals such as rabbits, roosters, pedigree dogs, cats, and songbirds.
About a third of Indonesian households on the main island of Java keep commercially bred and/or wild-caught songbirds, according to a 2019 study by the Manchester Metropolitan University and the Chester Zoo published in the scientific journal Biological Conversation.
There is no consumer mechanism in Indonesia, such as labelling or accreditation, to help buyers know whether birds are commercially bred or wild caught. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC International says this explains why Indonesia topped its recent poll of the highest number of threatened bird species in the world. The country’s legal and illegal wildlife trade are two sides of the same coin.
In recent years, the Indonesian government has introduced legislation, such as the Quarantine Act Concerning Animal, Fish and Plants, that carry tough new penalties, including years-long jail sentences and hefty fines, to counter the trade.
In 2019, a Balinese court jailed a Russian national for 12 months under the law for trying to smuggle a baby orangutan in a suitcase through Bali’s international airport.
In 2020, a court in Sumatra sentenced the head of a wildlife trafficking syndicate to four years in prison and slapped him with an unprecedented one billion rupiah ($70,000) fine for being in possession of a leopard, four lion cubs and 58 tortoises.
In January of last year, 11,559 birds, including 17 endangered species, were seized at breeding facilities and markets in nine different provinces around the country.
“These seizures are important to stop the illegally sourced birds from reaching markets,” southeast Asia programme officer for TRAFFIC Serene Chng said in a statement at the time. “But to properly tackle this, Indonesia must place equal emphasis on ridding bird markets of illegal trade and reducing the demand that is driving the trade.”
Passing the buck
The G20 Summit is expected to be part of an effort to promote the return of international tourism to Bali and help revive the island’s economy. More than 6.2 million foreigners flew into Bali’s international airport in 2019. Last year, there were only 45.
Despite the threat posed by the Bird Market to the island’s biosecurity and image, Bali’s Directorate of Tourism indirectly promotes it by giving accreditation to tour companies that include the Bird Market as a stop on their city tours.
“When I made a statement about the biosecurity risk at the market, the only reaction was that stallholders came to my house to protest,” Udayana’s Gusti Mahardika said.
“I have lodged complaints about it with the Livestock Department many times about the risk of disease but they say because it’s not livestock, they are not responsible. They only show concern when diseases affect chickens and pigs,” said Bayu Wirayudha, founder of Friends of the National Parks Foundation, a local NGO credited with bringing the Bali Starling, an endemic songbird, back from the brink of extinction by establishing several sanctuaries on different parts of the island.
Wirayudha says the bureaucracy sometimes even hampers conservation efforts. “When we need to bring starlings from West Java, they give us a really hard time getting the permit. It takes us such a long time to get quarantine approval but the smugglers don’t have to worry about that. For them, moving birds around the country is easy,” he said.
The Bali Province Animal Husbandry and Animal Health Service, or Livestock Department, says wildlife is not under its jurisdiction and referred Al Jazeera to the Bali Conservation and Natural Resources Centre (BKSDA), which manages protected flora and fauna in Bali.
Agus Budi Santosa, director of the BKSDA, said “the species traded at the market are unprotected species that cannot be covered by our ministry.”
Femke Den Haas, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who has been working to protect wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years, says the response is typical of Indonesia’s bloated bureaucracy.
“They used to have monkeys on short chains at the market. I complained about it for years but the wildlife department said they couldn’t do anything about it because they aren’t an endangered species,” she said.
“So we pushed the quarantine authorities as monkeys are usually smuggled from Java and can carry rabies. Last week they brought the forestry and livestock officials together and went to the market and rescued all the monkeys.
“When all the relevant government departments come together in Indonesia, they can get really good results,” she said.