Catching and selling too many songbirds may drive some into extinction.

A new report from TRAFFIC (The Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network) documented over 14,000 birds for sale in shops in Singapore in a study over four days.

Of the 14,085 birds of 109 species found here, a whopping 46% (or 6,473 birds) were Oriental White-eyes (Zosterops palpebrosus) – a species once native to Singapore that was eradicated largely through trapping for the bird trade.

“This is a poignant reminder of the dangers of persistent overharvesting and a poorly managed trade,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, Senior Programme Manager for Traffic in Southeast Asia and a co-author of the new study Songsters of Singapore: An Overview of the Bird Species in Singapore Pet Shops.

The study was released as experts from around the world gather to focus on developing and implementing a plan of action to avert the crisis facing Asia’s songbirds during the second Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit, which is taking place from Feb 9 to 21 at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore.

During the first Summit held in 2015, the Oriental White-eye was among the species listed of acute concern from bird trapping in Asia along with the Red-whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus), the second most commonly observed species in Singapore’s markets (2,811 birds recorded, one shop alone had over 1,000 of them).

Oriental White-eyes were once native to Singapore but wiped out by too much trapping for the bird trade. Photo: James A.Eaton

Oriental White-eyes were once native to Singapore but wiped out by too much trapping for the bird trade. Photo: James A.Eaton

“Singapore lost its Oriental White-eyes largely through excessive trapping, which should have hoisted a red flag warning that the ongoing trade will impose the same fate on this and other species elsewhere until there are no more left,” said Kanitha.

Previous Traffic surveys of bird markets in Jakarta, Malang, Surabaya and Yogyakarta in Indonesia as well as Bangkok in Thailand, found that trade in those countries was dominated by species native to the country or elsewhere in South-East Asia.

Bird business hub

Seventy percent of the species in Singapore’s bird shops are non-native (or formerly native) to the country. Many birds also come from Central and South America, said the report, highlighting Singapore’s specialist role in trading birds from that region, although the country has been an historical focus for the exotic bird trade in Asia since at least the mid-19th Century.

“The volume of birds in Singapore’s birds markets are comparable to those in Indonesia, hence the need to be particularly vigilant about the impacts of trade elsewhere in Asia and beyond,” said Kanitha.

Typical scene at a Singapore bird shop. Photo: James A.Eaton

Typical scene at a Singapore bird shop. Photo: James A.Eaton

Of concern, 97% of the individual birds seen in Singapore’s markets were not species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meaning they are not subject to international regulation – and with trade largely under the radar, there is often little, if anything, known of its impact on wild populations.

The Traffic report calls for, among other actions, clarity on protocols in place to regulate non-Cites and non-protected species that are being imported and exported from Singapore in large volumes. It also seeks a disclosure of any quotas set for trade as well as a captive breeding regulation and registration details to enable civil society organisations to aid conservation efforts.

In November 2016, Singapore’s Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), the country’s Cites Management Authority, found that 14 of 27 pet bird shops surveyed by the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) did not comply with the government’s licensing conditions on welfare.

“The people and organisations coming together at the important Asian Songbird Trade Crisis Summit are dedicated to ensuring none of the bird species threatened by trade are lost,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of Traffic in Southeast Asia. “It is very heartening to have so many experts coming together to tackle this crisis, and to make sure illegal and unsustainable trade does not lead to extinction.”

Members of the public who suspect that any illegal activity is occurring are encouraged to report suspected crime directly to AVA, or through Traffic’s Wildlife Witness App, which can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play for free.