Black-Winged Mynah Birds are Critically Endangered, Despite Thousands in Captivity

A black-winged mynah bird on a branch in Kerala, India. Ambady Sasi. CC0.

A black-winged mynah bird on a branch in Kerala, India. Ambady Sasi. CC0.

Indonesia’s illegal pet trade is an old evil, with animals from tortoises to wild birds caught in its trap. For beauty, prestige, or simply the siren call of money, Indonesian wildlife has undergone massive unasked-for change, particularly because of its bountiful resources and impressive biodiversity.

Three similar species—black-winged mynahs, grey-humped mynahs, and grey-backed mynahs—are all coveted for their brilliant plumage as well for as their vocalizations, to the point that they are explicitly captured out of the wild for songbird competitions in Indonesia. According to National Geographic, around 40,000 live in captivity, while an estimated 500 remain in the wild.

Collectively, these three species are known as black-winged mynahs, and were once thought to be one species. Members of the starling family, these birds’ plumage is distinct, with their tails and parts of their wings being glossy black, while the rest of their bodies are white. They are able to make a range of vocalizations, from trills to chirps, which is one of their most prized attributes for people. In 2010, the status of the black-winged mynah was changed from “endangered” to “critically endangered”. It is estimated that their population shrank 80 percent in the last 10 to 15 years.

Indonesia overall is an epicenter for the illegal wildlife trade, and according to data from WWF-Indonesia, the country accounts that around 85 percent of the animals traded were from illegal hunting. The loss of key animals in the biosphere disrupts the food chain that the ecosystem has built up over millions of years. In turn, this damages human food sustainability, particularly for the foods we obtain from flora and fauna. For example, declining tiger populations causes the wild boar population to rise, which causes issues for farmers in the same areas. WWF-Indonesia is currently raising awareness of the world’s wildlife, as well as how the trade ultimately destroys what we all need to survive.

Indonesia has a long history of keeping birds as pets, even to the point of mentioning the prestige of owning birds in sayings. However, this has led to what some are calling the “Asian Songbird Crisis”. Capturing birds in the wild is cheaper than breeding them. On the other hand, breeding birds in captivity is at least legal. Though breeders are supposed to release 10 percent of the birds they breed back into the wild, this is rarely done, or if it is, it’s entirely possible that the birds could be released in the wrong areas. The crisis has become so rampant that prices have dropped low enough (to an estimated $73) for black-winged mynahs to become a common pet for the middle classes, according to National Geographic.

In April 2018, a revision was submitted to the Indonesian government for an overhaul of the country’s 28-year-old conservation law. Though the draft made some steps to curb the illegal wildlife trade, it also opened many loopholes, to the point where critics saw it as a regression, according to Mongabay. Though Indonesia added 919 birds to their protected species list this past August, revising it for the first time since 1999, nothing seems to have changed about their conservation laws.

Indonesia’s illegal wildlife and pet trade still has an uncertain future, with nothing more uncertain than the eventual fate of the species driven further to extinction, including the three that make up the collective black-winged mynah birds.

NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.