Anthropogenic threats mean birds of paradise are increasingly at risk of ascending the stairway to heaven – and there is no turning back
Birds of paradise are in trouble and there are calls for new laws to be introduced to help save them
BIRDS OF PARADISE are facing a twopronged human attack: the erosion of habitat caused by unsustainable logging and industrialisation, coupled with continued tribal hunting for their prized plumes. Now there are calls for more precise domestic laws to save these celestial birds. Birds of paradise, the Paradisaeidae, are a group of more than 40 species found in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and Australia. Their notable variety was induced by a combination of geographical isolation and vigorous sexual selection, and they play a valuable role in their ecosystems by dispersing fruit seeds, aiding regeneration of the ever-diminishing rainforest. But the populations of many species are shrinking. They’re hunted in New Guinea, as their plumes are integral to traditional tribal celebrations. Additionally, their pristine habitat is vanishing because of unsustainable logging and road construction. Globally, the ‘plume boom’ of the 1900s brought a widespread international trade in bird of paradise feathers for women’s hats, with over 80,000 birds shipped annually, mainly to Europe. On the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, most birds of paradise are in the ‘Least Concern’ category, a small amount ‘Near Threatened’, and the Black Sicklebill, Blue Bird of Paradise, and Goldie’s Bird of Paradise listed as ‘Vulnerable’ – the penultimate category before ‘Endangered’. Rampant slaughter of birds of paradise in the 19th and 20th Centuries inspired environmental action. For instance, the RSPB was established in 1889 by women who refused to engage in the vogue of wearing exotic feathers. In America, the National Audubon Society was set up in 1905 to focus on bird conservation. In 1908, the UK outlawed hunting in areas of New Guinea under its control, and the Dutch did the same in 1931. In America, the Lacey Act gained force of law in 1913, prohibiting feather imports. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was implemented as a result of an earlier Convention between the US and the UK,
banning importation of birds of paradise. In 1963, the IUCN Resolution on Birds of Paradise highlighted the need to enact national laws protecting birds of paradise in their native countries. Finally, ten years later, the US Endangered Species Act signed by US President Nixon supplemented the snowballing environmental revolution. Thus, nowadays, no bird of paradise leaves its native country legally.
Flaws in domestic laws
Although Papua New Guinea prohibited the hunting of birds of paradise in 1922 and in 1990 the Indonesian government finally enacted a law forbidding trade of birds of paradise skins, these are still exported from Irian Jaya through Indonesia, and anyway such laws are often not enforced. Further, while the Fourth Goal of PNG’S Constitution expressly provides for “all necessary steps to be taken to give adequate protection to our valued birds…”, this is entirely lacking in substance. To save birds of paradise, then, a different approach is required. Since each species faces varying threats, it is paramount that precise national laws are enacted and routinely enforced to protect specific species. First, though, it’s necessary to explore the root of the problem by evaluating the flaws present in the laws purportedly protecting the species designated as ‘Vulnerable’. The main threat to one of the species designated ‘Vulnerable’, the Black Sicklebill, is hunting for its long plumes. These are used in tribal headdresses, and occasionally sold to tourists – despite it being illegal to transport them outside New Guinea without a permit. But this is not the Black Sicklebill’s only concern: its habitat of mid-montane forest is at risk of destruction by logging. Fortunately, there has been a decrease in the hunting of them thanks to a specific law in PNG that prohibits the slaughter of birds of paradise in modern ways, ie using a shotgun. National hunting prohibitions enforced at Crater Mountain, PNG, have led to increases in local populations. However, despite there being ample laws in PNG, hunting still occurs, and 93% of land is traditionally owned, making it challenging to actively enforce such laws. Goldie’s Bird of Paradise is exclusive to forest in the Fergusson and Normanby islands near the eastern tip of PNG. It was recently uplisted to ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List because its population is presumed to be dangerously small – research estimates that there are as few as 650 individuals. The biggest threats are habitat loss and degradation from logging and mining. Although Goldie’s Bird of Paradise is, together with the other birds of paradise, safeguarded under PNG’S Fauna Act of 1968, a lack of funding for domestic laws hinders the capacity of enforcement officers to monitor threats. Moreover, scientists in PNG have branded the country’s Fauna Act as “a meaningless piece of paper”, further stating that “a real problem is that the Department of Environment & Conservation does very little to enforce the Fauna Act… There is no effective protection of any species in PNG, full stop”. The third ‘Vulnerable’ species is the Blue Bird of Paradise, chiefly threatened by hunting for its prized opal pectoral plumes and tail feathers, used for tribal customs and as souvenirs. Escalating agricultural needs mean its habitat is also under pressure. Similar to the Black Sicklebill, it is supposedly preserved by a national law prohibiting killing birds in non-traditional forms. Despite this, it is thought to be a common unregulated practice for local youths to target large amounts of nesting birds using slingshots. Protection is habitually not enforced.
Recommendations for legal action
Certain recommendations for action are being proposed. Regarding Black Sicklebills, laws prohibiting hunting exist but are challenging to enforce because hunting occurs on private land. To resolve this, educational programmes and incentives for private landowners would likely lead to increased legal compliance and the establishment of locally governed forest nature reserves with a hunting prohibition. Additionally, advocating the use of alternative materials for local tribal headgear could help reduce demand for the Black Sicklebill’s feathers. The bottom line is that local governments must focus their efforts on ensuring effective enforcement of existing legislation by working at grassroots level. The role of non-governmental organisations (NGOS), such as PNG’S national Greenpeace branch, is crucial in stimulating such action and harmonising relations between the government and local populations. Education aimed at clarifying hunting prohibitions to local populations and the creation of sectioned-off reserves with enforced hunting bans would aid the Blue Bird of Paradise. A trait that renders it unique, however, is that it is arguably the flagship species of the Paradisaeidae, and internationally promoting this species could help boost an already booming ecotourism industry. Tourism generated revenue would help plug deficiencies in funding enforcement of PNG’S Fauna Act 1968, and the promise of a sustained income to local populations from birdwatching tourism would likely provide an incentive to conserve birds of paradise.
FLAGSHIP BIRD The Vulnerable Blue Bird of Paradise is threatened by hunting for breast and tail feathers
HEAD DRESS A magnificent head dress of bird of paradise feathers worn by a member of the Jiwaka tribe of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea