We are led to the darkest, dingiest corner of this large cruel beast, the frantic beating of wings against metal cages surround us. “It’s for our father,” we had told the man, “he has just moved here and he wants to see what you have before he buys.”

An easy lie swallowed greedily by the trader. He gives us a proud smile as he produces a shoe sized box from under the counter and he savours the moment before presenting us with the goods. Two terrified heads withdraw from the sudden intrusion into their dark prison, the sides white with their own faeces. We are looking at two protected Crested Goshawk chicks. Where did they come from? I asked. “Where do you think?” the trader laughed, “the nest of course.” Our visit to Pramuka, the world’s largest animal market, was more horrifying then we had anticipated.

Indonesia is home to the highest number of threatened bird species in Asia, and in a study released in September of last year by wildlife advocacy group Traffic, it was proved that the bird markets of Jakarta are the leading perpetrators in the depletion of protected birds from Indonesia’s natural ecosystems. Of the 19,000 birds they documented at the three main bird markets of Jakarta (Pramuka, Jatinegara and Barito) over a three-day period, there were 206 different species recorded.

The report stated that, “The vast majority of the birds counted – 98 per cent – were native to Indonesia and harvested outside of the national harvest quota system or in direct violation of laws protecting select species.” While bird-keeping holds such cultural significance within Indonesia, and with the support of such high profile support as Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo recently visiting Pramuka to purchase 190 birds to be released into his presidential gardens, an act he claimed supported the protection of Indonesian wildlife, there is little hope of this business slowing down.

As songbird competitions grow in popularity and with eagles being purchased as a status symbol the demand of certain prized birds only continues to grow, meaning there are very few birds that are safe in the wild. Every winged creature has its price. While the smaller birds are quite easily kept in small cages, hanging outside homes or shopfronts, the raptors tend to disappear after they are purchased from the markets. However, a program run by JAAN (Jakarta Animal Aid network) is locating these birds, many as expected now fully grown and thus far too much for the owners to handle, and rehabilitating them ready for release back into the wild.

JAAN’s ‘Raptor rescue and Rehabilitation’ centre is located on the beautiful island of Kotok, a few hours boat ride from Jakarta, and has been running since November 2004 in conjunction with the Thousand Islands National Park. Wildlife photographer, Luke Massey and I headed over on a particularly blustery day with waves as tall as the boat crashing around us, but peace descended as we arrived at Kotok to be greeted by the dedicated team who are giving Indonesia’s raptors a second chance.

The main focus of the program is to save the Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus), known locally as the red-backed sea eagle or elang bondol in Indonesian. Adopted as the proud symbol of the Jakarta province in 1995 the Brahminy Kite used to be abundant and yet despite being protected it has now completely vanished from the area, due to the rampant illegal hunting of it for the cage-bird trade. One of the islands even used to be called ‘Pulau Elang’ which means raptor island, but in the beginning of the 20th century no kites could be found there and so the name of the island was changed. Luckily JAAN realised that if they didn’t begin re-introductions and habitat restoration immediately then the Brahminy Kite would soon be extinct from their native habitat.

Only the week before we had had the sorry experience of seeing one of these poor ‘pet’ kites confined to a filthy cramped cage in its owners back garden. We were in Sungaiwaiin, Borneo, for an expedition into the jungle but while waiting at the village at the parks gates we had heard of a local man who kept a Brahminy Kite. As I had mentioned, the majority of these raptors are lost after they leave the markets and so we were intrigued to see how the bird had fared since being purchased. Not well was the answer.

Being a bird that has adapted to scavenging the Brahminy Kite might live a long time in captivity, but this one was doing so miserably. It looked malnourished and the floor of its cage was a layer of litter – the novelty of having such a magnificent bird had obviously worn off. It sat dull eyed in its dirty prison.

So in Kotok we were keen to hear a happy tale for once, and as soon as we had dropped our bags we headed out to see how the programme worked – the distinct mewing ‘keeyew’ of the Brahimny Kites echoing around the little island. Our guide, Mirjan, a local man who lives on the island with his wife and baby daughter, showed us around. He explained that the framework for the program closely follows the IUCN guidelines of species re-introduction, ensuring a high quality program that stands up internationally.

After rescue (all birds are obtained from confiscation from the illegal trade circuit or from reports of them being kept illegally) the birds go through a quarantine period, where they are checked for disease and assessed regarding the likelihood of release back into the wild. They are then moved to the large enclosures on Kotok which boast the perfect habitat for the Brahminy Kites, where they are socialized and taught to hunt. It was fantastic to watch a Brahminy practice his swooping into the small ponds which held fish put in by the crew, and when he finally succeeded in picking up one of the fish, the kite proudly mantled his catch from the other birds.

The final stage is in an enclosure off of the beach where the birds can fish and fly freely before final release. Once they have proved themselves fit for survival in the wild, they are tagged with wing markers so that they can be monitored and released. So far 67 Brahminy Kites have been successfully released, and JAAN has proven the method works on other sea birds too with 5 White-Bellied Sea Eagles being released after undergoing the program. While we were there the site also had a number of White-Bellied Sea Eagles and even an endangered Grey-Headed Fish Eagle, all rescued from the wildlife trade.

JAAN are doing an incredible job not only on the rehabilitation front but also in engaging the local community in the program. They are promoting local awareness of the bird’s plight by giving public readings, running school visits, organizing bird watching activities and inviting locals to be involved in the program to conserve the wildlife. Furthermore, they employ local people in a variety of roles to maintain the long-term conservation and management of the Brahminy Kite project, for JAAN know that public awareness and local involvement will be crucial in the long term survival of the species in the Thousand Islands National Park.

JAAN are running a truly all-encompassing conservation program and the the icing on the cake for us was sitting on Kotok’s dock and through our Leica binoculars watching one of the successfully released Brahminy Kites fishing on the reef!

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