In 1999 the then-owners of the Begawan Giri Estate, Bradley and Debbie Gardner, undertook a bold effort to breed and restore the critically endangered Bali Starling (Leucopsar rothschildi), also known as Rothschild's Mynah or Bali Mynah, to its island habitant.
Commencing a breeding program with two captive Bali Starlings imported from the U.K., a breeding program at the Begawan Giri has relocated to a new site provided by the Green School at Sibang. 12 years on, the program can boast that a sustainable flock is now resident on Nusa Penida Island. Meanwhile, back at Sibang a "growing" community of 54 birds, including 17 born in 2011, is now in residence.
With explosive population growth increasingly threatening the planet's biodiversity, the earth is becoming species poor, with natural biological chains interrupted with future consequences yet to be understood. One case in point is the recent infestation of caterpillars in Bali that is linked to the loss of bird populations that once controlled these crop-damaging pest.
In a modest but important step forward to help preserve the global environment, the Begawan Foundation is working hard to save the attractive Bali Starling.
During the 1960s and 1970s several hundred of these birds were legally exported to the United States and Europe, to both zoos and private collectors. They and their descendants, perhaps as many as a thousand birds, live today in captivity around the world with many of them kept as single individuals incapable of reproducing. Closer to home back in Bali, pressure on diminishing habitat and hunting of the much-prized bird has brought the Bali Starling to the very edge of extinction.
Conservation of the Bali Mynah has been attempted since the early 80's by the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned for the preservation of the bird's wild population. Despite these efforts, the wild population has yet to reach the number that will ensure this bird's continued survival without human help. Education, community development and captive breeding have all been tried with mixed results. Many people working to save the birds believe that the lost habitat, climate changes, predators and other natural factors, in fact, are not the major causes of the bird's extinction, blaming instead the species' decline on illegal poaching and theft.
Enter Bradley and Debbie Gardner
The Begawan Foundation, established by Bradley and Debbie Gardner in 1999, focuses its attention on the conservation of the highly endangered Bali Starling.
"We imported two pairs from England, in truth it was as if they had come ‘home.' The Bali Starling, often used as the mascot of Bali, is also at the top of the list of the most endangered bird species in Indonesia. Their beauty and gentle, trusting nature have worked against them, making them the prized catch of poachers," explained Bradley. "We felt that these birds had come home on a mission – to assist in the Estate's Bali Starling Conservation Program. We gave the bird a second chance at survival."
By 2005, the total birds raised in captivity had grown to 97, most in enclosures on the Gardners' estate at Begawan Giri. In thar same year, the birds were moved to newly erected enclosures on Nusa Penida, south of the Bali mainland where a release program was initiated at a bird sanctuary established by Bayu Wirayudha.
Between 2006 and 2007, a total of 65 birds were released, including 12 released by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and First Lady Kristiani Herawati, when they visited Nusa Penida to celebrate the launch of a ferry service to mainland Bali.
In August 2010, the remaining Bali Starlings kept in captive breeding were brought back from Nusa Penida to mainland Bali to a new home at the Green School in Sibang, near Ubud. Once they settled into their new site, the breeding pairs commenced to make nests, with the joyous result that by April 2011, 17 young were successfully hatched and weaned, almost doubling the number of birds in captivity.
Green School was chosen as the breeding center because of its mission to educate a generation of global citizens knowledgeable about natural sustainability. Striving to have the lowest carbon footprint of any international school worldwide, the school uses bamboo and rammed earth for its buildings, grows its own food in its gardens, and has plans to generate its own power from the river. The Green School has proven to be a most suitable venue for the Begawan Foundation to continue its quest to ensure the survival of one of the world's most endangered birds.
Counting the Bali Starlings
On October 26, 2010, nineteen keen ‘bird counters' from a number of different associations set out from the port of Padang Bai, in eastern Bali for nearby Nusa Penida. Their aim was to spend two days undertaking an audit of the wild Bali Starlings to verify the success of the release program established by Begawan Foundation.
Participating in the "audit" were representatives from the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore, Bali Bird Park, Bali Bird Walks, Udayana University and Green School who all joined Begawan Foundation in this first third-party external audit.
Splitting up into six different groups of auditors, all six groups were successful in reporting sightings of the birds. As Raja Segran, General Curator, Jurong Bird Park said, "nothing beats seeing 22 Bali Mynahs coming to roost in the evening."
A subsequent count took place at daybreak the following day. The results conclusively demonstrated that there were two different flocks of young birds, each numbering about 15.
The observations of the captive-bred birds released into a new environment raised as many questions as it answered. Villagers told the auditors that they put papaya and bananas out especially for the birds, and that they rescued young birds that had fallen out of the nest. This raises questions of the role played by human intervention in the population's survival. Birds were also found nesting in old abandoned beehives, under the eaves of buildings, rather than the more natural nest location of a hole in an old tree. The Nusa Penida flock has also discovered a new source of food in the flies congregating on cows' backs.
In their new habitat, the Bali Starlings do not seem to mind that they are living in the midst of villagers. They are sighted in trees amidst coconut plantations and cornfields and in areas where there are pigs, chickens and cows. Villagers go on with their daily tasks, riding motorbikes through plantation tracks, talking at the small local morning market underneath a tree where a past nest was sighted. A pair of birds sits in a field searching for food alongside farmers readying their cows for the day's plowing.
"The birds have become a part of the lives for the islanders of Nusa Penida, they have a healthy respect for these magnificent birds and are partially responsible for its survival," said Raja.
"A conservative estimate gave us a total of 52 birds, including two flocks of juvenile birds and a number of pairs," said Shirley Hermawan, the foundation's administrator. "A further audit is needed, with the aim to venture further afield, looking to see where the flocks are flying to and from – are there other birds further inland or on the nearby islands? A report has been made that a pair has an offspring on Nusa Lembongan, two islands away. This needs to be verified."
A further audit schedule to commence shortly in will look at different areas, with representatives from Jurong Bird Park and Bali Bird Walks using their expertise to trace where the birds are sited both in the daytime and at night.
The most heartening result of the survey is that it has managed to dispel fears that the birds would fall prey to humans and other predators, unable to adjust to the environment.
Begawan Foundation has memorandums of understanding (MOU) with both the Koln Zoo in Germany and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, both of which will provide new breeding stock for the project. Bali Starlings from Koln have been selected from several countries in the European Union and will provide much needed diversified DNA. A further MOU with Bali Bird Park provides the foundation with professional veterinary services and advice.
The success of Begawan Foundation's Bali Starling Conservation Project demonstrates how private organizations can cooperate to help create a more sustainable world.
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