Six pairs of one of the world’s rarest bird species - the Javan green magpie – have been flown to Chester Zoo from Indonesia in a last ditch bid to save them from extinction.
With its beautiful plumage and bird song, there are now believed to be fewer than 100 individuals left in the wild because they are prized as caged birds and their habitat is fast disappearing.
For more than five years, Chester Zoo has financed and lent expertise to conservation partners in Indonesia, who have been working to breed the birds in their homeland and create safety net populations.
But following a series of recent break-ins at the breeding centre, Indonesian government officials have been forced to move 12 of the birds to Europe. Experts at Chester Zoo hope to develop the first ever captive breeding programme outside Indonesia to ensure their survival.
Andrew Owen, the zoo’s curator of birds, said: “We really are fighting against time to save the incredibly rare Javan green magpie from extinction. Sadly, there is evidence that the species is fast disappearing in the wild as they have fallen victim to the pet trade and an ever shrinking habitat. In fact, they have only been found once in the last 10 years in the wild by ornithologists.
“By bringing 12 of the birds to the UK, we are hoping our new conservation breeding programme will begin to address the desperate plight of this species and ensure a protected population for the future.”
In Indonesia, a culture of keeping caged birds as a status symbol has seen huge areas of forest fall silent as millions of birds are taken from the wild. As the birds become rarer, their value increases, leaving many species on the brink of disappearing altogether.
The threatened Javan green magpie is now listed as critically endangered by BirdLife International and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Mr Owen added: “We’ve been working with the Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre in Java for five years and our mission to track down the birds with the beautiful green plumage has included trawling markets and interviewing traders.
"Over time we have managed to rescue a handful of birds and set up a breeding centre and, together, we have been successful in breeding the birds on their country of origin.
“However, so prized are they in Java, the breeding centre has suffered from a number of break-ins – the magpies being a prime target given their beauty and increasing value on the pet trade,” he added. “It’s a sad fact that the forests in Indonesia are now so silent but the markets are full of the sounds of caged birds - most of them in awful condition.
“Even fledglings are taken from their nests. It is thought that over a third of the captive birds in Indonesia are originally harvested from the wild, with well over one million being caught every year. Caged birds can be found hanging outside houses, restaurants, shops and just about everywhere you turn in Indonesia.
“Many of these birds are thought of in the same way we think of a bouquet of flowers – something beautiful to admire for a few days until they wilt away and die. Songbirds are still sought after by hobbyists who enter them into song contests – forever seeking birds with the most original and unique songs.”
The birds are native to western Java in Indonesia and inhabit dense montane forests. Their bright green plumage is attained through the food the birds eat – insects, frogs and lizards. Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre, which Chester Zoo supports with both financial and technical help, bred its first Javan green magpie in 2013.
Chester Zoo’s curator of birds Mr Owen concluded: “The situation is desperate but we’re certainly not giving up and that’s why we are committed to supporting our partners in Java and have now brought these beautiful birds to Chester. The new breeding programme is quite probably the only viable way of securing their future in the short term.
“It will be incredibly hard to change the culture of people keeping song birds in small cages but, with more education, awareness and protection of suitable secure habitat, we hope we can one day return this beautiful species to the wild."