Papua's paradise under threat

Once plentiful in Papua's jungles, rampant poaching and deforestation have devastated populations.

Deep in Indonesia’s easternmost province, a group of birdwatchers wait in earnest, hoping to glimpse the renowned bird-of-paradise. Once plentiful in Papua’s jungles, rampant poaching and deforestation have devastated populations.

The tourists’ patience is rewarded: Perched on the branch of a tall tree near the remote village of Malagufuk, a red king bird-of-paradise is seen darting between the leaves.

Agricultural plantations, touted as a means to improve economic opportunities, are rapidly expanding in Papua. But some villagers and conservationists warn this will result in forests being destroyed and the birds that inhabit them driven to the brink of extinction.

Bird-of-paradise numbers were already dwindling in Papua as they are poached, killed and used for decoration. Authorities have since banned their sale but there is still a thriving illegal trade because international demand is high.  

“Nowadays the threat is not just wildlife hunting, but illegal logging. The conversion of forests to palm oil and cocoa plantations is the biggest threat,” said bird guide Charles Roring.

Papua's paradise under threat

A cassowary in Malagufuk village in Indonesia. Plantations, touted as a way to improve economic opportunities, are rapidly expanding in Papua, alarming villagers and conservationists who fear forests will be destroyed and birds driven to the brink of extinction.

Indonesia’s rainforests are home to 41 bird-of-paradise species, according to Roring, 37 of which can be found in the jungles of Papua.

They range from the lesser bird-of-paradise, known for its yellow and white flank plumes, to the 12-wired bird-of-paradise, recognizable by the filaments that extend from its tail.

Admired for their striking colors and elaborate courtship rituals, the birds have a long history of being trapped and traded as ornaments.

They captivated Europeans after 16th-century explorers returned with skins that had been dried, truncated of their legs and mounted to sticks; while their colorful feathers are still popular additions to traditional Papuan tribal decorations, such as headdresses.

Serene Chng, a program officer at environmental NGO Traffic, said the wild birds are smuggled to other parts of Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

“Law enforcement is very limited,” she explained. “Challenges include demand, corruption and poor surveillance, as well as lack of support from non-enforcement agencies that could help like airlines, shippers, courier services and airports,” Chng said.

Papua's paradise under threat

A villager makes his way along a makeshift bridge to Malagufuk village in Indonesia’s West Papua province. Environmentalists worry a centuries-old trade in birds-of-paradise could be contributing to dwindling numbers in the wild.

In Sorong, one of the largest cities in Indonesia’s West Papua province, a souvenir vendor said traditional headbands made with feathers could fetch as much as 1.5 million rupiah (US$112).

Papua is home to one-third of Indonesia’s remaining rainforests but they are being chopped down at a rapid rate.

Palm oil companies started operating near Malagufuk about three years ago, says environmentalist Max Binur, from NGO Belantara Sorong.

Binur, who knew residents were worried the companies would destroy the surrounding forests and traditional village life, proposed a solution he believed would protect the birds and forest.

He helped turn Malagufuk into an eco-village where residents now work as guides or provide accommodation.

Papua's paradise under threat

A bird-of-paradise, known locally as a cendrawasih bird, in West Papua. Environmentalists believe ecotourism could be a way of saving the birds and other wildlife and giving villagers an income as agricultural plantations have an increasing impact on the jungles.

Up to 20 tourists visit each month to see the birds-of-paradise, as well as other species such as the Cassowary and Hornbill. Visitors trek 2 hours through the jungle to reach a remote settlement of stilt houses with limited electricity.

“It sounded like a good eco-tourism tour we could do. My mother is into birds and we were familiar with the bird-of-paradise from watching documentaries,” said German tourist Lisa von Rabenau.

Binur is planning to launch similar eco-village ventures across Papua and hopes tourism will lead to conservation and benefit locals.

Special Reports