Red-whiskered Bulbul birds confiscated by DNP's Yiaw Dong wildlife crime suppression task force in Bangkok in 2021. Credit: DNP

New panel proposed to help settle native bird controversy

Supporters of delisting the Red-whiskered Bulbul bird stand firm on their stance while the science says otherwise

A new panel to help address the issues concerning the Red-whiskered Bulbul bird, which is now a centre of controversy between conservationists and bird breeders, was proposed at the public hearing organised by the Parliament’s deputy House Speaker on Wednesday, but no agreement was reached as the supporters of the bird’s delisting still stood firm on their stance.

The public hearing was the second meeting after the first one was held late last month without consensus. Over a hundred bird breeders and concerned agencies as well as conservationists attended the event and took turns explaining their reasons to back their stances.

The bird has become controversial as bird breeders want to delist it from protection under the Wildlife Preservation and Conservation Act. The bird is listed as the 550th protected species, meaning the law does not allow trade, possession, and poaching of the bird in the wild, except for breeding and possession of the bird with proper registration.

The bird is popularly raised as a pet songbird by locals in the South due to its beautiful voice. Competitions on their songs are regularly held, prompting the bird to become a new economic species, which could be priced up to several tens of thousands of baht. According to the National Parks Department (DNP), at least 134,325 Red-whiskered bulbul birds are registered by 11,466 owners. However, the department has acknowledged that a lot more are still unregistered. 

The bird owners complain about a complicated registration process with the department. They have demanded the birds be delisted so they could raise them freely, a point that is seen as unjustified among conservationists. As revealed by some concerned officials, several of them cannot show proof of the bird’s origins and that’s the reason why they cannot register those birds. Official records of unregistered birds and bird breeders are still not disclosed, but according to the DNP’s statistics, over 6,400 birds have been confiscated in 183 legal cases over the past five years, suggesting that several of those could be taken from the wild.

The second hearing on Wednesday at the Parliament. Credit: DNP

At the meeting chaired by the Deputy House Speaker, Pichet Chuamuangpan, Phue Thai MP from Chiang Rai province in the North, a new panel was proposed by conservationists and academics as the best way to deal with the issue. Among those was Assistant Professor Dr. Sara Bamrungsri of Prince Songkhla University’s Science Faculty, who had proposed improvement of the registration process to address the bird breeders’ issue in the first meeting, but was humiliated by the chair of the meeting instead. (Read: Prince of Songkhla U. throws support to its researcher after being humiliated by senior politician at “public hearing” on native bird regulation )

Dr. Sara still insisted at the second meeting that the pain point was the sluggish registration process and asked the participants as well as concerned authorities to support the idea to set up a new panel to work this out as a means for compromise. No response was given back to him, however.

In the room, boos and jeers were expressed instead, and most of the participants and government party MPs showed support for the delisting of the bird, citing the main reason that they could then raise the bird freely.

The Chair of the meeting, Dr. Pichet, then wrapped up the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, that this meeting would be the last and there would be no more as it was the legislators’ meeting. There would not be further discussions nor negotiations over the issue, Dr. Pichet added. He even encouraged bird breeders not to register their birds with concerned agencies, the action deemed to violate the regulation regulating political figures’ behaviours.

“We (bird breeders) will not register our birds any more. We (MPs) will set you free from suppression and (money) extortion. Delist the bird now!,” declared Depty House Speaker Pichet.

Watch: The second public hearing on the Red-whiskered Bulbul’s status (Credit: DNP)

Courtesy of Lannabird Club/ Dr.Rungsrit Kanjanavanit

The science

Bird science, however, says otherwise. Aside from Dr. Sara’s concern about the potential extinction of the bird in the wild if delisting is allowed, the new science of the bird has been shared with the public by top conservation biologists and scientists, who have stepped out in support of Dr. Sara’s concern.

Based on the discussion hosted by Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty early this week, the Red-whiskered Bulbul is a native bird in Thailand and other Asian countries. People have bred and raised this bird for over 40 years and they have been brought into several countries in other continents where they have become an alien species.

In their original habitats, however, the bird plays a critical ecological role as a seed disperser for regenerated forests as its inhabitation spans from grassland and shrubs to deep forests. The decline in its population could therefore affect the chance of forest regeneration, the scientists noted.

Although some statistics have shown an incline of its appearance following the promulgation of the Wildlife Act over 30 years ago, recent studies have shown an opposite trend of its declining population. In some national parks in Chiang Mai province, for instance, the Lannabird Club led by the noted doctor Rungsrit Kanjanavanit has observed the trend and found that the Red-whiskered Bulbul’s population has dropped over 90% within the past 20 years. In contrast, bird seizures on the route to the South have been reported regularly. The situation is similar to the South, where the Red-whiskered Bulbul in the wild has rarely been detected.

“The only reason to delist a species from state projection is it does not need protection under the law as its population in the wild is sufficient (to maintain the population). But this is not what we have discovered in the case of the Red-whiskered Bulbul.

“To list or not to list the bird, it must be proved with scientific evidence that its population is not in a critical state to the point that worries us,” said Dr. Rungsrit.  

Aside from this fact, wild or captive birds could act as a pool of diseases that can be exchanged with humans and other wild animals. Captive birds could also contaminate the bird’s genetic pool in the wild if released in the wild, according to the scientists.

“In nature, there is a natural selection and exchange of genes that humans should not intervene, or the ecosystem will lose its equilibrium otherwise. That’s the reason why we must control our interference in nature,” said Assoc.Prof. Kornsorn Srikulnath of Animal Genomics and Bioresource Research Center at Kasetsart University.

The scientists proposed improvement of registration process of the bird and related measures so as to better facilitate captive birds, while still keeping the bird on the protection list. They questioned the real motivation behind the move of the bird breeders as it’s clear that the law already allows them to breed and raise the bird, except for the bird from the wild.

“The law already allows bird breeders to breed and raise and trade the bird, but why they do not want to follow the law that allows them to do so? What could possibly be is some bird breeders still want wild birds to improve their breeding,” the scientists remarked.

A wild Red-whiskered Bulbul is known to have an IQ lower than the captive one, thus emitating sounds less efficiently, but it’s more tolerant against its environment including the sunlight than the captive one, thus being able to stand in an outdoor competition longer.

Conservation organisations, led by Sueb Nakhasathien and Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BCST), meanwhile, have submitted their petitions with similar reasons provided to the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, the DNP chief, and the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Land, Natural Resources, and Environment to express their opposition against the delisting of the bird and to ask them to look into the case.

They also fear that this push for a legal amendment to delist the bird could set a precedent for other protected species on the state protection list. Bird breeders focus too much on economic benefits, they said.

So far, 61 protected species are allowed to be bred and traded under the law, according to the DNP.