On March 16, 2006, the first-known "soft-release" of Salmoncrested (Seram) Cockatoos (Cacatua moluccensis) was carried out on the island of Seram, in the Maluku archipelago of Eastern Indonesia. Three cockatoos were returned to the very forest where they were trapped in late 2004. The eighteen months it took to get to this day was fraught with challenging obstacles and bureaucratic red tape including securing governmental permits, medical testing of the birds, behavioral analysis, and collaboration with both non-governmental and governmental organizations.
It is well accepted that Indonesia's avifauna rivals that of any country on earth. Unfortunately, that same richness has provoked intense poaching which, in combination with both legal and illegal logging of requisite forest habitat, has endangered many magnificent birds and brought some close to extinction. Four of the five world's cockatoos now listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) are Indonesian. In a country where income often is less than $2,000 per year, some local villagers participate in the illegal trapping and trading of exotic animals, and parrots in particular, to supplement their livelihood. The result has been a decimation of local wildlife populations, leaving some exotic species such as the Salmon-crested and Lesser Sulphurcrested Cockatoos endangered and in need of protection.
The decision to release birds confiscated from smugglers, with its attendant risks to the birds and the ecology of the region, receives support from the World Conservation Union (2002) as well as CITES (Conf. 10.7, "Disposal of confiscated live specimens of species included in the Appendices'; 1997) wherein it is stated that "returning animals to the wild makes a strong political/ educational statement concerning the fate of the animals and may serve to promote local conservation values. However, as part of any education or public awareness program, the costs and difficulties associated with return to the wild must be emphasized."
The First Confiscation
Thursday, September 23, 2004. Just prior to our scheduled eco-tour to Seram, we heard that Forestry Officers from Manusela National Park had confiscated nine Seram Cockatoos, two Eclectus parrots (Ec/ectus roratus roratus) and five Red-cheeked parrots (Geoffroyus geoffroyi). The National Park officers were accompanied by the police and military police and arrested a smuggler from the island of Sulawesi. This smuggler had purchased the birds from members of Huaulu village (an indigenous people located on the mountains about 20 km from the town of Opin).
When the team arrived in Seram, we visited Joel Katayane, the officer who led the confiscation and who is currently the director of the northwest section of Manusela National Park. His responsibility is to protect the parks flora and fauna from exploitation and illegal activity. Traveling with us were two of our Indonesian colleagues who are experts in the care of wild Indonesian animals, Dr. Wahyu ("Wita") Widyayandani and Resit Sozer, who manage Indonesian Wild Animal Rescue Centers in Bali and Java; respectively. We found that the birds now housed at the forestry department were emaciated, in shock, filthy and in terrible condition. Several Seram Cockatoos had already died the day before, and a Red-cheeked Parrot died just as we arrived and its body was lying on top of one of the cages that still held the other live birds. Since these birds were considered police evidence, they were still in the same cages and conditions that the trappers had left them in and we were very worried that the remaining birds would not survive. Decisive action seemed required.
The team broke up into two groups-Wita, Resit and Ceisar Riupassa, (Director of Yayasan Wallacea, our collaborating Indonesian NGO) stayed in Masohi to convince the police department to give us custody of the birds so that we could administer urgently needed care, and the rest of us (including our eco-tour guests) spent the afternoon in the village of Masohi finding wire with which to build a cage, and then visiting the Muslim street market to buy food for the birds.
Then we moved on to Sawai (a town on the shore of north Seram arriving just before nightfall. Construction on temporary caging commenced the next morning and was completed in less than a day by the local men who were our eco-tour guides and former trappers.
Later the same day, Wita and Resit arrived with the birds obtained after some difficult negotiations. The birds were still in some degree of shock and incredibly dirty. We took them to the forest cages immediately. At that precise moment, the Kembali Bebas Avian Rehabilitation Center was born. "Kembali Bebas" in English means "Return to Freedom:'
The next morning we lost two more Red-cheeks to shock, but the rest survived and seemed to be comfortable in their forest cages.
Since the arrival of those birds in September, 2004, our facility has grown substantially. Other parrots, lories and cockatoos confiscated by the National Park and Forestry Department have been brought to Kembali Bebas and are now cared for by our well-trained staff on a 2.5 hectare compound (just a little over 6 acres) which includes a quarantine area, veterinary clinic, socialization area and sanctuary.