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A SANCTUARY IN THE MAKING

 

I recently overcame an aversion to small boats and deep water long enough to visit the island that slumbers off Bali’s east coast.  Nusa Penida is like another world, existing in a different dimension from modern Bali.   Its isolation and small population give it a sleepy, old-fashioned quality reminiscent of little Asian towns 30 years ago.  Cars and foreign faces are rare.  The seas that lap its beaches are clear and brilliantly blue.  And Bali’s iconic bird, the critically endangered Bali Starling, flies freely among the trees.

In a country where wildlife habitat is being ruthlessly eroded by development, deforestation and monoculture, it’s a small miracle to find a place that’s moving in the other direction.   In Nusa Penida, an integrated program by the Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF) brings together the rehabilitation and release of captive-bred Bali Starlings, community education and reforestation.  Temples, school children, farmers and fishermen are all involved in the slow process of turning their island into a world class bird sanctuary.

West Bali National Park is the official Bali Starling sanctuary and hundreds of birds have been released there since the 1980s.  But constant poaching for the illegal pet trade has kept the numbers below a sustainable level, and the Bali Starling is technically extinct in the wild.  Fewer than 10 birds were estimated to remain in the Park in 2005, and  birdwatchers travelling to the sanctuary to glimpse the iconic starling are usually disappointed.

FNPF Director Dr Bayu Wirayudha is a veterinarian and a Bali Starling expert who has bred the rare bird for over a decade.  He helped establish a successful private Bali Starling conservation program with the Begawan Giri Foundation (BGF) and in 2004 began to look for a safe release site in Bali.  Instead of official support, he encountered many obstacles.  “This bird is hardy enough to breed in outdoor aviaries in England in the winter,” he points out.  “The Bali Starling would do well anywhere in Bali, but I could not find a public agency or a community that would provide a secure area for the birds or pledge to protect them.”

Bayu turned his gaze to Nusa Penida, the arid, undeveloped island to the east.  Nusa Penida has less than 5% forest cover (Bali has 40%), there is no surface water and the water table is too deep to tap.  Islanders rely on rainwater catchment tanks for household use; there is no water for irrigation. The island’s official population of 40,000 is in fact much lower.  Most have moved on to greener pastures,  with those remaining eking out a slim living from fishing, subsistence farming and harvesting seaweed.

Bayu and FNPF members spent two years working with the villages of Nusa Penida to educate the people in conservation and persuade them to protect the Bali Starlings from poachers.  All communities on the island agreed to abide by awig awig, a traditional law which places the birds under the protection of the temple and, by extension, its members.  This is the first time in Indonesia that local community members have been trained to and are actively participating in the protection of released birds.   Bayu went on to establish Indonesia’s first bird sanctuary in a populated area, proving that wildlife and people can live harmoniously together.  And in 2007 Indonesian President SBY accepted Bayu’s invitation to release several Bali Starlings from the Begawan Giri collection, the first official approval the project had received.

The crossing to Nusa Penida from Padangbai was mercifully smooth and took just over an hour.  We stepped out of the boat into the warm sea; there is no dock at Buyuk. A few minutes drive to the south is the FNPF Bird Centre. Under a leafy canopy we found offices, aviaries, simple accommodation and a plant nursery. The friendly staff served us breakfast, then we went looking for Bali Starlings.  Our guide led us past a row of aviaries where a group of the rare birds waited for release, and pointed out an old bee hive high in a dead tree near the road.  It seemed an unlikely spot for such an exotic bird, but in fact there were many sightings that morning.  The FNPF staff continually monitor the released birds and know where they nest, so it’s unusual NOT to see at least one.

The Centre has released 64 Bali Starlings since 2006 and there are estimated to be at least 100 in the wild in Nusa Penida where they breed freely in the coconut trees. The program also releases other endangered birds including Mitchell’s lorikeets (which are almost extinct in Bali), lesser Sulfur Crested cockatoos and Java Sparrows.  Bayu’s vision is to provide a sanctuary for threatened bird species so they can build up numbers without the threat of poaching. Since the program began six years ago, not a single bird has been poached.   Considering the poverty of the people and the fact that a Bali Starling can be sold for over Rp 10 million on the black market, this augers well for the eventual success of the bird sanctuary.

Bayu’s goal is to have a population of 300 Bali Starlings in the wild in Nusa Penida in the next five years. A growing bird population needs habitat for food, shelter and nesting.  That means trees… lots of trees.  Forests not only provide habitat for wildlife, they also help attract rainfall, control soil erosion  and build up topsoil.   A variety of trees also provides medicine, wood, fodder, carving materials, fruit, dyes, honey production and other sustainable products, contributing to a more prosperous community. So reforestation is an important part of FNPF’s vision.

Behind the FNPF office a nursery shelters row upon row of young trees in black poly bags.  Forest cover of at least 30% is needed to provide a good micro-climate, and Bayu began to offer free tree seedlings to the villagers in 2007.  Since then, the FNPF nursery has distributed  100,000 tree saplings and 8,000 young bamboo plants.  The nursery was recently enlarged and can now produce about 60,0000 saplings a year.  Some are distributed to villagers and the rest will be used in the FNFP’s reforestation program.

In 2008 the local government gave 100 hectares of degraded land to the FNPF for reforestation.  We drove there over bare limestone hills thatched with lemon grass.  Almost every dry hillside was tightly terraced for vegetables; perhaps there had been more rainfall when they were built.  All this land has been long abandoned and no one can remember it being farmed. 

The FNFP reforestation site, another bald hilltop, is 15 scenic kilometres from the Centre. Bayu wants to plant a corridor of leafy trees all along the road, to provide a verdant path for the released birds to follow to their new home.  The reforestation area has been planted with 17,000 trees in the past two years.  Seven rainwater catchment tanks have been built; in these harsh conditions the young trees need water and mulch for the first three years until they are strong enough to survive.  Bayu would like to build many more tanks.   “The survival rate of the young trees is over 80%,” Bayu reports.  “We lost some when a farmer set fire to the dry grass.  There is still a lot of education to be done; farmers don’t yet understand that these areas have to be protected from illegal grazing and fire, so the trees can mature and provide a better environment for their children.”  

The education process is a long one. The staff builds firebreaks and gives workshops to farmers on turning dry grass waste into fermented cattle fodder.  School children visit the nursery and help with the tree planting. FNFP sponsors 43 high school  students and one university student.  But Bayu is confident that over time the people of Nusa Penida will see the benefit of the program, especially as the eco-tourism element begins to kick in.

Starting in September, FNFP will be running one-day tours from Ubud to Nusa Penida.   I was the guinea pig for this activity, and it was a wonderful experience.  After a tour of the nursery and our Bali Starling encounter we drove to the reforestation project, stopping at an old village along the way to  buy ikat directly from the weavers.  Later we picnicked on the southeast coast, overlooking dramatic white  limestone cliffs that dropped steeply into an azure sea.  The day was a great adventure, knowledgeably led and packed with interesting sights and  activities.  And, of course, an encounter with the elusive Bali Starling which I’ve never seen outside a cage.  With a growing international interest in bird-watching, the Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary may become a destination in its own right.

The FNPF has recently opened a visitor’s centre in Ubud on Jalan Bisma opposite Café des Artistes. Bayu and his Australian volunteer Alan enthusiastically share information about programs in Nusa Penida and Borneo, where FNFP manages a reforestation project to create habitat for the orang utan.  Visit www.fnpf.org for the full story.

Like most NGOs, FNPF is chronically under funded. Consider a direct donation:

$4 plants a tree and monitors it for three years
$300 sponsors a young person to attend high school for a year
$ 5  builds a  50m2 firebreak
$1000 builds a rainwater catchment tank to irrigate one hectare of reforested hillside
$20 buys a bag of seeds for the nursery

Dragons in the Bath, a collection of Ibu Kat’s stories, is available in Bali from Dijon in Kuta, Ganesha Books at Biku in Seminyak and Ganesaha Books and selected shops in Ubud. It can be ordered nationally and internationally through  www.dragonsinthebath.com  <http://www.dragonsinthebath.com>

E-mail:  bali_cat7@yahoo.com

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