Captured from the wild for its beautiful voice, the Straw-headed Bulbul is now Critically Endangered. But at its final stronghold in Singapore, a new collaboration between NGOs, governments and businesses could help it to stage a comeback.

By Trixie Tan, Ding Li Yong & Anuj Jain

Straw-headed Bulbul pair © Pixabay

The song of the Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus is rapidly disappearing from forests across Southeast Asia. If habitat loss wasn’t enough of a threat, this attractive songbird is relentlessly trapped to fuel the booming Asian songbird trade. Its musical call makes it particularly sought after for birdsong competitions, which are hugely popular and can generate big winnings. The crisis has been worsened in recent years by the spread of logging roads into its habitat, making it easier for poachers to access the populations.

Once prevalent across Southeast Asia, the species has dwindled to an estimated 600 – 1,700 birds confined to small pockets in Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. In 2018, it was listed as Critically Endangered.

However, all hope is not lost. A recent study made the surprising discovery that the species is not only surviving, but actually thriving in Singapore. This island city-state has an estimated population of more than 200 birds including around 110 in Pulau Ubin, an offshore island in northeast Singapore. Here, the population is not only stable, but increasing.

When it comes to preventing this bird’s extinction, an opportunity as good as this is too good to pass up on. Our Partner the Nature Society (Singapore) has been carefully monitoring Straw-headed Bulbul populations and hotspots for over twenty years. As a result of these long-term study, this year they resolved to develop a national action plan focused on protecting the songbird for generations to come. This single-species action plan will be the first ever of its kind focused on a threatened bird species in Singapore.

To kick things off, a workshop was held this May, bringing together key players in the country. Led by Nature Society (Singapore) and supported by BirdLife International and Oriental Bird Club, attendees included the government, other NGOs, local universities, the corporate sector and staff of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which encompasses the Singapore Zoo and its sister facility, the Jurong BirdPark.  The workshop took place with the support of Mapletree Investments Pte Ltd, one of Singapore’s leading companies that has become a champion of bird conservation in Singapore.

Five working groups were set up to tackle five major factors in this species’ recovery: Monitoring and Ecology, Genetics and Captive Breeding, Advocacy and Protection, Trade and Enforcement and Community Engagement. Together, they identified priority actions under each theme, which will form the basis of the action plan in coming years:

  • Monitor and map the distribution of wild populations and understand the species’ genetic diversity.
  • Improve degraded habitats and re-connect forests in Singapore’s fragmented landscape.
  • Explore conservation options outside the species’ natural range, including looking into captive breeding requirements and suitable new habitats it could be translocated to
  • Develop an advocacy plan for currently unprotected strongholds and promote their conservation
  • Coordinate with government agencies to eliminate smuggling, illegal sales and poaching for the caged songbird trade through strengthened enforcement and improved traceability at pet bird shops in Singapore
  • Increase protection status from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I
  • Engage the community through citizen science efforts to share sightings and create platforms to report offences

The workshop ended with a commitment to champion the survival of the Straw-headed Bulbul so that its beautiful song can continue without interruption.  It also serves as an encouraging demonstration of how the conservation community can come together with national governments and the corporate sector to collectively drive action and prevent extinctions.