The Foreign Origins and Uncertain Future of Hong Kong’s Cockatoos

A round of loud, sharp squawks blast through the serene forest crown. They announce the entrance of a few kingly white birds that soar and patrol their lush green territory against the dawn skyline, still dabbed with a layer of morning haze. But this isn’t the scene of a tropical forest. In the urban oasis of Hong Kong Park, the troop of yellow-crested parrots, gleaming with pure white feathers, seems to have settled into a comfortable life in the concrete jungle, amidst the artificial ponds, skyscraper balconies and horticultural plants.

Yellow-crested cockatoos perching on a Bauhinia tree. Photo by Henry Lui, courtesy Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

These yellow-crested cockatoos, scientifically known as Cacatua sulphurea, are neither city birds nor natives of Hong Kong. Rather, they originate from the shrublands and forests of Indonesia and East Timor. The polytypic species, which has many sub-species, is also present in Sulawesi and on the islands of Flores and Java Seas.

“Most of the parrot species commonly found in Hong Kong, such as Alexandrine parakeets and rose-ringed parakeets, have jade green feathers and red beaks which blend in with the vegetation,” says Woo Ming-chuan, Senior Conservation Officer of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society. “These medium-sized cockatoos, contrastingly, stand out with their white plumage and bright yellow crests.” The iconic crest is a retractable fan of feathers that spreads open when the bird wants to make itself look bigger so as to challenge its competitors or impress its mates.

But just how did these tropical birds end up in a completely different climate zone, not to mention the densely-built urban landscape of Hong Kong? Apparently, yellow-crested cockatoos’ outstanding appearance hasn’t only drawn the attention of their mates but also pet keepers. “Back in Hong Kong’s colonial period, it was a trend among the British governors, high-ranking officers and foreign businessmen to keep exotic species as a hobby,” says Woo. She explains that the yellow-crested cockatoo, which can live upwards of 70 years in captivity and to around 20 to 40 years in the wild, was considered an ornamental animal, making it a popular species in the exotic wildlife trade. These governors, officers and businessmen brought with them their avian pets while they stationed or travelled to Hong Kong, introducing a certain number of yellow-crested cockatoos to the subtropical city.

Then came the Japanese invasion in 1941. Immediately prior to the attack, says Woo, “the British governor or some officers at Flagstaff House released their parrots.” Located within Hong Kong Park in Central, the current Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware was formerly the residence of the Commander of the British forces in Hong Kong during colonial times. The released yellow-crested cockatoo took refuge and settled in the park, and its local population has been augmenting since then, also because of escapes or releases in the 1970s.

The expanding population spread to other areas over time. While the population is most numerous on the northern side of Hong Kong Island between Pok Fu Lam and Happy Valley, there are also small groups spotted in Kowloon, the former Stonecutters, Sai Kung peninsula and Mong Tseng. The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society also confirms breeding at Battery Path and the former Victoria Barracks, both in Central, Hong Kong University and Stonecutters. Woo attributes its concentrated population on the island to the types of vegetation. “Hong Kong Island is full of tall, stout trees in which holes the cockatoos’ nests.” Camphor trees, whose average trunk circumference is more than 20 metres, are a particularly popular choice.

Woo also points out that the geographical and climatic conditions of subtropical Hong Kong and tropical areas of their original habitats are similar; both provide the fruits and nuts the cockatoos feed on. “They were first released on the island, and there wasn’t a need for them to migrate elsewhere when the conditions were right and when there were enough food and breeding grounds,” she says.

Perching on a cotton tree whilst chewing on a pod from a Bauhinia tree. Photo by Henry Lui, courtesy Hong Kong Bird Watching Society.

Since their introduction to Hong Kong, the local yellow-crested cockatoo population has climbed from around 50 in the 1970s to 200 today, equivalent to more than eight percent of the birds’ population in their indigenous areas, making Hong Kong one of their major habitats and sanctuaries. And yet this is no cheering news to raise a glass to. The cockatoos’ distinctive appearance makes them a popular species in global pet trades, including illegal trafficking. “The price of a yellow-crested cockatoo can range from several thousand to tens of thousands of Hong Kong dollars,” says Woo. “For poachers, that basically translates as a month’s income simply by selling a few birds.”

Over a period of 15 years in the 1970s and 80s, Indonesia exported 78,000 cockatoos, including yellow-crested cockatoos and other cockatoo species, to the United States, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore. While the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has no data on the number of yellow-crested cockatoos caught and sold illegally every year in recent decades, the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC)—the global non-governmental wildlife trade monitoring organisation—reported that there were at least four seizures of 462 Indonesian endemic parrots between 2013 and 2017. In March last year, over a hundred cockatoos, including yellow-crested cockatoos, were smuggled from Indonesia to the Philippines – and that was only one importing country. 

In 2016, Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s Director for Southeast Asia, published a study suggesting that due to excessive over-harvesting, 13 bird species—including yellow-crested cockatoos and Indonesia’s national bird, Javan Hawk-eagles—were facing the serious risk of extinction. “Excessive trade is wiping out Indonesia’s wild bird species at an alarming rate,” he says.

Yellow-crested cockatoos’ worrying situation is further intensified by the agricultural and forestry effluent pollution of their habitats, as well as logging and wood harvesting that lead to the loss of their breeding grounds in southeast Asian countries. The latest assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in August 2018 estimated that there were between 1,000 to 2,500 mature individuals left in the world. The species is labelled as critically endangered on IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, meaning that they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

Currently, yellow-crested cockatoos are categorised as an Appendix-I specimen under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This means that international commercial trading of this species is prohibited. Trades of this species are allowed only on a non-commercial basis, such as for scientific research. In these exceptional cases, trade may take place provided it is authorised by the granting of both an import permit and an export permit (or re-export certificate). But the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance (Caption 586) which enforces the CITES in Hong Kong has “a lot of loopholes,” says Woo. “It’s extremely difficult to ensure the issued permit only applies to the bird being traded, which explains why there have been cases where the sellers secretly retained the permits after selling the birds and used the same permits for subsequent transactions.”

In Hong Kong, all wild birds are protected under the Wild Animal Protection Ordinance (Cap. 170) enacted in 1976. However, this didn’t stop a poacher from snatching away a pair of yellow-crested cockatoos’ chicks on the slope across from Upper Baguio Villa in Pok Fu Lam in 2015. Yellow-crested cockatoos have also been spotted in Mongkok’s boisterous bird market. “It’s hard to tell whether these sellers’ permits actually correspond to the birds being sold,” says Woo, “let alone the difficulty in distinguishing the captively bred birds from the wild ones.”

Woo hopes that the government can improve the permit system so that there won’t be as many grey areas. Yet she believes that Hongkongers take up an equally significant role in protecting the birds by making sure that, should they wish to buy cockatoos as pets, their source is legal. “At the end of the day, yellow-crested cockatoos, as are other birds, aren’t meant to be owned and kept in cages,” she says. “But to soar free in the sky.”

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