MAMUJU, Indonesia (AP) — A pair of tall birds with black feathers and pinkish breasts crossed a noisy road to reach a quiet part of a sandy tourist beach in the outskirts of Mamuju, a small town at the westernmost part of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island.
There the maleos took turns digging a deep hole with their feet, then the female laid an egg several times as big as a chicken’s and buried it. When the birds departed, one of several poachers watching and waiting unearthed an egg prized as a delicacy.
The maleo is a critically endangered and declining species that’s endemic to Sulawesi and its surrounding islands — a revered symbol of the country’s lush biodiversity. But the bird now is facing a new threat as Indonesia builds a new capital hundreds of miles away.
West Sulawesi has been set up as a “support region,” so the regional government has been constructing roads and planning to build more ports here for transporting building materials to develop the new capital on Borneo.
The maleo is “critically endangered because the next step is extinction,” said biologist Marcy Summers, director of Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, an NGO working on maleo conservation in Central Sulawesi provinces. “And the reason that it’s critically endangered is … because of this problem of the taking of eggs and the destruction of their habitats.”
A medium-sized bird less than 60 centimeters (24 inches) tall, the maleo is a striking species that has a small head with a helmet-like bony protrusion atop its skull. Males are distinguished by a knob at the base of their upper beak. The birds are unusual in that their chicks can fly right after hatching.
Chairing the 2023 Association of the Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia put the maleo bird on this year’s ASEAN logo, as a testament to the country’s vibrant and diverse natural treasures.
In Mamuju, the biggest hotel in town is named Maleo with big statue of the bird as a welcome — and countless local events use maleo birds as symbols.
However, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species describes the maleo as critically endangered and declining with only 8,000 to 14,000 adults.
With their habitat dwindling and nesting grounds facing encroachment from human activities, the journey of a maleo pair for egg laying grows ever more precarious and uncertain. Maleo populations have declined by more than 80% since 1980, Summers said.
There is no specific number of how many maleos are left in Mamuju regency or in West Sulawesi region.
The West Sulawesi Forestry Agency was only able to record maleos nesting grounds in 23 villages based on reports from residents. But only 18 are considered active nesting sites.
In Mamuju regency, the mountainous forest lands where maleos typically live are located about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from the downtown area — and there are concerns development in the region could lead to its extinction.
“As far as I know, maleo birds are in decline,” said Andi Aco Takdir, chief of the West Sulawesi Forestry Agency. ”This is a consequence of, for example, the beach erosion. Then there is also land conversion by residents, or corporations, so that the habitat of the maleo bird has begun to shift and become extinct.”
He said the government is continuously telling people and other stakeholders to stop forest conversion to palm oil plantations and not to develop anything, including tourism destinations, around maleo nesting grounds.
Officials said the government is committed to keeping the birds even with massive development to support the new capital city.
The maleo’s beach nesting grounds are situated less than 1 kilometer (.6 mile) from the forest, but they are separated by a long asphalt road, where noisy vehicles recently made a pair of maleos hesitate to cross it.
When the birds successfully laid an egg to incubate in sand warmed by sun and thermal heat, poachers moved in. One of them dug the sand about 50 centimeters (20 inches) down, took the egg and brought it home.
The poachers sell the eggs for only 15,000 rupiah ($1) to people who consider them a delicacy, like caviar. People in Mamuju and other parts of Sulawesi have a long history of giving eggs as a special gift.
It is illegal to take the eggs since maleos are protected by Indonesian law. The maximum punishment is five years in prison and a 100 million rupiah ($6,400) fine for anyone who takes, damages, destroys, trades, stores or possesses eggs and/or nests of protected animals. But no one has received the punishment — and egg poachers still exist.
Living side by side with the poachers, Mubarak and Abdullah, college students living around the Tapandullu Beach nesting grounds, have tried to make a simple hatchery next to Mubarak’s house.
Abdullah realized the maleo population had sharply decreased since he was a boy. Mamuju residents are aware the bird is rare and it’s illegal to take maleo eggs, but unfortunately some people keep hunting the birds and eggs.
“I am so worried the maleo will become extinct,” said Abdullah, who like other many Indonesians uses a single name. ”As time goes by, especially as this tourist attraction opens up, the place where maleo lay their eggs will automatically become more and more eroded because of the land taken by humans.”
But coastal erosion demolished the hatchery by the end of 2022, destroying or damaging eggs they collected.
“It was in front of my house, and I was confused which one should I protect first, the maleo eggs or my house,″ Mubarak said. “In the end, the residents and I decided to protect our house first, and the eggs and the hatchery were swept by the waves.”
Now, they are trying to protect the maleo by telling other residents not to hunt the birds or take their eggs.
Far from the downtown, the government is planning to build new seaports to transport construction material to Nusantara, Indonesia’s new capital city on Borneo. Activities such as clearing trees and gathering stones have disrupted forest habitat, and nesting grounds along beaches have become places to store and process stones for the seaports.
West Sulawesi province is only a six-hour boat trip from the new capital — one of the closest regions that can provide construction materials. So the regional government is preparing seaports to accelerate shipments, said Muhammad Idris, West Sulawesi regional secretary.
But Idris emphasized the regional government is committed to protecting the maleos even with development to support the new capital city that will replace Jakarta.
“In fact, nature conservation must be used as an achievement and (projects) must not be built leaving behind problems,” he said.
It is not too late to revive the maleo population that needs three essential elements to thrive: the native forest to live; a warm and sandy nesting ground along the beaches to lay eggs; and a safe corridor to travel back and forth.
Conservationists say the bird also needs political will from the government and residents to prevent more losses of maleos.
“It is possible to still restore and protect an area enough that maleos could continue to live, could continue to exist in West Sulawesi, in Mamuju regency,” said Summers of Alliance for Tompotika Conservation. “Because this is the only place left on the west coast of Sulawesi where they’re still alive.”
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