- The maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), an endangered bird endemic to Sulawesi, Indonesia, lays a single gigantic egg in a hole that is then incubated solely by the geothermal heat in the sand or soil.
- Maleo eggs are prized as a high-status delicacy and are frequently dug up to be eaten or sold illegally online, consequently pushing maleo populations into rapid decline.
- Two community-led projects that protect maleo nesting grounds from poaching and ensure maleos can nest naturally have reported the first sustained increases in maleo numbers due to conservation efforts.
- The projects have quadrupled and tripled local maleo numbers over a 14-year and five-year period, respectively, and experts are calling for other maleo conservation projects across Sulawesi to adopt this community-led, low-intervention method.
The sound of scuffling from the tangled undergrowth enclosing a secluded sandy coastal clearing heralds a curious event. Two chicken-sized maleos (Macrocephalon maleo) emerge and make their way to the open sand of their communal nesting ground. With primal vigor, the pair dig a deep hole in which the female lays one gigantic egg, the size of a grapefruit. They kick the sand back to cover it up and depart, their parental responsibilities fulfilled.
This bizarre nesting behavior, more marine turtle than avian, is characteristic of this endangered species of megapode, endemic to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The single outsize egg is incubated for two to three months solely by the heat stored in the sand. Then, under cover of night, the chick hatches and claws its way to the surface. Fully independent from birth, it flies off into the nearby forest to find its first meal, never knowing its parents.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, the solitary eggs are frequently dug up by people to be eaten as a high-status delicacy or sold illegally online for up to $2-$3 each. As a result, the maleo, widely viewed as an iconic species emblematic of Sulawesi’s unique wildlife, is in rapid decline, and many of its nesting grounds are now barren.
But there is hope on the horizon. In 2006, residents of Taima, a small village in the Tompotika region of Central Sulawesi, noticed dwindling numbers of eggs being laid in a nearby, heavily poached nesting ground. Concerned that maleos were nearing local extinction, they enlisted the help of conservationists to revive the bird’s population. The villagers agreed to quit systematically removing eggs from the nesting ground and instead protect and monitor the site as part of a conservation project.
Fourteen years later, the community-centered conservation project is paying off. The number of maleos using the nesting ground has quadrupled. Observing the success of their neighbors, other villages have now decided to replicate the initiative. Residents of Teku and Toweer villages, also in Tompotika, ceased poaching at their local maleo nesting ground in 2014 and consequently numbers have tripled.
The community projects are the first documented case of conservation efforts generating a sustained increase in maleo numbers, according to the results of a recent study published in Global Ecology and Conservation.
The projects are underpinned by shared ownership and collaboration, and many participants attribute a sense of responsibility and pride to their protection of maleos, study co-author Marcy Summers told Mongabay.
“People were really happy to see chicks hatching out for the first time,” said Summers, director of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (ALTO), an international NGO that partners with Sulawesi communities to protect maleo nesting grounds. “After the first couple of years, locals started to report that they’d seen juvenile birds in the forest — nobody even remembered what they looked like before, because it had been so long since there had been young maleos around.”
Low intervention has benefits
The grassroots-led approach to maleo recovery in Tompotika contrasts with the more prevalent approach of depending on semi-natural hatcheries.
Since the 1970s, conservationists in Sulawesi have removed maleo eggs from nesting grounds to incubate in hatcheries, where they are protected from human poaching and natural predators, akin to turtle egg hatcheries the world over. More than a dozen such projects, sponsored by the government, NGOs and corporations, have released thousands of chicks to date. Nonetheless, such initiatives are yet to report a substantial increase in nesting adult maleos.
The study authors recommend that future maleo conservation efforts echo the low-intervention approach implemented in Tompotika by leaving maleos to nest naturally in protected nesting grounds, and by engaging with communities on ways to discourage or end poaching.
“In this approach, because the nesting ground is left entirely undisturbed … the birds can stay as long as they like,” Summers said. “They’re safe and they stay sometimes up to three days to just do their nesting. We’ve seen behaviors and interactions that I don’t think are being seen elsewhere.”
Finding new ways to safeguard maleos is crucial. For decades, the species has been in a steep decline that is projected to continue given current levels of poaching. BirdLife International estimates the total population in Sulawesi at between 4,000 and 7,000 breeding pairs and notes that nearly 60% of all known nesting grounds are under threat from overexploitation; one-third of these nesting grounds have already been abandoned.
Maleos are also affected by fragmentation of their rainforest habitat, where adult birds spend most of their lives foraging and socializing. In Tompotika, coastal forests are being ravaged by mining, oil palm plantations and agriculture, whereas interior forests remain largely intact.
The unsustainable harvesting of eggs persists despite the maleo’s protected status under Indonesian law, which prohibits egg collection. The fact that this law has been largely ignored and unenforced for decades demonstrates that the birds cannot be protected through laws alone, the study authors write.
The Tompotika projects are proof that outreach work to raise awareness of the maleo’s plight can ultimately lead to more tangible benefits for maleo survival, Summers said. It was the realization that they were on the cusp of losing maleos forever that diminished Taima residents’ inclination to take eggs.
Their conservation model is simple: Villagers, including former poachers, are paid to guard the nesting ground and monitor maleo activity alongside NGO staff. These guard teams also patrol nearby forest corridors to remove snares and deter illicit activities like tree clearing. Meanwhile, NGO staff conduct outreach activities in communities and schools throughout the region, including field trips to observe the maleos nesting.
Although financial incentives were vital to initiate the project, over time, villagers cited the joy of being involved in the comeback of such an iconic Sulawesi species as enough to prevent a return to egg taking.
“Their love of their own natural heritage and their pride in this incredible bird that is so unique and is not found anywhere else was a really strong motivator for them to want to conserve it and not lose it,” Summers said.
A sustained increase
Even during the first year of the project, monitoring teams recorded an increase in the number of adult maleos using the nesting grounds. The researchers think this could have been due to the reduced disturbance from poachers boosting birds’ inclination to nest.
The number of birds increased slowly but steadily during the following years. At Taima’s nesting ground, the average maximum number of birds seen per day rose from seven at the start of the project to 35 over the course of 14 years. After 12 years, there was a spike in numbers, with a maximum of 108 birds recorded on the nesting ground. The authors suggest this could be due to a large number of maleos simultaneously reaching sexual maturity and nesting for the first time.
Monitoring teams also observed that maleos prefer to nest en masse. Nesting grounds would be devoid of birds for several days, followed by a day of high activity, suggesting that indecisive maleos might linger in the wings for the reassurance of fellow parents. The researchers note that this sort of communal nesting behavior echoes that of olive ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), which congregate offshore before collectively landing on a beach to nest.
The magnitude of the results is “amazingly high,” Johny Tasirin, a conservation biologist at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado, North Sulawesi, and lead author of the study, told Mongabay.
“By leaving the maleos to nest naturally, the population will recover,” Tasirin said. In the Taima nesting ground, “we have more than 100 daily visits from maleos, which makes it the healthiest nesting ground in Sulawesi. So the more nesting grounds that we protect, the more birds we will have.”
Summers said maleo recovery across Sulawesi seems within reach. She said she firmly believes that outreach work to raise awareness and instill love and pride in the maleo can inspire the kind of activism and self-governed conservation that has occurred in Tompotika.
“And it’s not too late, there are still lots of places where maleos are still barely hanging on,” she said. “Their numbers are really low, but we’ve shown that even in places where we’ve started out with very few maleos, they can come back, they can recover if we stop poaching and we protect their habitat.”
Banner image: An adult maleo at a nesting ground in Sulawesi. Image by Kevin Schafer/ALTO
Tasirin, J. S., Iskandar, D. T., Laya, A., Kresno, P., Suling, N., Oga, V. T., … Summers, M. (2021). Maleo Macrocephalon maleo population recovery at two Sulawesi nesting grounds after community engagement to prevent egg poaching. Global Ecology and Conservation, 28, e01699. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01699
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