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Saving the endangered maleo bird on Sulawesi

30 September 2020

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi harbours numerous rare and endangered species, among which the maleo bird. Once common all over Sulawesi, its numbers dropped significantly as people poached its unusually large and nutritious eggs, which are locally considered a delicacy. Thanks to the conservation efforts of our local partner NGO Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (ALTO), the population is recovering. 

Sulawesi is the fourth largest island of the Indonesian archipelago. It harbours numerous rare and endangered endemic species, such as the anoa (Bubalus depressicornis), the babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa) and the iconic maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo).

Local delicacy

As in most of Indonesia, biodiversity on Sulawesi is threatened. Generally by loss and fragmentation of natural native forests due to illegal and uncontrolled logging, conversion of natural land to agriculture, production plantations (principally coconut or oil palm), and mining (mostly nickel). For the maleo, another principle threat to their existence is poaching of their unusually large and nutritious eggs, which are considered a delicacy.

From ‘black beaches’ to nearly extinct

This mysterious looking bird was once common all over Sulawesi: historical anecdotes spoke of beaches that appeared black because of the countless maleo couples that were nesting. Yet with people stealing the eggs, the number of maleos dropped significantly over the years and the species were threatened by extinction.

Remarkable breeding habits

Unlike most birds, the maleo relies on solar or geothermal heated sites to incubate their eggs. They use communal nesting grounds, normally located on the beach, where breeding pairs aggregate and dig deep holes in which they lay their eggs. Afterwards, the maleo pairs leave the nest, never to return again.

These remarkable breeding habits are part of the reason why the maleo is so special. Unfortunately, their sexual strategy is not well adapted against human predators: as soon as the communal breeding grounds are discovered, the eggs stand no chance and are easily excavated and sold at local markets.

Local outreach and education

In 2006, at the invitation of local communities, the local NGO ALTO started working in the area of and around Mount Tompotika. ALTO has a long history in the area and invested greatly in educating the younger generations.

Immediately after establishing the organisation, the team started with an outreach program at the local school, teaching the young generations about the natural wonders in their area and the importance of conserving species. As a result of the successful campaigns, educational activities and festivals aimed at raising awareness on the importance of preserving this bird, the maleo is now considered a local hero in Tompotika and surrounding villages.

The maleo is now considered a local hero in Tompotika and surrounding villages

Protecting crucial breeding sites

The fact that maleos rely on specific and small breeding sites gives conservationists an opportunity to protect these crucial areas. With the help of the IUCN NL Land Acquisition Fund, ALTO was able to safeguard two crucial breeding grounds that are now fully protected.

Since 2006, the maleos in Tompotika have been successfully protected and form the healthiest, fastest-growing population of maleo anywhere

The maximum numbers of maleos seen at once at the protected nesting ground quadrupled: from 26 in 2006 to 108 in 2019. Since 2006, the maleos in Tompotika have been successfully protected and form the healthiest, fastest-growing population of maleo anywhere. Thanks to the conservation effort of ALTO, the future of the maleo now seems considerably more hopeful.

Since 2001, with its land acquisition fund, IUCN NL provides funds for local NGOs, like Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, to acquire threatened patches of wilderness to protect and connect the – often fragmented – habitats of endangered species. The land acquisition fund is made possible through the generous support of the Dutch Postcode Lottery.


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More articles by: Marc Hoogeslag