According to the IUCN Red List, the Cacatua sulphurea (better known as the Yellow Crested Cockatoo), is now Critically Endangered in the wild. There are approximately 1000-2,500 still living in Indonesia, but their numbers are falling every year. Their diet consists mainly of seeds, buds, fruits, nuts and herbaceous plants. And their traditional habitats comprise of shrubland areas and forests, which are increasingly under threat as a result of increased industrial farming, logging, and drought. So it is no surprise that the cockatoos are finding themselves homeless in the rapidly industrialising Indonesian forests.
But there is a little known haven for these birds that lies some 3000km from home - in the most unlikely place you might expect. Deep in the heart of Hong Kong’s bustling Central district, just 100 metres from the famous Lippo Towers - there is a growing population of expat cockatoos that are purportedly terrorizing the neighbourhood. Their numbers have increased so successfully, that these urbanites now account for 10% of their species’ entire global population (approx. 200). Their growing numbers may sound encouraging for their status on the IUCN Red List, but for local park managers and conservationists, they are being branded a menace to the ‘native’ ecology.
I travelled to Hong Kong Park, to see if I could catch a glimpse of these majestic urbanites - and sure enough, they were perched up high in the tree canopies, displaying their white plumage and squawking loudly. The park was littered wth disparaging signs relating to the birds, that claim they destroy the local flora, and steal natural resources. These claims have not been backed by any formal studies relating to invasive bird patterns - and there is a lack of legislation surrounding their removal, capture, monitoring, or indeed protection.
The Yellow-Crested Cockatoo’s current purgatorial status in Hong Kong is symbolic of the outmoded conservation tactics and static control models that are prevalent in the profession. The birds have been locally cast from the heavily curated ‘natural’ parks - despite showing their resilience in such a dense and hostile urban environment. Perhaps it is now time to question the grand narratives of conservation, and look towards progressive models of viability over nationality?
As I walked around Hong Kong Park, and through to the magnificent Edward Youde Aviary - the surreal reality of the situation became even more apparent. The aviary is built in the corner of the park over a natural valley, and sweeps majestically across the sky - carving through the landscape at ground level to form clear boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’ side. It is a giant 3,000m2 artificial enclosure, housing 80 species of exotic birds that are indigenous to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Inside the enclosure, visitors can walk across a twisting wooden bridge suspended above the trees, where information about the various species is printed on museal boards.
The aviary is an old-fashioned menagerie. A giant, beautiful bird cage. But just beyond its naturalised terrain and curved mesh walls, one of the world’s most vulnerable bird species is on display in one of the world’s densest concrete jungles. There are many lessons to be learnt from this menagerie typology, and not all are negative. The societal penchant for staging nature in purpose-built captivity is fading fast, as natural ‘entertainment’ turns to natural ‘education’. But many unplanned and uncurated forms of captivity still exist within (and beyond) the city. And while the aviary feeds a fantasy of exotica and ‘otherness’ through museal conditions; the surrounding Hong Kong park reinforces this dichotomy between ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ through controlled nurturing mechanisms. Neither are ideal approaches to the natural world. But encouraging a sense of curiosity is arguably more sustainable than entrenching a belief that species are assigned immutable nationality. Which is why the cockatoo ought to be embraced by Hongkongers as an exotic marvel of the modern, globalised world.
Written by Steven Hutt
Illustrated by Sarah Smith