This bird pictured is the notorious Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). It is a breeding female that is ready to lay eggs. It’s widely considered to be the most abundant and destructive bird species in the world, to the extent that it is referred to as the “feathered locust”. If there is a poster child of environmentally and economically destructive bird species, this would be it. It has been estimated to damage food crop to the region of USD70 million annually worldwide, and particularly in its native sub-Saharan Africa. So what is it doing here in Singapore?
Every year birds and other invasive species are released in Singapore during religious festivities by some adherents as a gesture of compassion and to gain merit. Although it is frowned upon these days, it is still big business. This year, Operation “No Release” is being held with manpower gathered from government agencies and volunteers to minimize the number of releases of invasive species in Singapore. Yet we believe that although well meaning and a step in the right direction, it may be a case of “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted”. A destructive species like the Red-billed Quelea should never be allowed to be imported to Singapore to begin with, let alone released. Together with the proliferation of African waxbills, weavers, whydahs and whatnots, they represent what is wrong with our current wildlife management. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) which is the gatekeeper of what species gets imported in, should be the one making sure such dangerous species are kept far away and to severely restrict imports of other non-native species.
In the last four years after African grassland species (waxbills, weavers, bishops, queleas) were released en-masse in Singapore, our grassland seed-eaters species mix have changed drastically, with the native munias and weavers numbers down significantly to the extent that in Lorong Halus and Punggol Barat, they are a minority species (personal observations). If this trend continue we will end up like Hawaii, where native species were wiped out by the aliens.
It is clearly evident that there is a spike in sales of such alien species during Vesak day. We recommend that AVA ban the imports of dangerous species, and limit the quantity of other alien species during the few months prior to the Vesak Day so that we do not suffer economic and ecological disaster somewhere down the line. If Queleas are breeding, history have shown that they are unstoppable in their native land causing already poverty stricken countries to be further left behind, with drastic drop in their already low yielding crop. What happens when this species takes hold in our region? Rice is an important crop for our neighbours and they are involved in high yield agriculture. The losses that result will be magnitude of times higher and the impact will be even greater than in its native region.
We would like to highlight the Pest Animal Risk Assessment done by Queensland’s state government in Australia. A relevant quote: “If permitted to naturalise, queleas have the potential to become super-abundant over vast areas of savannah grasslands and grain-growing regions across Queensland. A range of cereal grains—including sorghum, wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers—worth an estimate $429 million per annum (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008) could be at serious risk“. Red-billed Queleas are assessed as an ‘extreme’ threat species and listed as Prohibited Wildlife under the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006 in Queensland and cannot be kept as pets.
We ask AVA to seriously look into this and other invasive species proliferation in Singapore and do similar pest risk assessments and management. It is heartening to know that AVA have taken action in the past to address importation of dangerous species like the piranhas, so we think that thoughtful and rational policies will win out.
We further hope that the government agencies work together with each other and with experts to address other fundamental problems in nature conservation and wildlife management. Do we want to open yet another ecological Pandora’s box, that we are now already wasting taxpayer’s money to solve? Our current Javan Myna and House Crow problem is indicative of past mistakes that we are clearly paying the price for.
In Singapore, sometimes it is difficult to talk purely on conservation. But surely when economic well-being and national and trans-national interests are at stake, we must do that much more.