Bambang M, Contributor/Yogyakarta
As late as the 1990s, the Bornean peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron schleiermacheri), which is only found in the forest of Kalimantan, remained a mystery to both international and Indonesian avian experts. As the bird is extremely sensitive to human contact, to study it was often to risk its life. Thus, a pair of peacock-pheasants are worth about US$15,000 on the international market.
Dutch avian expert Rezit Sozer is the only person known to have bred the peacock-pheasant in captivity.
He says the bird spends more time on the ground than flying and, uniquely, has more than one spur. Also, it only lays one egg in one sitting.
Sozer began to breed the bird in 1998, in Cikananga village in Sukabumi, West Java, which has a cool climate. From eight breeding pairs, 24 young birds were born.
Many avian experts have since come to Cikananga, including Ben King, the author of the Field Guide of Birds in Southeast Asia; Nigel Collar of Britain’s Birdlife and Bas van Ballen of the Netherlands — as well as Indonesian students and bird lovers.
Born on Nov. 8, 1970, Sozer was fond of animals as a child. Indeed, as a nine-year-old he had already begun to breed quail and wild fowl. Later, he studied biology at university.
In 1992 he came to Indonesia as a tourist and was drawn to search for the Bornean peacock-pheasant in Kalimantan. His curiosity was aroused by the little that was known about the bird, which is one of seven species of peacock-pheasants.
In fact, he decided to research the bird as part of his degree. Unfortunately, his supervisor, Prof. Dr. Jan Wattel, rejected the proposal, due to the virtual absence of data on the bird, and suggested he study the Javan eagle (Spizaetus bartelsi) instead.
Although Sozer agreed, and spent nine months studying the Javan eagle, when it came to settling on a topic for his masters thesis, he again proposed to study the Bornean peacock-pheasant.
His supervisor gave him the green light and Sozer, who is fond of riding a trail bike, left for Kalimantan, where he conducted research between 1995 and 1996. Carrying only a few pictures of the bird, he interviewed the Dayak people, particularly hunters and those working in the forest. He wanted to find out whether they had ever seen the bird.
After eight months, he managed to trap a peacock-pheasant, which are 20 centimeters tall and 40 cms long on average. The father of two describes how the male, which is metallic blue-green in color, performs a mating ritual for the brownish colored female.
Sozer relates the difficulties he encountered while staying in the forest. Once, he lost his supplies in a flood. For two weeks he ate fish that he caught himself and exotic fruits that he tasted for the first time. “”I also erected a makeshift shelter on higher ground””, said Sozer, who is married to Hernawati from Sukabumi.
His efforts were not in vain, however, and Sozer gained his masters degree. His data on the Bornean peacock-pheasant contributed to the Red Data Book compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Previously, the IUCN had categorized the bird as a critically endangered species. Thanks to Sozer’s research, it is now categorized as an endangered species. (At the time of Sozer’s research, there were still about a thousand birds in existence.)
In 1998, Sozer received permission from the government to breed six species of wild fowl and mouse deer in captivity. A short time after, he was asked to mate four pairs of Bornean peacock-pheasants. For that purpose, he received a donation of US$4000 to build a breeding facility, from Richard Olsen, a Californian billionaire and wild fowl lover.
Asked for the secret of his success, Sozer simply said that he knows what the birds need. Although, he confesses the crucial mating process is the most difficult to bring about. “”A breeder must know when to put the female into the cage of the male, and when to take it out again.
“”If the two birds are together all the time, the female will die of stress. She will also refuse to mate prior to laying an egg,”” said Sozer, who is also an expert on tropical forests.
All eggs, hatched or otherwise, are kept. “”Sozer even knows when an egg will be hatched,”” said Hartono, director of the Yogyakarta Animal Rescue Center.
However, while Sozer has learned much from the birds, he says that he learned his most valuable lesson from the Dayak people. “”They do not carry identity cards, they are not familiar with money but they have the freedom to invest meaning in their lives.
“”Money is the greatest evil. Corruption will disappear when money disappears,”” added Sozer, who has decided to live permanently in Indonesia.