If it’s not pangolins in a freezer, it’s cockatoos in bottles. The horrors of the illegal wildlife trade were once again revealed this week as Indonesian police seized 21 critically endangered cockatoos found alive after being crammed into plastic water bottles destined for the exotic pet market.

Cockatoo Eye In Bottle 2015 05 07
A cockatoo peers out of a plastic bottle following an anti-smuggling bust in Surabaya, Indonesia on May 04, 2015. Image: Greatstock/Barcroft Media/Jefta Images
Cockatoos In Bottles 2015 05 07
21 cockatoos were found crammed into plastic water bottles in a smuggling practice that is not uncommon in Indonesia. Image: Greatstock/Barcroft Media/Jefta Images

A suspected wildlife smuggler believed to be responsible for the crime was caught by harbour police at Tanjung Perak port in the city of Surabaya, where he was found with two birds packed into jerry cans. According to Aldy Sulaiman, head of the criminal investigation unit at the port, 21 yellow cockatoos and one green parrot were retrieved in the bust after further investigation. The animals were cut free by customs officials and handed over to Indonesia's Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA).

"The birds were still alive then but some were already very weak," Lily Djafar, spokeswoman for the Tanjung Perak police, told CNN. It is believed that as many as 11 of the birds later died as a result of the ordeal. The use of plastic bottles for smuggling birds in not uncommon in this region of Indonesia, where wildlife trafficking has become widespread.

Border Officials With Cockatoos In Bottles 2015 05 07
Border officials display some of the seized birds. Image: Greatstock/Barcroft Media/Jefta Images

Critically endangered yellow cockatoos (Cacatua sulphurea) were among the birds retrieved in the bust. Endemic to Indonesia and neighbouring East Timor, these birds are severely threatened as a result of the booming pet trade and have disappeared from much of their former range. “This cockatoo has suffered (and may continue to suffer) an extremely rapid population decline, owing to unsustainable trapping for the cagebird trade,” warns Birdlife International. Records reveal that over 100,000 birds were trapped between 1980 and 1992 and the current global population sits at fewer than 7,000 individuals.

"There's a lot of demand for parrots and cockatoos in southeast Asia and Europe," global communications co-ordinator at Traffic International, Richard Thomas, told CNN. "[The yellow-crested cockatoo is] a breed that is at very serious risk because of excessive trafficking of wild populations."

Indonesia's booming wildlife trade, coupled with extensive deforestation, means that the future looks bleak for the animals that call these islands home. Species are sold overseas not only to fuel demand for exotic pets, but also for their meat and as ingredients in traditional medicine. Although conservation initiatives are being implemented to increase protection of wild areas and ensure that trade laws are properly enforced, the multi-million dollar wildlife trafficking industry remains a very serious problem.

UPDATE: Some reports are stating that the number of cockatoos seized is actually 23 (not 21 as previously believed). Public outcry has also prompted the Indonesian government to set up shelters to accommodate cockatoo owners wanting to return their pets to the wild.

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