Saving species from extinction is a central tenet of conservation, yet success in this endeavour remains unpredictable and elusive, especially where wildlife trade is involved. Influential conservation policy actors operating internationally advocate strong regulatory and enforcement approaches to governance of wildlife trade. However, a broad body of evidence suggests that in some situations positive incentives for sustainable use may achieve better conservation outcomes. This analysis of efforts over 3 decades to avoid the extinction of the Bali starling Leucopsar rothschildi draws on network perspectives from environmental governance and geography, and shows how an international project adopting traditional enforcement approaches generated a ‘prestige of ownership’ dynamic among local elites. This placed trade in Bali starlings above the enforcement competencies of the relevant government authority, leading to the demise of the species. Subsequently, two separate Indonesian initiatives created spaces of regulatory flexibility and embraced traits of the starling's phenotype to construct identities for the species suited to the local context. This enrolled a wider range of stakeholders in the conservation of the species, including bird-keeping elites, and led to significant successes in restoring captive and free-flying populations. This case study highlights the potential of conservation networks that involve non-establishment personnel and, while recognizing the appeal of generic enforcement approaches to politicians, funders and the urban public, it adds to an increasing body of evidence that suggests top-down prescriptive conservation frameworks may undermine the ability of situated conservationists to develop interventions appropriate to their political and cultural realities.