Wings to Fly

They died at the rate of three or more a day in the holding pens.

It took us a while to understand the incredible damage suffered by seized parrots brought into Kindu’s office of Parks and Conservation  (ICCN),

And it took time to fully comprehend that our first efforts to discourage the illegal parrot trade, might have done just the opposite.

The brutality of the trade became obvious when the Director General of ICCN, Cosma, came to Kindu in 2015 and released the parrots being held at the Kindu office.  We had insisted that they should go free.   DG Cosma was under pressure from the international conservation community for mishandling protected species (apes), so he was eager to show his collaboration.  We felt it was urgent: in captivity the parrots were dying at the rate of 4, 6, 7 a day. 

We drove with the DG west out of Kindu, towards Olangate, a little beyond Kindu’s family gardens to where there was a shrubby regrowth forest along a stream.   Cosma made it a media event.

The Director General spoke to the press before the parrot release in 2015.

We released the parrots one by one, launching them as high as we could;

We tried to give the parrots what advantage we could.

They flapped what wings they had, lost altitude, crashed into the brush, one went straight into the steam, splashing, splashing to reach the other shore.  DG Cosma smiled, “so, we have returned these parrots from captivity to the wild”.  We returned to Kindu.

Discouraging.  Our information team had located black market parrots, ICCN guards had succeeded in seizing them, but the birds needed rehabilitation and we had failed to provide it.

With no alternative, we did not object, when in early 2016, the head warden, who was DG Cosma’s little brother, sent 417 seized parrots to the General Direction of ICCN in Kinshasa.   Again, it was our information team that tracked down the house where the arrests were made, but we were never told what happened to the parrots once they reached Kinshasa.  What COULD happen without rehabilitation facilities but to re-enter the black market ?

Seized parrots being loaded for transfer to Kinshasa in 2016.

 After the African Grey parrot was classified as Endangered by IUCN in 2016 and put on ANNEX 1 by CITES, our monitoring showed an initial decline followed by a steady increase in parrot trade to the highest levels ever recorded in 2022.  We decided we had to try to stop the trade again before a nationwide collapse of parrot populations stopped the trade cold.   Of the grey parrot’s original central African range, DRCongo was the last country with rampant exploitation and the last country where—though reduced – some healthy populations remained.

Flying free over a flooded forest opening adjacent to the Lomami River.

A small team including a collaborator from ICCN, one from the Coordination for the Environment, and three of us from Lukuru Foundation are now dedicated to stopping the trade, P3M (Parrot Protection Project of Maniema) . 

The first step had to be a way to rehabilitate the parrots seized.  The Parrot Conservation Center (PCC) at ICCN’s Dingi station was made possible with initial contributions from World Parrot Trust (WPT) and the Lukuru Foundation.   We built a flight cage, a few smaller transport cages, and examined the confiscated parrots, one by one.  We had seen how stressed they were when they arrived, but it was only later, when they had gained weight and composure, that we took stock of the physical damage done.   

The Parrot Conservation Center (PCC) in Dingi.

When caught on glue sticks high in trees, they fall flapping to the ground with their feathers too gummy to fly.

A parrot with feathers fouled on glue sticks.

The fouled feathers are then hacked off with a machete.  We find some birds with primaries cut, others the secondaries, or both.

Danny holds a bird whose secondaries were cut.
Primaries chopped off.
New primaries beginning to grow, ten need to come in.
Two of ten primaries fully replaced.

Alternatively, if the parrot’s feathers are not adequately fouled to ground it, trappers make it flightless by twisting the primaries together with a string or with another feather.

Primaries twisted together with one of the parrots own feathers.
After untwisting the feathers they will still need to be moulted and new ones grown.

The tail feathers are another story.  They can be sold one by one as symbols of power or for the luck they bring.

New tail feathers grow to replace those that were painfully extracted.

The confiscated parrots are physically handicapped, as well as being tossed around in some sort of carrying case on the back of a motorbike for the past two, three days or more.  It can take many months for each one to become whole.  It is victory when they fly free.

Flying free beyond the flight cage.
Flying free over the fence.
Flying free towards the Kasuku (parrot) River.

On February 4thand 5th, 36 parrots flew free from the Parrot Conservation Center after from two to six months of rehabilitation; now almost 100 parrots have flown free from the Center. Over 90 remain, including a new group that was added.  We plan another release in May.

And we have just received a confiscation of an additional 20 African Greys that are stabilizing at the Kindu base.

Elegy for an African Grey

You did not write this poem,
but perhaps you felt it;
your words, whistles, trills reached
for it.  Of all parrots,
your voice
insisted most.
There are now 102;
with you there were 103.

None have names, but perhaps you did.
All seized from the trade,
were pulled from palm
-rachis carrying cases,
off of motorbikes, pulled
from the hold of a plane.
But not you.
Abducted, a nestling
from a tree hole,

you were fed by human hands, under
one face, then another face, then another.
Perhaps a child gave you a name;
perhaps that child brought you food, laughed,
was family.
Maybe that child’s father turned
you in, having heard
rules on the radio.

Now here,
you are pushed into a cage,
a flight cage.
The child’s voice and face
are gone.  In the cage,
wild birds make broken flights, wait
for their wings to grow again,
for the wire-cage door to open.

You sit on the ground,
others fly over you;
you whistle, trill, make words to the air;
feathers never hacked,
your wings are whole, but
you never flew.

Wild birds cower
from keepers, eyes
round, watchful, defiant.
When the door opens,
you come to the door-ledge, unafraid.
You pull flesh from the palm-nut,
shred sugarcane with flourish.

Claw, beak, claw,
wire rung by rung,
with squat determination,
down the outside of the cage
to the ground,
where with a sashay,
a market-lady waddle,
side-to-side,
you come to the empty chair.

But you were one of four,
the “ganga,”
friendless, fearless gangsters
who never flew.
All taken as nestlings,
“So, shouldn’t they be together now?”;
You, were set
by the other three,
side by side
in a smaller cage.

Now, again,
On top of the empty chair
you crow,
a perfect rooster crow,
only louder, brighter, more insistent.
The rooster flaps ungainly towards the chair;

head corkscrews long and thin,
claws lifting.
You crow again,
perfect, relentless.
The rooster shakes his neck feathers,
raises his comb,
wobbles his wattles
flaps his wings.
The hens cluck and peck at distance.

You crow.
The rooster flaps to the seat of the chair.
You crow.
The rooster flattens his feathers,
pulls back for blood.

The keepers rush,
raising their arms,
cascading Swhahili and French.
“Toka, toka.”
The rooster runs,
flapping dust.
You finish your crow with aplomb.

Claw, beak, slide, flap,
you maneuver to the ground,
pass the keeper washing water bowls,
pass the keeper splitting sugar cane
up the big flight cage,
Cage Two.
Claw, beak, claw
pass the door, it’s closed.
To the top.  Wrong cage.
The wild parrots you know
are in Cage Three,
first arrivals,
a meter and a half away.

A black wall rolls in from the eastern sky;
a wind is picking up;
the palm leaves flap
to one side.

You shuffle back and forth
on top of Cage Two,
looking at Cage Three,
as shadows sweep along.
You start down
beak, claw, beak.
You return up
beak claw beak.
You shuffle back and forth
squawking sharply, trill.

The dark wall rumbles
toward the setting sun.
The keepers put the “ngangas”
back in their cage.
They call to you;
they lift up a pole for you to step on;
you move back, away,
under the tilted tin sheet.
The palms lean,
the rain strikes in streaks,
rivulets, runnels, pools.
“He is ok until morning.
Asubuhi…”

In the morning you are nowhere,
because the keepers look everywhere.

Now there are 102;
with you there were 103.

Good for parrots? Good for Trappers.

A decoy African Grey Parrot with the trapper who uses it.

The MULU parrot habitat is larger than we thought: maybe 65 km2.  Sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, papyrus swamplands with tall tree copses snake along the Bulali River lowlands through the forest heartland of Congo. It is here, near the papyrus, that African Grey parrots come (or perhaps came) in vast concentrations. 

The Mulu sector and surrounding areas in southern Maniema are an important source of parrots supplying the illicit trade.

The Mulu Parrot landscape is between the “modern” town of Bikenge and the ancient Arab trading center of Kasongo. The villages between these towns are each its own enclave, difficult to reach, and exhausting to move from one to another. 

Modern Bikenge is a bustling mining town with a very medieval look to it.

We sent our team to Mulu during the most difficult season: the rains.

The roads between Mulu villages are muddy, and often flooded footpaths during the rains.

But there was a pressing reason for this trip: Ramazani, a local environmental supervisor living in the town of Bikenge, sent a telephone message: he had confiscated parrots. Ramazani said he had eleven parrots, so “send me the money and I will bring them to Kindu.”

Ramazani, on right, with his parrots under a mosquito net in his house in Bikenge. He has helped us with several confiscations.

But after 17 confiscations, three from Bikenge, and some failed confiscations, we have learned that not all seizures are equal.  We want confiscations that discourage parrot traffickers.  And this seizure sounded suspect.

The parrots were cared for by Ramazani and his family in his home. It is sugarcane that is set out for them above.

Thinking our hesitation was because he had too few birds, Ramazani assured us he could have another 5 or more in a week.  What kind of seizure was that? It sounded more like a church collection.  How could we find out?  –not by sending the 600 dollars he needed to rent motorbikes and drivers to bring the parrots to Kindu, himself.

Typical transport of parrots is in palm slat containers on the back of motorbikes. Note the red tail protruding above.
It is a rough trip.

Although it would cost more money, we decided to send our own team from Kindu to Mulu.   They would not only bring back the birds, but also “discover” the Mulu sector.  What would it take to stop parrot captures in these forests and swamplands?  Our team would assure that the message of the governor was broadcast on local radios – “parrot trapping and trading is illegal throughout the province of Maniema.”

Although we had broadcast the governor’s interdiction of parrot trade in the capital, Kindu, the broadcast did not reach Mulu; local radios were essential.   Here Beloko, from our team, is being recorded for radio in Kasongo.

We have no problem communicating with Mulu’s big towns like Bikenge by telephone.   Telephone service does not depend on the government because each individual pays to talk; each person who makes a call invests; the investments are individual and small, but together make it worthwhile for privately owned companies to put in telephone towers.  

Leon, from our team, continues to Kama on foot after giving up on motorcycle after several spills.

Roads are a different matter and moving around Mulu depends on roads. Roads are NOT individual investment.  Any road infrastructure beyond a foot-path requires government investment.  The so-called “roads” of Mulu that link villages have degenerated to foot-paths, difficult to traverse with a motorbike during the rains; walking, itself, can be a challenge.

A young gold-miner in Bikenge.

Mulu is a mining district.  Mainly gold, but also tantalum and cassiterite. How is it possible to exploit a mining district without roads?  That was not the question that sent our team to Bikenge.  But the answer to that question illustrates the difficulty of stopping the parrot trade.

The P3M team set out with many other questions to ask.

Holding an interview, at a local hotel, at night.

Along with rescuing Ramazani’s birds, the P3M team had these general questions:

  1. Where in Mulu does parrot trapping take place?
  2. Who are the trappers?
  3. What is the history of parrot trapping in Mulu?
  4. Is the parrot population decreasing?
  5. And who are the buyers?

Our team was led by Leon Salumu with DieuMerci Ikandu (both P3M), accompanied by Vincent Beloko from the government’s environmental coordination.  Beloko organized information campaigns on the local radios. 

They set out in December. Their tracklog was long and winding to find good enough roads to reach Mulu by motorbike and to be able to announce their purpose in the administrative centers. 

In front of the administrative office of Mulu sector. The sector chief is in the center between Beloko and Dieu Merci.

Through a combination of interview and observation, this is what they found out:

QUESTION 1: Where in Mulu does parrot trapping take place?

Along the streams and openings in the Papyrus swamps that the Bulali River.  The parrots fly in.  It seems they eat the young papyrus like sugarcane.   Sugarcane, like Papyrus, is a non-woody monocot and its pith, like that of young papyrus stems, is edible.  Ancient Egyptians ate papyrus pith as well as using it to make paper.  The towns in and near Mulu with trappers all report that parrots are in the swampy areas, generally 3 or more hours walk from the village.

The papyrus lowlands spread out from the Bulali River and its tributaries.  Surrounding the Bulali catchment the villages are at once home to parrot trappers and artisanal miners.

QUESTION 2: Who are the trappers?

They are not the local Zimba peoples, but rather Mongo who have come from provinces farther west.  Our fear is that after a parrot population crash in the west, the traffickers brought their expert trappers east to look for parrot concentrations to continue the same “business”.  Some Mongo have married into local families, become fishermen or taken on jobs with the local state administration.

Climbers, with glue sticks in a sheath on their backs climb to tie down the decoy and place the sticks.

QUESTION 3:

How long has there been trapping in Mulu? There is only one group of villages that report a traditional and ancient use of parrots, but they only used the red tail feathers.  These were the Alubati Mba villages.   How the feathers were traditionally acquired remains a mystery.  Perhaps dropped feathers were collected under roosts. It is not certain that trapping occurred before outside individuals who understood the international worth of grey parrots came into Mulu.

Red tail feathers have long been symbols of traditional authority in some areas.
Red tail feathers are fallen to the floor of an aviary at our Dingi Parrot Conservation Center.

The Zimba, natives of Mulu, do not work with the Mongo trappers.   The Mongo method is to fasten thin wands sticky with resin high in perch trees next to a decoy bird.  Today, to get large numbers of birds for commercial purposes, the Mongo climb to set out traps in the dark of night. 

Decoy bird with clipped wings waits on a roof to be carried up into a tree and tied down to lure in its brethren.

It is hard to truly evaluate the scale of past hunting on the basis of interviews alone but this is what several local chiefs relate: Parrot trafficking first became important in 1988-90, when a Mister Amiki took “large numbers” to Bukavu by plane from Kama.  Then the outside importance of the parrots disappeared, until the next century.  From 2010 to 2019, parrots became a major local export.  A motorbike driver said he would sometimes make seven trips a month with parrots to Kindu.  They travelled in caravan at night…all with parrots. The Mongo climbers themselves say that there are no local parrot climbers, all have come from more western forests, where the parrot trade started.  The climbers recognize the high parrot mortality…they say it can’t be avoided.  In all there are thirty-four different capture sites in the Bulali lowlands.

The large flocks have become much smaller or disappeared.

QUESTION 4:  Is the Mulu parrot population decreasing in size (see also the table on the map below)?    

Our P3M team did not census the parrot population itself, it asked questions of the local leaders, trappers and transporters. What was their impression?  In the Alubati Mba group of villages, in the Kimwachi group of villages and in the Kiyuma group of villages : fewer parrots are seen flying overhead, fewer perch in the villages, and many Mongo climbers have left or taken up other ways to make a living.

QUESTION 5:  Who are the buyers?

When the P3M stopped at the village of Kama they discovered that the day before, two palm-slat carrying cases of parrots had left, heading toward Kindu by motorbike.  The trader was called Médaille.  We know him; he would be taking the parrots to the middleman who works for Byart, an exporter in Kinshasa.

Médaille, looking directly at camera, while beside the Kindu parrot holding pens. The parrots are for Byart.

An unexpected discovery was the airstrips.  There are five in or near Mulu: Kipaka, Kasongo, Mingana, Bikenge, and Kama.  Some are new; the small planes are numerous.  This is how you exploit minerals without roads.  But the minerals are not going to the provincial capital, Kindu; they are going east to the border cities of Bukavu and Goma in other provinces.  Leon and Dieu Merci both believe that at present, the small private planes are not being used to ship Parrots, but if we are successful in cutting off the Kindu parrot hub – then these uncontrolled airstrips would be the next opportunity and the parrots will be flown east.

Dieu Merci on the Kama airstrip where cargo is loaded with minimal controls.

And what about Ramazani’s parrots that Leon and Dieu Merci took back to Kindu.  Indeed, it was not a seizure from the hands of trappers or traders.  Instead, he had taken these parrots from individual homes in Bikenge.  We want to minimize this kind of confiscation of semi-domesticated birds.  Pet parrots can be impossible to return to the wild.  This type of seizure does not discourage the parrot trade as the long-time residents of Bikenge often have 2 or more parrots at home, but no role in the trade.  So, taking their parrots does not discourage the trappers or the middle-men.

The complete survey map with the table showing local comprehension of parrot populations.

Paying the Traffic Cop for Parrots test

Paying the Traffic Cop for Parrots test from fixrunner.