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.

Paying the Traffic Cop for Parrots

Kin traffic_making it move
There’s always a way.

African Grey parrots, unlike dodos (above), are still alive and in the wild.  But corruption, as in paying off the “traffic cops”, is pushing them ever closer to extinction.   A little money in the right place is all that is needed to swing a parrot cargo around “traffic jams” caused by a few inconvenient legal texts.

We ended the last post by saying that Maniema’s minister of the environment held firm…no parrot trade in the province of Maniema.  There is now a wobble.

Theo parle avec Ministre
Maniema’s environment minister, in suitcoat, speaks with the parrot trader, Theo, in grey plaid shirt, in front of Theo’s cages.

In August 2023, the minister organized a government delegation with representatives of our P3-Maniema core group, to visit the “maisons” of the traders in Kindu.

It was revealing.

Theo with his PGA
Theo, parrot trader, in front of his birds in August 2023.

Parrots are stocked for export in and around Kindu – Mostly grey parrots and lots of them.  The same “maison” that ICCN raided in early March 2016, during a brief effective closure of Maniema’s parrot trade, was active again.   In 2016 it had over 400 living African Grey Parrots and many dead ones were strewn on the ground. More than 7 years later, on 28 August 2023 it contained, again, 421 living Grey parrots.  What payoffs allowed that?  Theo, the “maison” owner, was ready for the minister’s visit, so the dead parrots had been swept away. 

MARCH 2ND RAID1 2016
The same cages at Theo’s in March 2016 before they were emptied during an ICCN raid.
dead parrots at Theo's in 2016
Dead parrots in the trash heap next to Theo’s cages in 2016.

Did the 2016 raid have any impact??

chez Aimé_Kindu
Aimé is another parrot trader holding 130 parrots in Kindu in 2023.

Another “maison” in Kindu visited the same day, August 2023, contained 130 Grey parrots.   What’s more a group of parrot suppliers were present and between them they reported another 860 parrots being held in Maniema outside of Kindu.

photo famille traffiquant; fournisseurs et ministre
In the center back of this photo taken with the minister are a number of parrot suppliers who keep their stocks outside of Kindu.

The parrot traders were ready with a defense.  “These parrots should not be affected by the Governor’s Message banning the parrot trade,” said Theo, who is still their representative, “they have been in captivity since before the Annex 1 listing of Grey Parrots by CITES in January 2017 and they already belong to registered commercial companies in Kinshasa, Byart and Balka, that are waiting for the trade to be legally reopened.”

The Minister asked them to bring their permits clarifying the status of the birds to him and his services for verification. (Up to the present, no permits have been shown.) Minister also told us that he felt he could not confiscate these stocked parrots without the go-ahead of the national authorities at CITES and the ministry.

Meeting Sec Gen EDD
In Kinshasa with the Secretary General of the Environment and Sustainable Development (white cap) with the Coordinator of the Environment of Maniema in pin-stripe and core group members, Moise Imani (left) and Leon Salumu (right).

As quickly as possible we organized a trip to DRC’s capital.  Leon Salumu and Moise Imani represented our core group at the General Direction of ICCN, at CITES Management Authority, and with the Secretary General for the Environment.  A mixed meeting was called for all environmental authorities in Kinshasa.  In the minutes of the meeting, they congratulated Maniema Province on its message forbidding the parrot trade.  In their recommendations they also wrote that Maniema’s coordination should:

Procéder à la saisie de 531 Perroquets et traduire les deux sociétés en justice.

(“proceed with the seizure of the 531 parrots and take the two parrot trading companies to court.”)

photo famille_atelier
A diverse group of environmental authorities gathered in the capital, Kinshasa.

That would have been the end of it if someone was not paying the traffic cop.   In Kindu, the Minsiter wobbled.  None of the traders had come up with a single permit to justify their parrot stocks.  Nevertheless, without informing even his own cabinet, the minister issued a “communication” giving traders the right to evacuate their grey parrots:

official communication minister 1oct-dec
An official “communication” from Maniema’s environment minister giving parrot traders three months to empty their stocks without reprisal.

What was the price-tag for that??  The communication says the traders may  “vider” or “empty” their stocks of AGP.  It opens the door to “empty” all Maniema of Grey Parrots.  At least the 860 will go, along with all still being held by Theo and Aimé.

We are all back in Kindu now and trying to figure out what steps must be taken to have the communiqué withdrawn.  Thank goodness, the technical (as opposed to political) administration is strongly against the parrot trade, in both Kinshasa and Maniema.  We will follow possibilities to plug this “parrot leak” in our next post.

Nov 07 meeting to write note to gov
A group of the technical, “non-political”, environmental staff discussing how to handle the minister’s damaging “communication”.

In this post, I want to at least put down in black and white what we are learning of corruption permeating the trade from its lowest to highest levels: The roads of Maniema should be enough to discourage the parrot trade. 

Bikenge road conditions
The road to Bikenge a major “hot-spot” for parrots. (See bottom photo)

Almost none are accessible to 4-wheel vehicles of any kind.  Even motorbikes use them with great difficulty, and – what should be most discouraging – there are road blocks at every large town.  At road blocks military, police and border-officials look for illegal cargoes among other things.

Barriere de Kiyungi copy
A road barrier along a major road-way south of Kindu.
Agent des FARDC controle une feuille de route
Military officer inspecting a traveler’s documents at a road barrier.

To get around Road barriers: Law enforcement can be made a little friendlier with a few cigarettes, and then almost any vaguely pertinent document will get your parrots through.  Most barrier-officials are barely literate; the motorbike driver tells them what the documents say that he pulls from his back pocket to show them.  All the better if there are two or three documents…even if totally unrelated to each other. Here are some examples of hip-pocket, road-barrier, slip-around documents:

page 1 of DG Cosma's note technique
First page of a letter from a previous Director General of the Conservation Agency (left the post in 2022)
page 6 of DG Cosma's note technique
Last of page of the same six-page letter.

A letter signed by the Director General of the Natural Conservation Institute (ICCN) and addressed to the highest political authorities in DRC (the president and ministers) says the CITES decision to embargo trade in grey parrots from DRC is unfair and should have been illegal.  He calls on the national government to fight it diplomatically, politically, scientifically and judicially.  The country must and will do everything possible to open the trade…  signed by the DG in 2022 just a couple months before leaving office. Was this 6-page document ever sent to the intended authorities? or just distributed for use to parrot exploiters? It has been used at many road barriers as a license to let through parrots.

a national quota for green parrots used to justify grey parrots
This much copied referencen to a quota for capture of green parrots is used to assure passage for grey parrots who have a “0” quota.
Document for export of verts used for internal trafficing of greys -- signed by the management authority of ICCN
Or, bizarrely, an international export permit for green parrots is used to move grey parrots through road barriers in Maniema.

What we still don’t understand is how thousands of Grey Parrots continue to move out of Kinshasa to other countries.

That is top level, and requires more than hip-pocket greasing of the road-barrier gears.  Hip-pocket works where birds are worth $10 each, but something else is needed where they are worth $200 each and a CITES embargo is active. 

Below is from a petition presented at the CITES Permanent Committee meeting early November 2023 :

“Recommendations to improve compliance regarding trade in Grey parrots in the DRC have been made at almost every Standing Committee meeting since SC67 (2016) and we are concerned about the slow progress in their implementation in the face of a situation that is worsening…

……Commercial-scale shipments of Grey parrots are not easy to conceal or difficult to identify.”

We were pleased that this petition did not fault only DRC for corruption, it called out the receiving countries as well:

“….the laundering of wild-sourced parrots as purportedly captive bred, noting that the recent increase in trade in wild-sourced Grey parrots has coincided with the registration of over 200 facilities across several countries and a trade which now involves several thousand specimens annually.”

For Maniema, at least, we are working to get the wobble under control and the parrot trade firmly monitored.   It will not be simple; it will not be cheap….AND at the same time we must begin to chip away at other provinces…. (Sankuru, Tshopo, Kinshasa).

Ramazani with parrots at Annexe
Ramazani seized 16 parrots in Bikenge on the 7th of November that were collected during what climbers called a “3 month open period declared by the Minister” (!); on the basis of the governor’s ban, given precedence by Ramazani, he brought them 230 km, 2 days, over brutal roads on a motorbike. 14 survivors are now established at the P3-M annexe.

A Message – Its Consequences

Theo's birds
This Kindu “maison” had over 400 African Greys in its aviaries at the beginning of September 2023.

Someone telephoned the governor.  He proposed a 10,000 dollar bribe.   “Just let our ‘maisons’ keep the parrots we have now.” 

But it was too late. The governor’s message was already public, since August 9th.  It was too late – or was it?

Kisangani_in plane for shipment
Parrots already loaded in a cargo plane in Kisangani, destination Kinshasa.

There is a lot of money in a half-hidden parrot trade.  Far more than we imagined.  DR Congo is the world’s number 1 supplier of African Grey Parrots from the wild;  all indications are that the trade is increasing not decreasing.

case for shipment in Kisangani
Destination written on top of a crate of African Greys awaiting air shipment to Kinshasa.

The goal of our parrot protection project (P3), is to stop the commerce before all the Congo populations crash.  Some already have.  But that does not stop the push back from money inside the trade.

Parrots in 2014_no more
Parrots used to always be in the park Kiboko on the edge of the Lomami River, but after constant captures, they have been absent for five years.

A first step was made in Maniema Province:
There must be enforceable laws.   The governor’s message is enforceable and simple:

“Formal interdiction of parrot capture, traffic or commercialization throughout the Province of Maniema. All parrots currently held by climbers, transporters or buyers must be turned over to authorities.”

230809_governor Mangala's MESSAGE
The governor’s message.

We Celebrated!  Many meetings were needed to push through the announcement; all made possible by enthusiasm from the minister’s office and governor’s cabinet.  The officials insisted we need not wait for the national authorities to act first, the province of Maniema, in de-centralized Congo, should take the lead.

230713_government officials behind the message
The team from the Governor’s and Minister’s offices with the P3 core group.

The national level has been silent.  Even though the African Grey parrot is considered an Endangered Species by IUCN since 2016,  and was also put on Annex 1 of the international convention, CITES, in 2016 thus allowing no international trade, And although, there is an international embargo on all African Greys from Congo,  And although CITES specifically called for national legislation within Congo to support these international decisions;  And although DRCongo is a national party of CITES — despite all of this — there is NO NATIONAL LEGISLATION that corresponds to and supports the international rulings. 

John with minister at Dingi
The minister visited the P3 Parrot Conservation Center at Dingi to see what happened to confiscated parrots.

The illicit international demand has soared; how else account for increasing extraction of Grey Parrots from the wild, despite all these international rulings.   Still, the DR Congo national level is silent.

But now, with the governor’s message, there is one province, the province of Maniema that has jumped ahead of national inertia and international criminal demand!! 

So, we celebrated the courage of the governor’s message, even as unnerving follow-up began to multiply:

On August 18th; the minister held a meeting on government hill to inform and prepare the parrot traders.  One of the main traders, Aimé Mwaso, brandished the recent ruling by the US government:

USA designation_part
Part of the US embassy statement making 3 congolese authorities Persona non grata in the USA.

He asked why the government was coming after the traders?  “Look, the US accuses three Congolese authorities, whose job is to protect rare species”  and here Aimé did not disguise a smirk.

Aimé with USA notice
Aimé displays the french version of the US notification.

The names were all from ICCN, the conservation institute, that is also the organization we work for and that hosts the parrot rehabilitation center, “in Kinshasa, they turned rare species export into a cash-earning business.”  All three of the named Congolese authorities are henceforward denied access to the USA. Among them are the past head of the ICCN (Congolese nature conservation institute) and two national CITES representatives.

Corruption to keep the parrot trade moving at lower levels is just as prevalent:

Parrots on train at Kibombo station
A crate of parrots on Maniema’s train on 25 August in Kibombo station.

In the third week of August, our information network alerted us to parrots waiting to be boarded on the train.  The small local train was preparing to depart towards Lubumbashi; it chugged up and down the old track system, collecting cargoes.  It was at night that the call came. A parrot cargo was loaded at 37 km.  It was impossible to do anything until the train arrived at its stop in Kibombo Center 150 km from Kindu;  P3 (our Parrot Protection Project) had organized the police, the DGM, the assistant environment supervisor, they were all at the train station.  When the train master and traders resisted, they called the army colonel and printed a copy of the Message sent by WhatsApp; The train and transporters offered no more resistance.

parrots being spirited away from Kibombo station
Corrupt officials allowed the majority of parrots to be spirited away from the train station in cardboad boxes and makeshift cages.

The colonel announced by phone to the Minister that there were 72 parrots.  Then the number dropped to 30 and it was only 21 parrots that were finally brought to Kindu, with one dead in the crate.  The parrot traders had bought off the Kibombo authorities.

Core group with minister
The minister in his office with 4 of the 6-person P3 core group.

But, so far, the authorities in Kindu are holding firm, they are not shrugging off corruption.  It is not just us, the P3 team that is revolted.  The governor refused the bribe of $10,000 because he said his reputation was more important.  Maniema’s minister of the environment was furious with the corruption in Kibombo.  This weekend he, himself, with members of his cabinet and two P3 representatives will go to Kibombo to reprimand top army and provincial administrators.  To stop the corruption, he is willing to take a motorbike 150 km south as the roads rapidly deteriorate with the rainy season.