Parrot By-Catch

Baba Bondebo catches bats to supplement his family’s diet at their garden plot. 

The fruit bat, Eidolon helvum, is frequently caught.

Their agricultural fields of manioc, rice, and corn are 11 km walk from their house in Kindu, too far to walk out and back every day when there is planting, weeding, and birds must be chased away.  Therefore, they have a small mud brick house at the site and Bondebo has two nets for catching bats; the nets are the same as fishing nets.

Baba Bondebo and his son, Prince, in front of their field-house.

Prince, helps his father to untangle bats caught in their nets.

On Saturday Bondebo came to see Ibrahim, at his home.  Ibra is the parrot keeper at the P3M office in Kindu, where parrots are stabilized after the trauma of capture and transport. 

Ibra at work. Here he is weighing a parrot in a tight mesh bag with assistant keeper, Bijoux.

“A parrot flew into our bat nets” Bondebo told Ibra.  He had heard on the radio that catching parrots was illegal; all captured parrots should be turned into the authorities.

From left: Papa Bondebo, his son, Prince, and Ibrahim in hat.

We, of the P3M project, were pleased: the news was getting out, parrots are seen as special.

Bondebo brought the parrot to the P3M office in Kindu.

Ibra accompanied Baba Bondebo and his son, Prince, when they brought the parrot to our office and Kindu-level holding pens.  There were already 22 other parrots; most ready to move to PCC, the Dingi rehabilitation and release center.

The parrot was brought in the bottom of a much-used gunny sack.

The initial examination, however, showed that the new parrot was missing both tail feathers and wing feathers.  It had been seriously abused.

The very first examination showed it had had many feathers wrenched from the wings and the tail.

John and Ibra put on a numbered leg band — the parrot is now Green 249 in our books. They also treated it for feather mites.

We sent Ibrahim back to the farm plot for more information.  Bondebo took him to the net where Green 249 was caught; wing feathers were on the ground. 

They explained that they didn’t want Green 249 to fly away, so they pulled the flight feathers.

The tail feathers were another case.  The red tail feathers have monetary value for their purported powers.  Back at their house, Bondebo produced a few tail feathers, others had apparently already been sold.

The recovered feathers laid out on a piece of cardboard, showed what Green 249 endured after capture.

We revised our history of Green 249’s capture.  We now suppose Bondebo had untangled the parrot from the net with the intention to profit from it; but then considering the numerous public announcements was afraid he might be turned in and decided to contact Ibra instead.

So be it.

Green 249 is now slowly recovering in its cage.

For three days Green 249 did not eat.  But now, under Ibrahim’s care it has started to eat some oil palm nuts and peanuts.  Most interesting it is eating the seeds of munara (Cassia siamea). 

Munara planted along the border of Bondebo’s garden plots.

Bondebo explained that Green 249 flew into the net from the adjacent Cassia tree where parrots regularly come to eat the seeds.  Ibra immediately collected munara seed pods; all of the parrots are eating them enthusiastically.

Parrots in Ibra’s care eating the munara seeds out of their pods.

Turning Parrot Disaster to Hope

Moise reports bad news…

Moise, membner of the P3M Core Group, on far right, visiting a parrot nesting site on Lac Ndjale.

March 16th Moise’s WhatsApp message : “Dear Core Group, the governor will grant 45 days to the parrot traders to evacuate 400 parrots they have in stock.”M

This was the second time the Governor opened the trade after officially closing it in August 2023 on the recommendation of his own cabinet, the Environment minister and the Environmental Coordination.

March 17th the Core Group members of P3M
(Parrot Protection Project-Maniema) that were in town,
held an emergency meeting. (Leon’s back to camera).

Leon moved into full gear:

Leon, on far right, explaining the parrot crisis in a village in southeast Maniema.

No one in government could help.  The governor angrily told his assembled staff that he wanted no interference from his own people (the staff knew that the governor had accepted a substantial bribe to open the parrot trade).  

Leon, member of the P3M core group but not in the government, started knocking on doors in Kindu.  Who could help counter what the governor had done?  The opposition party was sympathetic, but would only denounce the governor during the upcoming political campaigns.

Leon found an opening with the president of Maniema’s civil society, Stephen Kamundala.

Stephen Kamundala, president of Maniema’s Civil Society, is a dynamic leader for “those without voice.”

Leon explained the governor’s deception and Stephen did not hesitate.  “This is too much – yet another case of corruption, hurting the people and their rights and their heritage.”

Kamundala was angry and brave enough to say it out loud, on the radio and in print.

Announcement of Kamundala’s upcoming radio discussion of the Governor’s opening of the parrot trade.

Civil Society is a strong and very Congolese phenomenon, a vast network of local organizations spread across Congo, representing local communities, women, the handicapped, and indigenous people. Often civil society is supported by a coalition of churches, but often it is a lone voice of the people in areas of conflict.   In 11 provinces there is a provincial platform bringing all the small local organizations together.  Maniema has one and Stephen is the president.

Kilimonda (above), represents a local civil society organization, AGOGE, in Mulu that is trying to save its parrots. He is showing the parrot on DRCongo’s 1000 franc note. He relies on Stephen’s suuport for provincial representation.

I first met Stephen on an airplane from Kindu to Kinshasa.  I guessed who he was as person after person greeted him “Salue, président.”  They reached out to shake his hand as they maneuvered down the aisle; others came forward particularly to address him. 

Stephen Kamundala denounced the governor’s parrot deception forcefully on the radio:
Three local stations;
The most popular national station;
and the UN-funded Radio Okapi.

The backlash was severe enough that the governor telephoned Stephen in a rant and called him “my enemy”.

In the meantime, the repeated radio messages gave others the courage to act: When the parrot traders brought their first load of parrots to the airport to go out on the afternoon ServeAir flight on April  8th the airport staff called the Environmental Coordination.   That was big: every previous parrot shipment the security staff had accepted bribes of $50 to $100 to just quietly usher the parrot crate out to the plane.

Aimé Mole, Kindu parrot trader, stands between his crate of parrots in the ServeAir truck at the airport, and the airport security and Environmetal Coordination agents.

Three people from the Environmental Coordination arrived: Moise, Mme Azama and Zacharie. They confronted a fuming and self-righteous Aimé, principal parrot trader of Kindu.

A parrot peers out of the top of the crate as Aimé argues beside the ServeAir truck.

Mme Azama insisted on opening the crate enough to count the parrots. Why were there 60 when Aimé only paid tax for 50?

They studied Aimé’s papers. Why didn’t Aimé have a permit for holding parrots? He had to pay for that now.

Mme Azama accepts back taxes with a delinquent fee from Aimé.

The ServeAir plane left while the crate of Parrots was still being argued over.

It was not until late that afternoon and after paying multiple fines that Aimé had permission to airship his parrots.
The parrots were flown to Kinshasa on ServeAir the following day.  Our successes were small but they were significant:

  • The governor’s corruption was openly exposed;
  • Small-time airport officials that previously accepted bribes, stood up for the law;
  • The supposedly suppressed Environmental Coordination slapped down all the rules still applicable, delaying the shipment and making it more expensive;
  • And – thanks to Civil Society – the case of the Grey Parrots is well known throughout the province and even at a national level.

A crate of parrots in Kisangani under the ServeAir plane waiting to be loaded. Kisangani is the capital of Tshopo Province where the parrot trade is not yet illegal. ServeAir generally carries over a thousand parrots per month just from Kisangani.

The expense, the uncertainty and delays are increasing for parrot traders in Maniema and are being felt in surrounding provinces. There is hope.

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.