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.

5 Comments

  1. JP d'Huart
    Posted 2024-02-26 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    As usual, a very interesting post! Thanks Terese and John. I will forward this to the members of the Bird Section of our Belgian CITES Scientific Committee and to the people of the B CITES Management Authority.
    Would you have any info on any middlemen or buyers based here?
    Hope to see again soonest,
    JP

  2. Terese Hart
    Posted 2024-02-26 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks JP for sharing this to Belgian CITES. It is a lot bigger and more complex than we at first imagined….and more money is invested in it than we had forseen.
    So we will need help!

  3. Roger Peet
    Posted 2024-02-27 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Fascinating, always interesting to see these updates, thank you!

  4. Moses Olinga
    Posted 2024-02-28 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Thankyou Terese and John for this incredible work. I know it is tough and reading the whole story makes my heart sink about the future survival of the parrot species in Mulu and indeed other areas of Eastern DRC which are currently affected by insecurity. There needs to more effort towards creating awareness about the dangers poaching to the parrots as well as getting government support. IFAW will continue to collaborate with your organization to try to tackle this problem but having more partners on board will also help.

  5. Terese Hart
    Posted 2024-02-29 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    We agree completely. We are slowly growing our partners, both local NGO, committed individuals, institutions and government authorities. By working with them up from the ground we learn each others strong and weak points and how to best collaborate. I am optimistic.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*