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.

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