Despite his best efforts to smuggle dozens of African grey parrots out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a wildlife smuggler found his plans stymied by an interesting duo: the ICCN, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature), and a less obvious law enforcer, the Okapi Conservation Project (OCP). As their name implies, the OCP primarily focuses on protecting okapi, a gentle animal with a zebra-like body and a head like a giraffe. However, conserving okapi means conserving their entire ecosystem, including parrots, so these conservationists often work with species beyond their designated namesakes.
The smuggler was stopped at a routine vehicle checkpoint in Epulu, part of the Okapi Wildlife Preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by the ICCN, who guard park borders. They swiftly discovered the smuggler was attempting to take fifty African gray parrots out of the country illegally. With the smuggler in custody, the OCP stepped in to help rehabilitate the rescued birds. OCP frequently works with the ICCN to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife in the region, which has been devastated by a series of wars and an increase in the amount of poaching as refugees seek safety in the forest and struggle to feed themselves and earn an income by selling animal products.
African grey parrots are extremely popular in the pet trade in large part due to their intelligence, which some say is equal to that of a human toddler. One parrot in particular, the famous Alex, has a vocabulary of over 100 words and was known for his ability to distinguish shapes and colors. Unfortunately, it’s that endearing and fascinating quality that makes the birds so desirable. African grey parrots are now smuggled out of numerous African countries at a rate unsustainable to their wild population. It’s estimated that a whopping 21% of the wild population is taken every year.
It seems like rescuing parrots would be a fairly simple process where you just re-release them into the wild, but it actually takes a lot of time and effort. These birds had been caught with glue traps that poachers placed around the salt licks that the birds like to frequent; the sticky adhesive used to keep them in place had damaged their feathers. They needed to be kept safely enclosed until their feathers had grown out again, and they could fly once more.
Fifty parrots take up a lot of space and need a lot of food, so OCP had to enlarge their holding facilities to accommodate the new rescues. In the wild, African greys live in large social groups, so the rescued birds were eager to communicate with flocks outside their enclosures. Therefore, the holding facilities also needed to accommodate the slew of wild birds that were fond of visiting the parrots, often calling to them in their pens.
As the parrots’ feathers started to grow back in, they gained strength and began to fly around their enclosures more and more. At this point, the doors to the enclosures were left open for several hours a day, and slowly the rescues began to leave over a period of months, returning to their flocks in the wild. Only four birds remain now, but they will be able to fly again soon.
OCP’s work is not over yet. A further eight birds have since been rescued by ICCN, and will need rehabilitation until their feathers grow in.
The rescue of these birds shows that sometimes conservation groups work with species beyond their goal, to the benefit of entire ecosystems. We hope that the birds who are still injured recover soon, and that smugglers continue to be caught by diligent rangers.