African Grey Parrots Flying Free in the Congo

Birds that once had a slim chance of survival are flying free again. Photo credit: ©WCS Congo Program.

By David Oehler
November 26, 2017

On the afternoon of August 10, 2017, I pointed out the silhouette of a bird more than 100 yards away. It was a single African Grey Parrot, one of almost forty birds we released that morning representing the promise of hope for this species.

Four days earlier we were leaving the United States to travel to the Republic of the Congo after months of communications with the WCS field staff discussing how we could assist with the hundreds of parrots that the WCS staff confiscate from poachers each year. The challenges that the WCS Congo Program face are enormous, as an estimated two million or more African Grey Parrots have been removed from the wild for the international trade since the 1980’s.

In October 2016 the species, listed as Endangered on the “Red List” kept by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was moved to the most protected Appendix I status by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

In this WCS video, Bronx Zoo veterinarians and bird department staff help to care for confiscated African grey parrots, hundreds of which have been released back into the wild. Video ©WCS.

Our task was to travel to the Republic of the Congo to consult and assist WCS Congo Program personnel in the logistics and care of parrots seized by government authorities from wildlife traffickers, to review the holding facilities, and to consult on the medical evaluations of the birds and observe the reintroduction processes.

After two days of air travel we arrived in Ouésso and drove the remaining two hours to Ngombe, where we found a facility in a logging camp that held confiscated birds.

Prior to our visit to the Republic of the Congo, we had the opportunity to review images of the parrots and their holding space, as well as plans for the future construction of new rehabilitation facilities.

The WCS team evaluated and permanently identified a total of 84 African Grey Parrots at the Ngombe facility. Photo credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS.

On the trip I was joined by my Bronx Zoo colleagues Jean Pare, Senior Veterinarian, and Susan Schmid, Assistant Supervisor of Ornithology— both of whom assisted with handling birds and photo documentation of the program. Principle staff from the Congo Program included technical advisor Eeva Kuisma and veterinarian Alain Ondzie.

Upon our arrival to the Ngombe, we were able to see first-hand the challenges that our Congo colleagues face.

We had purchased and transported nets, sky-kennels, gloves, banding equipment, and PIT tags for the staff to utilize. We also purchased an electronic balance to document body mass of the birds during the rehabilitation process.

Basic care of the birds was evident, although we were able to provide additional training on alternative capture methods and we noted specific improvements needed in daily access to enclosures, perching, and release protocols.

African grey parrots undergoing rehabilitation. Photo credit: Zanne Labuschagne/WCS.

We also determined that WCS’s Bronx Zoo team would develop standard operating procedures for the transport, medical care, husbandry, record keeping, necropsy, and release of the birds. Once drafted, we will provide these recommendations to the Congo Program team for review.

Our team will also explore future programs involving the tracking of released birds, diagnostic protocols, and other elements as we move forward. We are in the process of drafting of the standard operating procedures for the rehabilitation program and generation of the suggested plans for the new rehabilitation complex at Bomassa.

We evaluated and permanently identified a total of 84 African Grey Parrots at the Ngombe facility. The team released nearly 40 parrots back into the wild during our stay and we forged an effective working partnership with the field staff, making this trip a complete success.

Site evaluations of the Ngombe and Bomassa facilities were completed and an emphasis will be made to promote the more secure site at Bomassa. Future support efforts involving WCS’s Bronx Zoo staff will continue as we all work together to ensure that the African Grey Parrots remain in the forests of the Congo.

As we watched that single parrot in August, others joined it and began to congregate together in the nearby trees. Birds that once had a slim chance of survival were flying free again.

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David Oehler is Curator of Ornithology at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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