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Will the Congo’s Green Pigeons Go the Way of the Passenger Pigeon?

Who would have known that one day the African green pigeons of the enigmatic and seemingly infinite Congo forests would ever need our help? Just the same as New Yorkers cannot imagine Central Park without their pigeons, we should not consider a Congo forest without green pigeons flying high above the forest canopy and congregating in the forest clearings. Over the last few decades, as wildlife becomes more and more depleted by war, unrest, and the booming bushmeat trade, millions upon millions of green pigeons have been caught in nets laid over “salt mud” in forest clearings. Alarmingly, they are left in the nets for hours and sometimes stored alive in sacks overnight, before being plucked alive, skewered and then smoked over a fire after having your neck broken. In case you were wondering? They are kept alive during this process to maintain freshness without refrigeration. Hundreds of skewers with smoked pigeons are then bundled off on makeshift backpacks and bicycles to distant markets. First the elephants disappeared, then the buffalo, then the bongo, then the bushpig, the duiker, the monkeys and smaller forest inhabitants are poached out of the forest by hungry, desperate people. Eventually all the grey parrots have been captured and shipped off alive or been eaten, and the trappers are left with thousands of green pigeons… We need to support John and Terese Hart in their mission to protect the three river basins of the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers (TL2), a faraway enigmatic forest in the geographic heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They have explored this remote forest since 2007 and discovered great apes, the Congo’s bonobos, the okapi, an endemic rainforest giraffe, and the rare and elusive Congo peafowl. Today their challenge is to bring real protection to these forests before the bonobo and everything else are hunted out… and we are left with the “African silence”.

 

Maureen Gibson
Green pigeons are found almost every where in Africa, including Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. (Maureen Gibson)
Rodnick Clifton Biljon
African green pigeon taking off from the high canopy in the sunlight. These beautiful birds are a joy to see up close and in large flocks flying home to roost. They are Africa's forest pigeon... (Rodnick Clifton Biljon)

 

In my mind’s eye I see an African green pigeon silhouetted in the dense canopy of an old, buttressed fig tree near the water’s edge. All of a sudden you see another pigeon, and another, and another, all feeding contentedly on figs. You suddenly notice the bits of fig falling to the ground as they hit the leaf litter, look down, and then look up again to see all of them fly away without much fuss. You cannot take chances as a forest pigeon… They circle around above the high canopy and make off across the open clearing towards a favored roosting or feeding tree. A calm, aware life in the primordial forests and savannas of Africa. I expect to see emerald pigeons adorning beautiful fig trees, dispersing fig seeds to the ground from under a cool canopy, not skewered, decapitated and smoked. A waste of a successful, more than likely breeding, adult green pigeons that was integral to the health and stability of their local population.

 

Steve Boyes / Wild Bird Trust
A perfect African green pigeon looking down at the photographer. The excitement when seeing one close up feeding on a wild fig tree is hard to describe. They are simply perfect. Every feather is perfect. It is hard to imagine people treating them like a commodity. (Steve Boyes / Wild Bird Trust)
Kevin McDonald
African green pigeon enjoying the morning sunlight and showing off its perfect plumage and coloration. Simply stunning! (Kevin McDonald)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Baby bonobo at the Lola Ya Bonobo - a Kinshasa bonobo orphanage. We need to protect these forests for wild bonobos... (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)

 

In the beginning, long ago, the local people snared small antelope to feed their families, grew crops, and lived off the natural bounty of the forest. War then arrived from the east with foreign fighters that wreaked havoc on local villages and settlements, destroying agricultural fields and killing all large wildlife with their AK47 rifles. Due to this ongoing instability, these people cannot depend on crops and need money to buy food, supplies and possibly even weapons. Suddenly the remote villages, camps and settlements in the deep Congolese jungle have “traders” with wads of cash for bushmeat, pigeons, scales, skins, bones, teeth, genitals and much else. Suddenly everything they had come to know so well living in the forest sustainably had a price tag. As unrest and turmoil persisted families and communities became more and more stressed, starved and desperate as they start tearing down their “mother”, the forest.

 

Dr Terese Hart explains: ” Even when people switched mainly to salt imported from elsewhere, they still did not disturb the culture of the elephants. They hunted only small animals with snares. And then war swept out of the east into the town of Kindu and people fled into the forest, and foreign soldiers with military guns followed into the forest. Lots of guns followed into the forest. The last elephants were killed at this clearing in 1999. Then the last of the buffalo were shot. Then the bongo. But still the pigeons came for salt; Pigeons came by the thousands. In 2000, they started capturing pigeons and smoking them for the market in Kindu –small, skewer-sized bushmeat.”

 

As director of the TL2 Project, Dr Terese Hart, represents an outstanding team of Congolese field biologists. Terese and her husband, John Hart, set out in 2007 to explore an unknown forest. They found bonobos, a new species of monkey, forest elephant, okapi, Congo peacock… Their mission today, with their TL2 staff, is to build effective conservation from village-base to national administration for TL2 and other critical conservation areas of DRC.

 

Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Terese Hart asks: "How much longer will this population of green pigeon survive?" She explains: "The Bangengele say that the salt opening in the forest is theirs; the Balanga say that it belongs to them. It is the Balanga who have turned it into a pigeon killing field. The pigeon hunters pay tribute to the family of the Balanga chief, Chef Butumbe. And the merchants who come with soap, medicine or food pay a portion of all revenue to the same family...." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
From a life of clear, alert tranquility in the wilderness, surviving and thriving in amongst predators and the dangers of the forest, to a broken mess before being plucked, smoked and transported to a market where people have forgotten how beautiful these birds are as they fly over a forest gap... (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
"Head of the camp, Nyembo Butumbe, is the chief’s eldest son, who operates the salt opening like an artisanal gold camp. The pigeons, like gold, will be mined until they are no more. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of ownership that makes the management of this resource so shoddy. Perhaps the Bangengele will eventually be organized enough to kick the Balanga out, so why shouldn’t the Balanga exploit this opening to its limits now? How else explain the irrational slaughter of the pigeons? Already there are many fewer than a decade ago (down by 3/4 ) when the Balanga started killing them. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
The "killing fields" on a big clearing dominated by salt mud and water. Thousands upon thousands of parrots, pigeons and other birds have l;ost their lives in these nets. Elephants and buffalo used to come here. Soon the "African silence" will take over... (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Trapper extracting green pigeons from his nets in the salt mud. Pigeons are extracted once in the morning and once in the evening. We need to find alternative livelihoods for these people living in the remote Congolese forests. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
These wild green pigeons will be sold directly to traders waiting in the adjacent camp. Instant cash for free birds... (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Dr Terese Hart reports: "The trapper say the pigeon catch is diminishing. Every day the nets are stretched across the opening, every bit of bare ground is covered. Eight years ago they would catch more than 1500 pigeons each day. Now they catch between 250 and 400 in a day. The nets are up every day..." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
These beautiful green pigeons are clearly stressed and now await an unbeknown fate worse than any natural death. They will be plucked and skewered before smoking over a fire while still alive to keep the meat fresh. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
The whole family gets involved in the trapping and processing of the pigeons. Nets need to be fixed, pigeons plucked, skewered and smoked, nets cleared and reset in time... (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Trappers being told that this trade cannot continue and that soon they will have nothing. Looks like the women are made to do all the dirty work in pigeon trapping! (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Alarmingly the birds are plucked alive, then skewered through the belly and, once on the skewer, the neck is broken just before setting the skewers over the fire. This keeps the meat at its best quality in a hot climate without refrigeration. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
African green pigeons are smoked by the hundreds over low fires. Subsistence poaching for your family's protein needs is one thing, but supplying urban centres with bushmeat is something completely different, a clear biodiversity threat. They only moved onto the pigeons once the elephants, buffalo, small antelope and parrots had disappeared. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
"Packed into home-made liana backpacks, the pigeons are carried two long days to the road." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
"Pigeon porters negotiate many small bridges. Once on the road, it is another two days by bicycle to reach the Kindu market. Certainly there must be a better way to make a living?" (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
"Chefitaine Jeanne Machozi of the Bangengele confiscated dried pigeons being transported by bicycle over her chefferie. Crispin is on the left; the ICCN regional bureau chief on the right. With the support of the Administrator of Kailo Territory and the Provincial Minister of the Environment, Crispin led a group of military in to clear out the salt opening during the second half of March." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
"Smoked green pigeons from the forest for sale in Kindu. To get here the traders walked 19 km from the Parc des Pigeons to the road and then continued by bicycle the rest of the way." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)

 

Members of the TL2 Project visit the salt spring in the forest clearings with military personnel to halt the decimation of the green pigeon population in this relatively untouched tropical forest. The military have a heavy hand in the region and halting this trade is in large part about controlling and owning resources, as opposed to looking out for the well-being of the wildlife populations or local communities. Here is a series of photographs by the TL2 Project detailing a successful mission to find and destroy “pigeon camps”. We need to support Terese and John  Hart in their ongoing quest to save the wildlife that depends on this amazing forest. With more funding they will be able to get into the forest more to effect change…

 

Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Miltary crossing the Kasuku River on the way to a pigeon camp. It is now going to take direct, aggressive actions like this to save the green pigeons in these forests. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
The military going over a water crossing... "They came with guns, and they emptied the pigeon camps, but let trappers clear nets, finish smoking, and carry out hundreds of dried pigeons on skewers. They told the trappers that this was the end and no more trapping would be allowed. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Military burning rooms used for smoking and storing thousands of green pigeons before transport to markets. Terese Hart explains: "Eight years ago they would catch more than 1500 pigeons each day. Now they catch between 250 and 400 in a day. The nets are up every day...." (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
On the left, Onombe Komando, was the leader and a long-time opponent to any hunting controls and the national park. At last arrested for poaching and hopefully the beginning of the end of an attitude that we see the Congo forests go silent. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Death and destruction near the Loidjo River and the Mbula Likembe camp. Nets that had been left spread on the ground and that were full of dead pigeons. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Nets that had been left spread on the ground and that were full of dead pigeons. Only a few were still struggled. The head trapper, Komando, shrugged when asked why the trappers would be so wasteful as to leave the nets spread out like this: “So they can find supper when they come back!” The pigeons that were still alive at Mbula Likembe were released back into the wild. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Mbula Likembe camp being burnt so that poachers cannot operate near the salt upwellings that attract thousands of pigeons, parrots and elephants. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com
Mbula Likembe camp burnt to the ground for capturing and smoking thousands of green pigeons. Such is justice in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)

 

Message from Dr Terese Hart: “The TL2 Project has a budget of $780,000 for 2012. It is a large project that we run efficiently, fairly and transparently. One month ago we were still missing $339,000 for 2012, but because of your generosity and a proposal that was funded we are now only missing less than $99,000.  We are encouraged and sure that we will make it through the end of this year and start 2013 at full strength.”

Comments

  1. Huber
    February 26, 2013, 6:15 am

    They must see the Kereru project in New Zealand. What can happen when you destroy one of animal species. In this case green pigeons. Soon they can lose the forest and all what they get from there. There will be only desert.

  2. Ali
    pakistan
    November 21, 2012, 11:24 am

    Poaching should be condoned and the criminals should be brought to book. This can be controlled by making conservation and hunting associations for the control hunting with a minimal bag limit per week.

  3. Zulfiqar Ashraf
    ksa
    September 14, 2012, 8:44 am

    THATS GREAT I LOVED IT ACTUALLY POACHERS AND HUNTERS SHOULD BE KILLED RIGHT AT SPOT ALONG WITH THEIR BOUNTY…
    THATS THE ONLY GOOD SOLUTION

  4. shravan
    india
    September 4, 2012, 10:28 am

    nice……………