For Parrot Conservationist Bonnie Zimmermann – Anything is Possible
The Indonesian Parrot Project (IPP) and their Indonesian counterpart, Konservasi Kakatua Indonesia (KKI), work collaboratively to protect the parrots of Indonesia. Established in 2001 by Dr Stewart Metz and originally known as Project Bird Watch, the organisation focuses efforts on conservation and education.
Conservation efforts take many forms, from Critically Endangered species protection programmes to rescue, rehabilitation and release (via Indonesian-based centre, Kembalis Bebas), to community awareness and pride and economic development initiatives.
In this interview Bonnie Zimmermann, Executive Director of the IPP, talks about her about her career path and shares her advice for conservationists.
Why do you work in conservation?
Ooh, I’m walking into the other room. The birds are not cooperating. They know I am on the phone. Why do I work in conservation? Well, I realised many years ago that, most people don’t even see what is going on around them. They don’t really understand the concept of what the bigger picture is in our world. And, in 2001, after I had my first opportunity to go to Peru, I realised that there’s a major need for conservation all over the world and not just birds, but all species.
(Constant loud squawking sound)
I hear that you have a friend. What kind of a bird is that right now that I’m hearing?
That’s a 50-year-old, Double Yellow–headed Amazon parrot. Her name is Golda. I adopted her in 1987, when I knew nothing about birds. I had rescued another Double Yellow–head from some friends of mine that was really obese (his diet was peanuts and French fries) and I didn’t know anything about him and that he’d been abused so I took him in. Naively I thought “oh, wouldn’t that be great to have a friend for him?” And so, I found her, I adopted her, I brought her into my home, and they saw each other. It was love at first sight. She’s a little elderly and a bit fussy at this point, but you don’t see Amazon’s at 50 that often.
What are your main activities in your current role?
For the Indonesian Parrot project, I have had a lot of interesting jobs. So, along with overseeing the projects, I work with international NGO’s, police, and I deal with all the different government agencies at all levels, which is important. I work closely with the Indonesian Institute of Science as well. It’s a complicated country to work in. I probably picked one of the hardest because of the nature of their culture and the fact that there are a little over 16,000 islands (only 6,500 are occupied that we know of). There are probably five to 600 different dialects.
What’s the best part of your job?
Two things, the people, and the fact that I’m able to go to these beautiful places and help protect them. The people are amazing. Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world. I think about 250 million. Everybody’s respectful. The thing that is interesting too is that the Christians and the Muslims always have villages side by side and they work together. So, there’s, there’s no fighting.
Then there’s also the tribal cultures, which blend into this as well. And that makes it remarkably interesting as you travel around the country because every place is little bit different.
But they’re all good. I have never been scared there. I travel alone frequently. I’m more scared to go to a place like New York. It’s wonderful to see children who are completely untouched by the outside world. You go to these villages and there are no cell phones. There is no TV, there is no internet.
The children are friendly. They gravitate towards you. If you’re there, you’re going to have 10 of them hanging on you, everywhere you go. And that is really refreshing. They’re outside all day. We teach them about conservation. They love it. It’s a whole different world. Now. I wouldn’t say it’s the same in the big cities in Indonesia but, in the field, they’re cool.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The worst part is that I deal with the illegal trade. We have an undercover network over there with several NGOs and they’re continually active in busting people and it’s not just birds, it’s everything. The trade is horrible. Every animal is at risk and most of them are going out of Indonesia, through the Philippines, into other countries where they’re used for body parts for medicine.
They kill helmeted hornbills for the Chinese market for their ivory casques which are called “red ivory.” Pangolin scales, which are thought to be part of our current pandemic, are like rhino horn, and have no proven medicinal value, yet they are used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with ailments ranging from lactation difficulties to arthritis. The scales are typically dried and ground up into powder, which may be turned into a pill.
It’s ugly and very disturbing. I’ve been in the wet markets. They do have them in Indonesia. We must do something about these markets and I’m thinking that this whole paradigm shift we’re in now is going to benefit the planet.
The first time I went into a market was my first trip to Indonesia and I went to a market in Bali and I’ve just found the pictures from 2003. It was just filthy dirty. There were primates, reptiles, birds, and mammals from outside of Indonesia, fish, sun bears and god only know what else. I ran out from that market and I threw up in the parking lot and I was crying and angry as hell.
What would you say are your career highlights?
Oh, it’s funny. Because I don’t think of myself as having a career, but it is a career, isn’t it? I just think of it as something I do. One of them would be, the first bird release we did, which was spectacular. It was all the way back in 2005. That was a long time ago, but that was a real significant thing for us.
I was leading an ecotour with nine guests. And we heard that there had been a bust on the island we were heading to, but the birds had been taken in by the forestry department. So, we stopped at the forestry department to see how the birds were doing, and we knew immediately that they were going to die. There were two Cassowaries, Eclectus Parrots, Red-Cheeked parrots, King Parrots that were already dead and lying on the top of the captive birds cages and five Moluccan cockatoos. So, we decided to see if they would turn them over to us.
We did not have any wire, we didn’t really have anything, but we made two cages in the forest overnight, with some of our local guides. And the next morning the birds showed up and they were in terrible condition. Someone had fed the cassowaries before they left which was an incredibly rough eight–hour drive on primitive roads over a huge mountain range. The had aspirated the food into their throats so we had to clear them. Also, all of them were starving as we realised they had not been fed or watered since their capture. It became apparent they needed to go the forest immediately.
We took everybody to the forest, and we put the birds in the cages, in the dark, almost nine, 10 o’clock at night. We were scared that they wouldn’t make it through the night. And when we got up the next morning, we went tearing back out into the forest and they we all there sitting tightly together, filthy dirty and big-eyed. Some of the red-cheeked parrots died, but most of them were alive.
And those are the very same birds we ended up releasing a year later. That was a turning point for us. We work directly with the Indonesian government and follow strict protocols under CITES and IUCN guidelines.
What key steps in your conservation career have you taken?
I never knew I was going to do this. First, you do not need a degree. You do not need to be a PhD. I work with a lot of people that are doctors that have never been in the field and they say to me you don’t have a title. However, most of the academics rarely get any training in the field full time. I am treated like a PhD in Indonesia even if I am self–taught. So, the idea is not to be afraid, to be open to whatever you can do, and you can learn by doing and not necessarily by studying.
The second thing is to be fearless and a little crazy. And I have been in a lot of situations that are dangerous and it’s okay. If I see a snake in Indonesia, I know it’s a snake. If I see a snake in the big city, I don’t know what it is. You know what? You just must be open to that. You must be open to learning the culture and learning to work with the people, because the people ultimately help you help the animals. So, they must understand, you must learn their culture and how to work with them properly. You must learn how to negotiate. Shall we say, you can get what you want, but you can’t be forceful. You will not get a good response if you disagree with them. It’s one of those cultures where if you, if they’re shaking their head, yes, they still might mean no. It’s soft force.
What other countries have you visited and other things have you done in your career?
Absolutely. It’s funny how your path and your life can change in just an instant. And it goes all the way back to Golda and birds back in the eighties. And I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was interested. The back story is that after I adopted Golda and her mate (Mr. Cookie) who were older birds, I wanted a young one. I found an African Grey baby parrot that I wanted to purchase because I didn’t know anything in the eighties. I hand fed it and it died of polyoma at about 16 weeks of age, which is a disease that’s common to breeders that I didn’t know about.
And at that point I was really devastated. I decided to learn everything I could about birds. I took home study courses in ornithology from Cornell. I apprenticed myself to an avian and exotic vet, only working with exotics and became an expert in avian paediatrics. I learned all I could. And then one day sitting on my butt, where I managed another small family winery, I wanted to do something – give something back.
I decided I wanted to do something over the top. So, I volunteered to work at the Tambopata Reserve Centre in South-eastern Peru to study macaws. The program was overseen by my now good friend Dr. Donald Brightsmith. So, I went down and stayed for eight weeks. It changed my life forever and I knew then that I wanted to work with birds.
When I returned home I setup my own non–profit to study wild parrot behaviour to help companion birds. It was called The Wild Connection. I started writing to all kinds of parrot organisations. That is where I met Stewart Metz and Barbara Bailey the two founders of the Indonesian Parrot Project.
Stewart called me up and he said, we should meet. I said, okay, so I drove up to Washington State and we had lunch together and he said, why don’t you go to Indonesia with us? And I was like, really? I don’t even know where it is. And he goes, you don’t. And he says, well, the trade’s bad there. And there are a lot of endangered species.
So, I agreed to go. And I joined the organisation, started their ecotourism program. And that was in 2003. And now look where I am. So, it’s funny how life changes. I’m an expert in cockatoos and I don’t even have one, they shouldn’t be in captivity. Really. They’re complicated animals.
Is there any other advice for people who are looking to work in conservation?
Be aware of the world around you, look what you can do to help. Many years ago, I worked on a project with Carlos Santana. We’re surrounded by beauty, grace, and incredible things every day. We need to look beyond our screens and devices and see what’s around us, whether it’s in your backyard or in a remote part of the world. Being so closed off makes me sad about people. We must revel in what we have. I look outside every day and this morning there was a coyote in my backyard. So, you can look, but you know, don’t give up. The point is there’s an incredible world out there, there are wild places everywhere. Yes, we are suffering from a pandemic, yes there are fires burning everything, yes there is all kinds of political corruption and hate. Nature will always persevere, and I think we must take that to heart, be kind to one another and not be afraid to change.
My motto for life is “anything IS possible.”