Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) Investigations and Intelligence Unit (IIU) rescued the rare little bird from the illegal wildlife trade, and housed it at Munda Wanga Zoo for about a year. However, it did not thrive there and, ZAWA’s Investigations and Intelligence Unit (IIU), with support from the Wildlife Crime Prevention Project, was instrumental in ensuring that the confiscated shoebill could be returned to its natural habitat. Kerri Rademeyer, former Field Ops Manager at Bangweulu Wetlands, was able to arrange that the shoebill be kept at Banguweulu from early January.
Called by the imaginary name of Russik by a colleague’s five year old daughter, it was first held in the shoebill enclosure used for Seymour, while its health was assessed. It was not accustomed to eating catfish and even got a huge fright the first time it saw a live one.
Nevertheless, Russik adapted quickly and, after two weeks, Banguweulu opened the gate of the enclosure and it walked free. It explored the area around Chikuni and found that the pool in front of the station was a pretty good feeding spot as it is protected from fishing. However, Russik took quite a while to get the hang of catching food. It would be very excited to see the fish in open water but had to learn that its best chances of actually getting one in its bill was by grabbing it through the thick swamp grass, which slows the fish down.
Shoebills can sometimes be seen standing in swampy vegetation for hours on end. They stare into the water waiting to see a catfish moving through the grass, or coming to the surface for a gulp of air. They can spot the slightest movement with their keen eyesight, and can quickly and quietly move closer, their very long toes spreading their weight to help them approach undetected. They then lunge forward with a huge amount of force, driving their bill through the vegetation and grabbing hold of the fish. Their wings are held out for balance so that it can pull the grass, roots and fish all out of the water. The bill’s razor sharp edge helps to cut through the grass, while the hook on the tip helps to hold the slippery fish before swallowing it whole.
Currently Russik catches most of its own food, and it even killed and ate its first snake (a Zambian grass snake) recently. Nonetheless, Banguweulu still feed it every three to four days to ensure it is getting enough.
The bird is very useful for educating the local communities and is seen by up to 30 passers-by daily as Chikuni station lies on one of the main pathways linking the villages to the fishing grounds. They are all taught by our community facilitator and fishery monitors that the bird was confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade and that this is the only place in Zambia where this species can be seen.
Unlike its predecessor, Seymour, it is unlikely that Russik will be able to integrate fully back into the wild. However, it certainly has a better life than in the zoo and, in its own small way, is contributing to raising awareness about the species.
In the meantime, the transmitter fitted on Seymour confirms that it has successfully adapted to life in the wild. It most recently even left the swamps to fly downstream to the DRC side of the border to subsequently return and settle around Shoebill Island Camp.