The Limbe Wildlife Centre, Cameroon, focuses predominantly on the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered primate species, like western lowland gorillas and the drill monkey. However we also often rescue non-primate species, like reptiles and birds and other small mammal species. Many of these species tend to be solitary animals whose behaviour is fairly instinctual and consequently returning them to the wild when they are healthy is less complicated than it is with primates. In 2008 we have rescued and released dwarf crocodiles, African rock pythons, black kites, genet cats, palm civets and African civet cats, land tortoises, and 1227 African grey parrots to name a few.
Earlier this year a fledgling owl was brought in to the LWC by members of the French Army who have a base nearby. The owl was a Fraser’s eagle owl (Bubo poensis) and it’s left eye was extremely swollen, closed and bruised. The army cadets had rescued the bird from some children who had been throwing stones at it. Locally, and in many other parts of the world, owls are associated with witchcraft and as a consequence people are frightened of them and tend to try to kill them if they see one.
We took the owl in and placed it on treatment and waited for the swelling in the eye to reduce. After a few days the swelling had reduced sufficiently for the eyelids to open and at this point we could assess the damage to the eye. Using an opthalmoscope it was clear that the damage was permanent as the retina had become detached from the back of the eye. Owl’s hunt using their hearing but also rely on sight to guide them through the trees as they fly and only having one good eye would severely handicap this owl in the wild. Consequently we decided that we would not be able to release it.
This posed us with a dilemma of what to do with the young owl: keep him in a cage for the rest of its life or euthanase it? Not great choices. Luckily, however, we came up with a third option: to try to train the owl to fly to the fist in the hope that we could use him for displays whilst educating visitors about owls, how they live and hunt, and how they are not witches in disguise! At this point, as the owl was to stay, we gave him a name and the obvious choice was Fraser.
So for the past 5 months our quarantine keeper, Killi Matute and an English ornithologist, Robbie Whytock, have been working together to train Fraser. The process is quite complicated but Robbie has a lot of experience training raptors and under his guidance Killi and Fraser have slowly developed a very intimate relationship. Killi sets traps at night to catch mice and rats and then during the day he chops them in to bite sized pieces, weighs them, and at 1pm feeds approx. 25grams of meat to Fraser. The amount fed each day has to be carefully calculated as if Killi feeds him too little he will lose weight, and if he feeds too much he will not want to fly the next day. It’s an interesting balance and its only through careful daily calculations made by weighing the food fed and judging how Fraser responds each day that Killi has been able to finally estimate what Fraser’s preferred daily ration should be. Each day since the training began little by little Fraser has become more comfortable sitting on Killi’s fist, feeding from his hand, flying to his fist in a cage, flying to his fist outside with a string attached to his jesse (leather straps attached to his feet), to finally, this week, flying outside to Killi’s fist without a string attached.
Last weekend Fraser and Kill had their first display in front of a crowd of local children and visiting government dignitaries. The response that Killi received when he appeared with a ‘witch bird’ on his hand that flew at his command was quite incredible. However before anybody began to think that Killi was himself a wizard, we described how and why Fraser came to be living at the LWC, how vulnerable owls are and how they deserve protection not persecution.
The impact was remarkable and Fraser’s story really underlines how at the LWC we try to extract the maximum conservation value from each and every animal that is unfortunate enough to need rescuing. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Robbie Whytock for his expertise in training Killi and Fraser. A great job well done!