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The iziKhwenene Project: Establishing Local Communities as Forest Custodians to Save the Cape Parrot…

Research in  the 1960s by CJ Skead (Percy FitzPatrick Institute) and the 1990s by Olaf Wirminghaus (University of Natal) demonstrated a close relationship and apparent dependency of Cape parrots on large Macrocarpus and Podocarpus yellowwoods as feeding and nesting sites. Cape parrots have even been recorded drinking dew drops caught in “wizard’s beard” or “Spanish moss” hanging from ancient, emergent...

Research in  the 1960s by CJ Skead (Percy FitzPatrick Institute) and the 1990s by Olaf Wirminghaus (University of Natal) demonstrated a close relationship and apparent dependency of Cape parrots on large Macrocarpus and Podocarpus yellowwoods as feeding and nesting sites. Cape parrots have even been recorded drinking dew drops caught in “wizard’s beard” or “Spanish moss” hanging from ancient, emergent branches that sit in the thick, silent mist. Emergent yellowwood trees are over 250 years old in old growth forests and continue growing for another 800-1,000 years. Their branches are laden with moss and lichen beds that are hundreds of years old and safely shelter generations of sunbirds, flycatchers, robins and much else. Broken branches provide nest cavities for Cape parrots, woodpeckers, barbets and many other cavity-nesters. Over hundreds of generations these ancient bastions of our Afromontane forests become culturally-important feeding and nesting sites for local forest specialists like Cape parrots, producing millions of offspring in its branches and cavities, feeding entire local populations, and providing safety from predators.

“Southern afromontane forests without old, emergent yellowwood trees are like oceans without coral reefs…  less alive, less diverse, less colorful…”

Cape parrots evolved over millions of years by using these Afromontane “forest refugia” in the high mountain mistbelts of southern Africa to survive climatic oscillations from wet into dry cycles (e.g. Ice Ages), specializing their diet to focus on the highly-nutritious and historically super-abundant yellowwood fruits. Thousands upon thousands of Cape parrots used to frequent these ancient forests, busying themselves like honeybees, moving from tree to tree, dispersing thousands of yellowwood fruits to the ground to kickstart the next generation of forest giants. The fate of these charismatic parrots was linked to these grand forests forever or was it? Cape parrots are considered one of the most intelligent parrots in captivity and seem to be making a plan to accommodate the drastic changes that have occurred to their available habitat over the last 150 – 300 years. Our mission was to determine whether they need our help to sustainably persist in the Amathole region?


Rodnick Biljon
Cape parrot striking a pose in a wild plum tree (Harpephylum caffrum). This is one of the last indigenous fruits to feature prominently in their annual diet due, in part, to the King William”s Town municipality planting these trees along the roads in the 1960s. (Rodnick Biljon)
Steve Boyes
Honeybee in Hogsback. We have erected 50 “bee boxes”, most of which have been occupied already. These essential pollinators have also suffered with less natural cavities to nest in. (Steve Boyes)
Rodnick Biljon
Cape parrot feeding on syringa fruits (Melia azedarach) in King William’s Town. These fruits are poisonous to humans if eaten in quantity. The effect on Cape parrots is unclear? (Rodnick Biljon)
Rodnick Biljon
Male Cape parrot in flight! These amazing aviators have been demonstrated to fly over 250km per day in search of food. (Rodnick Biljon)


After three years of study it became clear that the approximately 400 Cape parrots resident in the Amathole region (representing up to 40% of the global population) had all but given up on the remaining Afromontane forest patches available to them. There are two possible reasons… Cape parrots have chosen to focus on the newly available, super-abundant exotic food resources, which were planted out by farmers over the last 100-150 years. Another reason is that Cape parrots have been forced to seek new food resources due to the historical and ongoing degradation of the remaining indigenous forest patches. When we find yellowwood trees covered in fruits we collect as many as possible from the ground and play recordings of large flocks feeding in a pecan orchard to attract Cape parrots to feed in these trees and disperse more fruit to the ground… We have successfully “called in” two pairs of Cape parrots to feed on yellowwood fruits. These pairs returned for three days each time and then never came back to the feeding site. Both times the parrots fed enthusiastically on the fruits, vocalizing excitedly, and jungle-gyming around the branches. They were clearly happy. The fact is they flew over these tree every day on their way to high altitude roost sites and never looked down to see the abundant yellowwood fruits in that single tree. Cape parrots seem to have given up on a food resource that once accounted for most of their dietary-intake…?!


Steve Boyes
Magical light over the Hogsback Mountains and the high mountain stronghold of the last-remaining Cape parrots. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes / Bateleurs
Aerial photograph of Hogsback Village and the Amathole Mountains in the distance. Just look at this radically altered landscape that used to have elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards and much else. There is almost nothing left of the old world here… (Steve Boyes / Bateleurs)
Steve Boyes
First-ever photograph of a Cape parrot feeding in the high canopy of a yellowwood tree. We had found an emergent yellowwood with fruit right next to a 50m cliff. We called the parrot in and enjoyed three days with them feeding right in front of us. Stunning! (September 2009) (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Cape parrot super food! Macrocarpus yellowwood fruits are nutritious and have strong anti-microbial activity. The disappearance of this food item from their diet may be linked to the beak and feather disease epidemic they are experiencing? (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Young Cape parrot feeding on wild olives (Olea europea africana) on the University of Fort Hare campus. This is another very important indigenous food item that we are planting in large orchards throughout their range. (Steve Boyes)


Introducing the iziKhwenene Project…

In 2011, we launched the iziKhwenene Project in the Amathole Mountains of South Africa with funding from the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust, Conservation International’s Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, the National Geographic Conservation Trust, and numerous charitable donors. Media support was provided by Africa Geographic and bigFIG Digital Media. Our main goals were to plant our first 25,000 indigenous trees and erect 600 artificial nest boxes in partnership with local villages to stimulate positive change for the Endangered Cape parrot and other Afromontane specialists (e.g. Hogsback frog). We are proud to be working alongside regional collaborators like BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Border Rural Committee, BirdLife Border, the University of Fort Hare, and the Hogsback Inn. The Cape Parrot Project is a long-term research project that informs all conservation actions (e.g. tree-planting) with prescriptions and protocols derived from high-quality empirical research. We are committed to achieving significant population growth and range expansion by South Africa’s national parrot, and hope to reintroduce Cape parrots to forests where they appear to have gone locally extinct. Please join the Cape Parrot Project group on Facebook:

Also see our previous National Geographic News Watch blog on the Cape Parrot Project for background:


Nic Armstrong
The first of over 800 indigenous trees planted on the University of Fort Hare campus as part of the “Green Campus Initiative”. These wild olives and wild plums will bear fruit within the next 7-10 years and make the campus an important feeding site for local Cape parrots. (Nic Armstrong)
Steve Boyes
One of the biggest flocks of Cape parrots that we have ever seen in the Cape Parrot Sanctuary at the University of Fort Hare (Alice). In 2009, we partnered to fence the orchard and protect the trees for the parrots in partnership with the local community. (Steve Boyes)
Wongama Copisa
Owners of the 10 micro-nurseries in Sompondo Village near Aukland Forest below the cliffs of Hogsback Mountain. (Wongama Copisa)
Rodnick Biljon
Cape parrots congregating at a popular bird bath in King William’s Town. This communal water point may be a disease risk and water is replaced as often as possible. (Rodnick Biljon)
Steve Boyes
Nic Armstrong (Project Horticulturalist – in red in front row), David Nkosi (Percy FitzPatrick Institute – far left), and the Hala/Gilton Village planting teams at the site of our first Cape Parrot Orchard made up of 1,000 wild plums and wild olives. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Hogsback frog found in September 2009 after two months of searching. We could hear them at two sites, but could not find them. These amazing little frogs are only found at two locations along the Amathole mountain range. (Steve Boyes)


Ongoing research and conservation work…

Our research indicates that the destruction of South Africa’s yellowwood forests was so catastrophic, so immediate, that the Cape parrots that associate with these same forests today behave more like an introduced species, investigating new food items that they have not encountered as a species before and struggling to find a new, sustainable way of life in a significantly different landscape. Cherries from Mexico, plums from Japan, Jacaranda pods from South America, pecan nuts from North America, syringa fruits from India, pine seeds from Europe, and Eucalyptus flowers from Australia now account for the majority of their annual diet. All four remaining disjunct populations are dangerously small and isolated, have high Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) virus infection rates, are still in conflict with humans as a crop pest (mainly in pecan orchards), and survive for months on exotic, potentially harmful food resources (e.g. Melia azerdarach fruits). We have proposed a “Population and Habitat Viability Assessment” for Cape parrots to compliment our recent review of their Red List Assessment with BirdLife South Africa. This species, however, needs more than meetings and assessments. Cape parrots need urgent community-based conservation action to ensure the remaining populations persist into the future. We are thus putting together a “Parrot Action Plan for Africa” and ask bird experts, guides and conservationists that work in Africa to contact us at: to get a copy of the questionnaire.


Steve Boyes
Healthy male Cape parrot that tested negative for beak and feather disease. Most of the parrots we caught in 2010 tested positive. (Steve Boyes)
Anja Joubert
Steve Boyes taking a blood sample from a Cape parrot in 2010. This research demonstrated that we were in the grips of a beak and feather disease epidemic that could threaten the local population. (Anja Joubert)
Steve Boyes
Young Cape parrot that tested positive for beak and feather disease. Note the staining and sores on the beak, as well as the poor feather quality. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Cape parrot (sex unknown) photographed in late April 2011 just before the first severe cold snaps. Two days later w had the first frost. A regional food shortage due to drought may have contributed to the 100% infection rates we recorded at four locations. (Steve Boyes)
Francoise Joubert
The third Cape parrot to be handed in by the general pubic in April and May 2011. As one newpaper pointed out “Cape Parrots falling out the skies in King William’s Town” ( We managed to save four of the 12 parrots that were handed in. Four arrived dead, four died overnight, and four were released back into the wild after 6 months in quarantine. (Francoise Joubert)



Relationships between the forests, the people, and the parrots… Past and Present.

The Cape parrot or “isiKhwenene” is affectionately known as “uPholi” in local villages along the Amathole Mountains. These villages are frequented by Cape parrots each summer, entrenching these charismatic parrot in local folklore. Before the European settlers arrived on the “frontier” of the colony in the 1850s, these grand Afromontane forests had already been receding for over 40,000 years due to gradual climate change in the Amathole region. Before the Xhosa people arrived in the the Amatholes in the mid-1700s, the San people walked the wildlife paths in these forests, hunted the abundant wildlife, interacted with locals like elephants, lion, leopard and hippo, sheltered in the caves hidden in the lush evergreen, and marveled at the majesty of these ancient cathedral forests. Like the forests, they had been here forever and could not imagine this place any other way. Over thousands of years, these quiet, unassuming hunter-gatherers had witnessed these tall, evergreen hardwood forests slowly retreat into wet, misty mountain refugia like the Drakensberg, Soutpansberg and Amathole mountain ranges. These “forest refugia” were and are some of the oldest forests in southern Africa, home to numerous endemic species and the gigantic 1,000 year old yellowwoods that seeded the rivers and forested the valleys below. These were the “Forest Monarchs”, of which only three out of thousands remain today. We must KNOW that this forest wonderland will only ever exist again in our imaginations, we have all but lost this wilderness, these primordial forests, and the deep sense of awe that overcomes visitors to a place greater than themselves. In 10 to 15 years from now, we would have done this to the whole planet. We will be in charge and in control. Alone in a world without wilderness, without places that will take our breath away and inspire us to live better lives.


The ravages of the “Apartheid Era” and South Africa’s checkered history of exploiting or neglecting rural black communities left the local Xhosa villages in the Amathole region in a similar state of disrepair and ruin with no employment opportunities and forgotten promises from government to one of the poorest, remotest areas in South Africa. Democracy in the region is dysfunctional with voting decided by the tribal leadership’s endorsement of candidates and parties. The villages in the valleys below the Amathole Mountains are almost entirely dependent on the old migrant labour system established by the nationalist government during Apartheid. Their survival is dependent on cash coming in from relatives working in cities and towns far away. HIV/AIDS is spreading and alcoholism enslaving more young men everyday. We, the Percy FitzPatrick Institute and Wild Bird Trust, thus decided to work in partnership with local villages to stimulate positive change for local communities by providing employment and investing them in the future of the forests they effectively own and manage as communal land. Cape parrots are the perfect ambassador for these threatened African forests. All who live near Afromontane forest patches with Cape parrots agree that the day Cape parrots are no longer heard flying over each afternoon to their roosts would herald the beginning of the end. The end for us and for these forests. The beginning of a new age that is less beautiful, less diverse, less alive…

“We need to do everything we can to help the remaining Cape parrots without feeding them directly or making them dependent on us in any way. For long-term sustainability we need the buy-in of local communities, people that have known these parrots for generations and will miss them the most, even though they are too shy to admit it.”


Steve Boyes
Breath-taking cathedral built by Trappist monks out of yellowwood (Left). This thousand year old yellowwood tree called the “Big Tree” is one of only four remaining yellowwoods this size… (Steve Boyes)


Have we lost the magic forever?

JRR Tolkien’s son, Christopher, was stationed in a British barracks in the Amathole mountains and wrote to his father about these amazing forests in his letters to his family. The thousands of fireflies he saw became fairies, the strange foresters and settlers became “hobbits”, the ancient, tangled Hogsback forest became “Mirkwood”, and the powerful tornados that swept down the valleys and rivers became dragons. Local Xhosa people still speak of winged serpents that descend in the tornados to rip apart homes and steal people. Today, you will find impressive forests and a wonderful holiday destinations, but the awesome power of living, breathing wilderness is gone. We have killed the last buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, warthog and forest hog. We have chopped down most of the irreplaceable trees to make way for development, plantation forestry, and smallholdings. We have introduced hundreds of exotic plants for their fruit, their colorful flowers or their useful timber. Windbreaks made from Australian Acacia species have spread like wild fire and clogged the water catchments, streams and rivers. The only paths that we can use in the forests are man-made trails, when in the past there would have been an established network of elephant paths and animal trails. We will never get this back, but we can work towards a more sustainable and diverse future in what remains of these forests.


Over millions of years Podocarpus and Macrocarpus yellowwood trees established themselves as the backbone of the Afromontane mist belt forest patches that found refuge in the wet, south-facing valleys of suitable mountain ranges in sub-Saharan Africa. The few remaining patches of intact yellowwood forests share a window into a recent past when these forests had a high canopy over 40m and massive emergent yellowwood trees climbing out of the canopy up to 60m. These ancient trees become important beacons above the high canopy, providing access to morning sun, a vantage point from which to see predators, and a cultural meeting place for forest species. Over thousands of years, female yellowwood trees that produce fruit aggregate into concentrated groves of smaller trees with much larger male trees interspersed between these female groves. For millions upon millions of years these massive trees had no threats until European settlers came with bow saws and heavy axes. This new technology was to change the relationship of the local Xhosa people and these tall forests they had been hunting in since the mid-1700s when they arrived. Within 100 years, commercial contractors, local Xhosa pit-sawyers, and government foresters removed almost all the large hardwoods from these forests to produce mining timber and railway sleepers for industrialization. Millions of trees were clear-felled with reckless abandon, leaving a wasteland vulnerable to the fires that seasonally move up from the dry, grassy valleys below. We have so much to put right and the iziKhwenene Project is the first step in long journey that we should ALL take very seriously.


Conservation action in the iziKhwenene Project

By December 2012, the iziKhwenene Project aims to have planted 18,000 indigenous trees in and around degraded Afromontane forest patches along the Amathole Mountains. We have already planted out 10,000th tree and have launched our first bi-annual tree audit, whereby we undertake to monitor the survival of the first 25,000 indigenous trees that we plant. We need to learn how to grow and plant indigenous trees with under-privileged local villages, ensuring that benefits are distributed as widely as possible and local community members are established as the active custodians of these forests. We are currently looking for corporate sponsors to support our Forest Custodians Program that invests local villages in the restoration of nearby Afromontane forest patches. We do this by establishing a fenced-off indigenous tree orchard on communally-owned land with up to 1,000 indigenous trees like yellowwoods, wild olives, wild plums, white stinkwood, and wild peach. We then appoint an orchard manager with the village council and undertake to pay the village $1-2 per tree that survives every 6 months for the first five years. These indigenous tree orchards are situated on the edge of degraded Afromontane forests patches to act as a buffer between fires and livestock originating from nearby villages and these forest patches, thus allowing them to recover. We are also establishing new feeding sites for Cape parrots in these valleys, where most of these trees were clear-felled. Once we have established a strong partnership with a village we are able to invest in the Community Nursery Project that sees the establishment of up to 10 micro-nurseries in each partnered village. We build these micro-nurseries from shade cloth and stakes from exotic trees, and then stock them with 100 indigenous seedlings that we have grown. If successful after 6-9 months, we double-up the number of seedlings in the nursery and continue doing so until a small business is established. Unsuccessful micro-nurseries are pulled down and building materials used to expand successful nurseries. We supply watering cans, growth medium, potting bags and fertilizer. We have now established 25 micro-nurseries and aim to have 100 up-and-running by the end of 2013, thus enabling us to plant 10,000-50,000 trees every year with local communities. The lessons we learn in our bi-annual audits of the first 25,000 indigenous trees that we plant will inform these future plants. Who knows how far we can take this? Carbon offset markets are an option, while large corporates and government must invest in sustainable resource management, protecting our natural heritage, and uplifting under-privileged rural communities.


Steve Boyes
Over 2,000 yellowwood saplings from our first partnered indigenous tree nursery, the Phampani Medicinal Plant Nursery in Izeleni Village near Stutterheim. (Steve Boyes)
Chris Boyes
Steve Boyes with one of the first batches of 2,000 yellowwood saplings ready for planting into indigenous forests that need them… (Chris Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Over 200 yellowwood seedlings ready for distribution to micro-nurseries in the surrounding villages. (Steve Boyes)
Nic Armstrong
Local community member from Hala Village taking care of her iziKhwenene Project micro-nursery with 100 yellowwood seedlings… (Nic Armstrong)
Steve Boyes
Wongama Copisa (Community Manager) and Chris Boyes at the Cape Parrot Project nest box workshop where over 120 nest boxes were manufactured from pine bark off-cuts. (Steve Boyes)
Steve Boyes
Some of the first Cape parrot nest boxes constructed from pine bark off-cuts. These boxes are ready for erection in tall trees in the Hogsback area. (Steve Boyes)
Wongama Copisa
Nic Armstrong breaking ground for a micro-nursery in Hala Village. By the end of next year we aim to have 100 micro-nurseries in villages along the Amathole Mountains. (Wongama Copisa)
Steve Boyes
The first 100 Cape parrot nest boxes ready for erection in Hogsback. We now have over 230 nest boxes erected along the mountain range. (Steve Boyes)
Wongama Copisa
Some of the iziKhwenene Project nest boxes erected in the Hogsback area. We need skilled rope access professionals to get these 20-30 pound nest boxes into the high canopy. (Wongama Copisa)


Our Project Horticulturalist, Nic Armstrong, and Community Manager, Wongama Copisa, are in the villages most of the time, having meetings and visiting micro-nurseries and indigenous tree orchards. Over the last 12 months we have provided employed to over 50 local community members, restricting this to one person per household to spread benefit. We have planting teams, seed-collecting teams, brush-clearing teams, nursery managers, and orchard managers. Our t-shirts and posters are now visible in the communities and “uPholi” or “isiKhwenene” have an elevated status in these villages. Meet some of the villagers from Sompondo Village that are involved in the iziKhwenene Project… We are good for the journey and look forward to expanding this vision to other degraded Afromontane forests in Africa.


Setting up international funding mechanisms to support rural communities in the restoration of degraded forest habitat around the world has become essential. There are many success stories around the world, but none in the Amathole Mountains where local communities that have heritage rights to these forests and should be given the tools to manage these carbon sinks and havens for biodiversity. Everything we do in the iziKhwenene Project is geared at nurturing the idea in local communities that one of the things that makes them stand out, that makes them special, is the forests their ancestors walked in and hunted with respect and innate sustainability.


Please go to this informative article in Africa Birds & Birding magazine:

Please also have a look at this comprehensive interview with SafariTalk:

See the Africa Birds & Birding Facebook page for amazing bird photography from Africa!

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.