Like a lot of Napa Valley residents, Bonnie Zimmermann works for a winery. But her true passion lies 8,000 miles away in Indonesia, where she rehabilitates rare birds that have been confiscated from smugglers.
As executive director of the Indonesian Parrot Project (IPP), Zimmermann has helped rescue rare birds that are on the brink of extinction and is working with the Indonesian government to reintroduce birds into national forests.
Her work has taken her to some of the most beautiful and rugged places in the world, to islands where cell service, the Internet and electricity are unheard of.
A resident of Pope Valley, Zimmermann has hiked up the steep sides of a volcano to visit a natural jacuzzi fed by a waterfall. She’s worked with a nomadic tribe of former headhunters where boys are expected to kill and eat an endangered cockatoo when they come of age.
She’s lived on rice, eggs, fried cassava and bananas and experienced the “fishbowl” effect of living among people who are fascinated to see a blond white woman. In the cities she’s constantly being hit up for selfies.
She’s drawn to the wildness of the place and the simplicity of the people and their way of life, especially the remote tribes scattered among Indonesia’s 17,000 islands stretching from Bali to Papua.
“You go to bed when it gets dark because there’s nothing else to do,” she said. “You get up when the sun comes up because you can go look at birds. It’s a really healthy way to live.”
Zimmermann and the IPP care for birds that have been confiscated from smugglers, give them medical attention, train them to forage for food and socialize with other birds and, if possible, release them into their native habitat.
The IPP has released 1,200 birds into the wild in the last six years.
They’re also rescuing endangered species like the Abbotti cockatoo from extinction. There were only five Abbotti left in the wild in 1997, but thanks to the team’s work the population is up to 23, all living on the island of Masakambing.
The IPP offers eco-tours and reaches out to local communities – even down to the remotest tribes – to promote an appreciation for Indonesia’s rare birds. Meanwhile, an economic development program provides jobs for villagers who help protect birds from trappers and smugglers.
Birds stuffed in bottles
Animal smuggling is a thriving business in Indonesia, and it’s not limited to birds. Orangutans, monkeys, sun bears, jaguars and other wild animals are trapped and illegally funneled out of the country, typically passing through the Philippines on their way to be sold in China, India and the United Arab Emirates. About 70 percent of them don’t survive the trip, Zimmermann said.
The Indonesian government used to be of limited help to people like Zimmermann. During her first trip to the country in 2003, her team had to bribe an official with a digital camera to secure the release of confiscated parrots and cassowaries that would have died without proper care.
That all changed in 2015 after photos spread online of critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos that had been stuffed into plastic water bottles by a smuggler. The photos went viral on social media, and the international outcry, especially among young Indonesians, prompted the government to crack down on animal smuggling.
Since then, confiscations have risen dramatically, and the government is consulting with the IPP to establish reintroduction facilities in the country’s national parks, modeled on the IPP’s own facility on Seram Island.
Meanwhile, awareness has increased among the Indonesian people, who now build parade floats and do special dances to honor endangered cockatoos. Zimmermann said the dances are a little embarrassing for her to participate in, but it’s all in the name of fun and conservation.
People love to call Zimmermann “doctor,” but she’s not a trained scientist. She didn’t know much about birds until 1987, when she adopted an overweight parrot that had been abused by its former owner.
She started to learn everything she could about birds, reading books and taking ornithology classes. After she flew to the Peruvian Amazon to work with macaws, “I was hooked,” she said.
“I realized I love being in the forest, and I’m not afraid of anything really,” she said.
In 2003, she got a call seeking a fast-thinking, field-savvy person to run eco-tours in Indonesia. At the time she couldn’t have pointed the country out on a map, but by 2004 she was running the IPP’s eco-tour program, which she still runs today.
The IPP’s work is the subject of a new documentary by Wildlife Messengers, a Hungarian team of scientists and filmmakers with a passion for conservation.
The film will also cover the work of Dr. Stewart Metz, an Yale-educated endocrinologist and parrot lover who co-founded the IPP in 2001, became deeply respected and loved by the Indonesian people he worked with, and inspired Zimmermann to carry on his work. Metz developed cancer in 2008 and died in 2017.
The film is in post-production, and Zimmermann hopes to get it distributed by Netflix. A two-minute trailer is available at wildlifemessengers.org/ipp.
A follow-up film will delve deeper into Indonesia’s illegal animal trade and the government’s undercover operations aimed at disrupting it.
“It’s not unusual for them to pick up 200, 400 birds at a time,” Zimmermann said. “You can’t just let them go. They’ve been exposed to disease, they’re hurt, they don’t know how to take care of themselves. Sometimes they’ve been chained to a perch for 20 years or been pinioned.”
With the cooperation of the Indonesian government, more birds than ever are being saved. Zimmermann is flying back to Indonesia in October to work with government officials in charge of the national forests, and she has high hopes for the new reintroduction facilities.
“It’s very positive to see this attitude change,” she said. “The illegal trade is still really bad, but now they’re out there actively busting people. It used to be a slap on the hand. Now it’s jail time and fines.”