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Conservation of the Congo Peacock

Where did you get that feather in your cap?

OK, perhaps these weren’t the exact words uttered by James Chapin1 , a 22 year old student who was taking a break from his studies at Columbia University in New York City. It was 1913 and James was a member of an American expedition for about 4 years that was surveying the flora and fauna of the Congo Basin when he was given a single secondary flight feather from the hat of a local denizen. James couldn’t identify the origin of this feather.

More than 20 years passed. James worked on his massive number of bio-samples from the Congo, served during World War I as a translator, undertook several other expeditions to remote places in Central America and the islands of the Pacific. Then, in 1936 whilst working at the Congo Museum2 in Belgium, James entered a room where old and discarded specimens had been placed. To his amazement, he saw two mounted specimens of an unknown peacock-like bird that were said to originate from the Congo. Incredibly, James Chapin had found a match for his lone feather from the headdress. So in 1937 James led an expedition to the Congo and was successful in his search for the Afropavo congensi – the Congo Peacock.

There are a couple of conundrums that surround the elusive Congo Peacock. Firstly, all other peacocks are indigenous to Asia, so why is there a single peafowl species in a small landlocked range in Central Africa? Secondly, how had it remain undiscovered for so long, given that the area had been heavily surveyed by Chapin and others?

Let’s speculate. Firstly, the Congo Peahen has an external appearance that’s similar to herAsian cousins, with its feathered crown, light brown plumage with iridescent emerald feathers on its neck. Meanwhile the Congo Peacock also has a feathered crown similar to Asian peacocks as well as iridescent blue and green neck feathers of India’s Blue Peacock, but it’s here that the similarities finish. The cock bird doesn’t have the long fan tail that we associate with other Peacocks and although larger, it bears a closer resemblance to the different species of Guinea Fowl that pervade Africa.

Secondly3, the range of this bird is surprising small, 701,000 km2. 4 Its range straddles both the equator and the River Congo. Within this area the peafowl favours slopes within dry forest with shallow soil and open understory. The border of its northern range abuts but doesn’t overlap the range of the Black Guinea Fowl, which suggests a stand-off that prevents either bird extending its range North or South respectively probably because they fill similar ecological niches. Finally, field studies suggest that the African Peacock is absent from areas of the forest populated by humans which may be due to hunting, but whatever the reason the population density Congo Peafowl across its range is low and variable which may explain why this bird remained unknown to science until James Chapin’s persistence paid off.

Today, the conservation status of the African Peacock is vulnerable5 and an ex-situ breeding programme has been in place at Antwerp Zoo since 1962. In 1985 this became one of the first co-operative population management programmes – EEP (European Endangered species Programme)6 for which Antwerp still holds the studbook today. By 1988 the programme managed 108 birds across 17 zoos. During 1988, 5 zoos successfully raised 13 chicks from 6 pairs. At this stage, 6 of the EEP zoos were in the USA. Today, the EEP for the Congo Peacock manages 82 birds in 21 European locations. Today’s birds are descended from 6 wild caught (i.e. founders) peafowl, so an exchange of birds with American Zoos in the SSP (their equivalent of EEP) is likely to occur to maintain genetic diversity and avoid pairing between birds with close kinship within the captive breeding population.

Undoubtedly, the Congo Peacock has a fascinating back-story and a precarious future, but action by Antwerp and other responsible zoos will contribute to securing its survival.

David Lomas, 2012

  1. Obituary of James Paul Chapin
  2. Nowadays, the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervueren, Belgium (http://www.africamuseum.be/home)
  3. The Birds of Africa (Volume II) edited by Emil K. Urban, C. Hillary Fry and Stuart Keith; published by Academic Press
  4. www.birdlife.org/
  5. www.iucn.org
  6. www.eaza.net

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