Gary Strafford, a Zimbabwean falconer, reacts with a parrot at his bird sanctuary Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

Gary Strafford, a Zimbabwean falconer, reacts with a parrot at his bird sanctuary Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

Visitors watch a bird in flight at the bird sanctuary near Harare, Zimbabwe. (AP)

Visitors watch a bird in flight at the bird sanctuary near Harare, Zimbabwe. (AP)

Gary Strafford holds an owl inside one of the cages at Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

Gary Strafford holds an owl inside one of the cages at Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

Visitors! Finally! A child interacts with a bird at Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

Visitors! Finally! A child interacts with a bird at Kuimba Shiri. (AP)

A family visiting the sanctuary admires a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world. (AP)

A family visiting the sanctuary admires a peregrine falcon, the fastest bird in the world. (AP)

“Hello . . . Hello?”

Posted: September 1, 2020

A fish eagle swoops over the water at Zimbabwe’s Kuimba Shiri bird park. It grabs a fish in its talons. A martial eagle, a black eagle, an Egyptian vulture, and hundreds of other birds flit nearby.

Rare species including falcons, flamingos, and vultures make their home at Kuimba Shiri, the only bird park in Zimbabwe. The park boasts plenty of birds—around 400 species! What the sanctuary lacks is people.

Park owner Gary Strafford has always loved birds. He started the park for injured, orphaned, and abandoned birds in 1992. Tourism has kept the park going. “This place is a dream place for me,” he says.

But Zimbabwe seems stuck in a nightmare, not a dream. In 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. Zimbabwean money became worthless. The sanctuary struggled to make ends meet. Many birds starved to death. Those that could fend for themselves were released into the wild. Now the coronavirus tests the park again.

“I thought I had survived the worst, but this coronavirus is something else,” Mr. Strafford says. “One-third of our visitors are from China. They stopped coming in February.”

Mr. Strafford sold his vehicles and a tractor to feed the birds. Next, he hopes to sell a land excavator, a boat, a truck, another tractor, and sheep.

The park usually teems with children on school trips. Now the only sound of life comes from singing birds perched on the edges of large enclosures. A parrot standing on a flower pot at the entrance shouts “Hello!” over and over.

“He misses people, especially the children,” says Mr. Strafford.

But there is some hope. Zimbabwe has begun to let some people come tour the country again. The sanctuary can open to limited numbers of visitors.

 “I have started training the birds again,” says Mr. Strafford. “We are beginning to fly again!”