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[VIDEO] Man Reunites With ‘Dinosaur-Looking’ Shoebill Stork He First Met at 10: ‘She’s an Incredible Bird’


A shoebill stork, rescued as a young bird with injuries after Ugandan locals set fire to her habitat, made a huge impression on a visitor from the U.K., a 10-year-old boy from a family of zookeepers. Seventeen years later the pair have been reunited—and the stately stork, whose species is now critically endangered, still inspires awe.

Cameron Whitnall, 27, is a conservation champion, wildlife photographer, and TV host who works for his family’s two charities in southern England: Paradise Wildlife Park, and The Big Cat Sanctuary. And the shoebill stork is one of his favorite animals.

“The first time I saw a shoebill stork was at work when I was 10 years old, with my family, and it was Sushi,” Whitnall told The Epoch Times. “I just remember at the time being blown away, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t think it was real, I’d never seen one before, I’d never even heard of one … since that day, I’ve been obsessed with them.

“I just fell in love with her. The shoebill stork is just a fascinating bird, prehistoric dinosaur-looking, really tall, unique beak; everything about her was incredible.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

Sushi the shoebill stork lives at the Uganda Wildlife Education Conservation Center (UWECC), a rescue and rehabilitation facility, as part of their breeding program. Owing to the injuries she sustained, she cannot be released, “but that’s not a problem because Sushi alone has put shoebill storks on the map,” Whitnall said.

Since the family’s zoos are partnered with UWECC, Whitnall and his brothers have returned to Uganda to visit with the formidable bird twice, in 2018 and 2019. He discovered he was still in love with the bird.

“She is an incredible bird. I even got a tattoo on my leg of the shoebill stork because of the feeling they gave me. It was one of the experiences that I’ll never forget in my entire life,” Whitnall said.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

“We’ve been to try and see them in the wild twice,” he said. “Sadly, one of the times we didn’t see a shoebill stork [because] they’re very, very elusive, really hard to spot and see, and the other time we did see one but it was very far in the distance. We needed a very good camera lens or binoculars to see it … but that was really special.”

Shoebill storks, Balaeniceps rex, stand around a meter tall and must be approached with caution since they can be aggressive. Luckily, Whitnall says, there’s a way to gain the stork’s approval: a bowing ritual.

He explained: “Those eyes are powerful and wise when they stare right at you, and that big beak can be a little bit intimidating, but the way that they communicate is, especially with humans, they do a little ‘bowing match’ to greet and then they do a ‘clap’ with their beak … it sounds like a machine gun.”

As long as you copy the stork exactly, you’ll be fine, Whitnall said.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

Watch Whitnall and Sushi’s bowing ritual:

(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

Shoebill storks live between 30 and 40 years in the wild and can live up to 50 years in captivity. They prey on fish and small mammals and have even been known to attack small crocodiles. Despite their plummeting population, they have a callous approach to raising young, at least by human standards.

“They actually give birth to two chicks and the stronger chick will survive,” Whitnall said. “The weaker chick, the shoebill mother will actually eat.”

The shoebill stork is increasingly vulnerable to hunting, overfishing, and destruction of their native wetlands. They are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List and are on the radar of conservationists; Whitnall, who posts regularly on TikTokInstagram, and YouTube, is championing their cause every chance he gets and often goes viral with Sushi.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(L–R) The Whitnall brothers: Aaron, Tyler, and Cameron. (Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

Whitnall told The Epoch Times: “A lot of people think it’s simple to save animals. It’s really not; there’s a lot of politics involved … but there is a lot of work that can be done, and you can do it. All it takes is a simple shift to get involved, or if you want to take it further, donate to organizations or get out and do it yourself. There’s a lot of incredible volunteer programs all around the world.”

Whitnall and his brothers, Aaron and Tyler, star in a kids’ TV show for the BBC, “One Zoo Three,” in which they show life at the zoo and what it means to help protect animals, and inspire future generations to get involved in conservation. They have also taken their audience on the road to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda to look at the conservation work being done by some of their partner projects.

Whitnall, who counts Steve Irwin, David Attenborough, and his own grandfather among his greatest inspirations, describes growing up at the zoo with his brothers as “very, very surreal.”

“I could walk out my gate and go and see some lions and tigers, camels and penguins, and it was really special,” he explained. “We’re really lucky to be able to work with animals … I love them, it’s my passion. It’s what gets me up in the morning.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)
Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Cameron Whitnall)

The family’s relationship with Uganda began when they relocated two lions to a Ugandan education program around 14 years ago, when the species was in rapid decline. On trips to Uganda today, Whitnall is always on the lookout for familiar faces, new wildlife, and of course his ultimate favorite: the shoebill stork.

Whitnall urges anyone with the means to do so to experience Africa and its incredible wildlife. With numerous conservation trips coming up, he hopes to add to his photo portfolio and keep inspiring others to believe in conservation.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but as long as it’s around wildlife then I’m happy,” he said.

Share your stories with us at emg.inspired@epochtimes.com, and continue to get your daily dose of inspiration by signing up for the Inspired newsletter at TheEpochTimes.com/newsletter

Louise Chambers

Louise Chambers is a writer, born and raised in London, England. She covers inspiring news and human interest stories.





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