Bob the flamingo standing in front of school children

Teacher-Bird. Bob delivers his message of conservation to a group of school children © Jasper Doest

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: meet Bob the flamingo

An image of a flashy pink flamingo named Bob on a routine walk through an urban environment featured in the fifty-fourth Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

Bob is helping to spread the conservation message on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

Standing tall in front of a group of small schoolchildren, Bob has an important job to do.

He has come to deliver an important message to the students on Curaçao about the need to respect and look after nature. He's there with his rescuer and now long-term carer Dr Odette Doest, who runs a veterinary practice and animal rehabilitation centre from her home.

As a victim of the sometimes fractious relationship between wildlife and humans, Bob is in a unique position to help deliver this message. By becoming an animal ambassador for Odette's conservation charity and wildlife rehabilitation centre Fundashon Dier en Onderwijs Cariben (FDOC), he is helping to teach the younger generation on the small Caribbean island about how to treat wild animals.

A wonderful series of images of Bob, captured by Odette's cousin and photographer Jasper Doest, are featured in the Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Story category. Taken over a number of trips to Curaçao, the photographs document Bob as he goes about his education work - visiting television studios and schools, and even riding on Odette's lap in the car. 

Flamingo in a television centre

Leg-Work. When Odette asked if she could bring a flamingo to the television centre, they thought she was talking about a fake one © Jasper Doest

'Visually, they are so striking,' says Jasper. 'Seeing a flamingo in an urban environment is crazy. It is not only a contrast in colour, but flamingos have a certain look on their face which I can't really articulate.

'It's seeing the flamingo for the first time walking through schools, seeing the kids' reactions and seeing the work that Odette is doing through Bob.' As the children meet Bob, and come to understand his situation, they build up a new respect for wildlife that they pass on.

Who is Bob?

Bob is an American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber).

Found from the Florida Keys in the north to the shores of Suriname in the south, and even as far west as the Galapágos, the American flamingo also lives on many of the islands dotted throughout the Caribbean Sea.

'The flamingos generally breed on the nearby island of Bonaire,' explains Jasper, making the short flight over to feed in the shallow, silty waters. 'So the population of flamingos on Curaçao is relatively small.'

But even though the number of flamingos on the island is small, they come through Odette's door in droves.

Flamingo under going surgery

Wing-Mending. Bob helps other flamingos in the care of Odette - such as George pictured here - settle into the new environment © Jasper Doest 

The birds face a number of threats, but according to Jasper one of the biggest is that many people on Curaçao just don't tend to respect the wildlife living on the island.

'I was surprised to hear that some people throw rocks at the birds,' says Jasper. 'People often regard and treat wildlife really poorly.'

In her practice, Odette regularly sees pelicans that have been abused by fishermen, birds caught in oil spills and even flamingos that have been savaged by dogs.

This is where Bob steps in.   

Bob the ambassador

Around two years ago, Odette got a call out to the Hilton hotel on Curaçao. There she found a poor, stunned flamingo that had just flown into the third storey of the building. She took him home, treated his injuries and tried to rehabilitate him.

Unfortunately, it appeared that not only was Bob simply too accustomed to people to be returned to the wild, he also had another debilitating injury known as bumble foot.  

As flamingos forage, they kick up the soft sediment at the bottom of shallow water with their large webbed feet. This disturbs the insects, aquatic invertebrates and small fishes that form the basis of their diet, which are then filtered by the flamingos using their strangely shaped bills.

If a flamingo spends too much time walking on hard surfaces it can deform their feet and lead to bumble foot, which can impact their ability to forage.

'This is very typical for flamingos that live in urban environments or captivity,' explains Jasper. 'Odette was afraid that he wouldn't survive in the wild.'

Odette stands in the kitchen with Bob and a cat

Animal Family. Odette lives with Bob and a whole menagerie of other animals, none of which seem to phase the flamingo © Jasper Doest

And so began Bob's career as an ambassador for the wildlife of Curaçao, along with Neil the pelican, Ricky the caracara and a whole host of other birds, with Odette at the helm. By taking them to educational outreach activities, she is helping the local people understand the importance of wildlife.

'Odette is a rock star in connecting with the kids, and it is amazing to see that,' says Jasper.  

A shifting connection

The series continues Jasper's exploration of the relationships being meted out between people and the wildlife that surrounds us, from the aspects that are more challenging to stories like Bob's which help to inspire.

'I'm fascinated by the weird relationship we have with other species,' explains Jasper. 'From the way we treat our pets to how major urban developments are taking place in different environments.

'I don't want to only focus on the wildlife but the thin line between man and nature, because we belong to the planet just as all the other species.'

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