By Tracy Brighten
Our fascination with intelligent parrots drives harvesting and poaching of wild birds, with the African grey suffering catastrophic decline
When we’re looking for an animal to keep as a pet, we think about food, exercise, and affordability. But how much thought do we give to where the animal came from? When we buy exotic birds through online ads or breeders, we may unknowingly support the plunder of wild species. The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is one such species.
A plain parrot in comparison with the more flamboyant macaw or cockatoo, this medium-sized grey bird with poppy red tail is a popular companion bird. What may be lacking in dazzling colour is more than made up for in intelligence and speaking ability, demonstrated by the work of American animal behavioural scientist Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Pepperberg worked with African grey parrot Alex for thirty years, revealing cognitive ability never thought possible in a bird. Alex had a vocabulary of more than 100 words, he understood concepts of colour, shape, size and number, and he could add up. Solving puzzles on a par with a five year old, this remarkable African grey parrot changed our thinking about bird brains. Alex & Me tells the story of their friendship and ground-breaking research.
But the African grey parrot is fast disappearing in the wild, its popularity in part contributing to its depletion. A catastrophic population decline has occurred over the last twenty years due to habitat destruction and trapping for the pet trade.
New study shows African grey parrot plummets by 90% in Ghana
Despite anecdotal evidence of fewer sightings, no scientific research had previously been carried out to provide quantitative data on population changes in any country in the African grey parrot’s range, from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa, through Nigeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, going east to Uganda and Western Kenya.
Scientists from Manchester Metropolitan University and Birdlife International compared historical abundance data of African grey parrots in Ghana from Dandliker’s 1992 study with their study data collected in 2012 to 2014.
Researchers found that Ghana’s grey parrot population has declined by 90% to 99% since 1992. Similar declines are indicated across the entire West African range for this species, as well as for the closely related timneh African grey parrot (Psittacus timneh) in its smaller range.
Population decline estimates are often limited by the lack of robust historical data, but this study used the same 22 roost locations as Dandliker’s study to conduct new surveys. No active roosts were found this time and in three roosts where 700 to 1200 grey parrots were counted in 1992, only 18 were found.
Lead author Nathaniel Annorbah, a Ghanaian doctoral student, and co-authors Nigel Collar and Stuart Marsden also interviewed local people for their perception on grey parrot abundance.
The consensus among 906 villagers across roost locations is that population decline has been caused by trapping for the pet trade, as well as the destruction of tall trees used for nesting and roosting.
Active or previously active bird traders interviewed in urban areas said supply in grey parrots is now negligible. Traders at urban markets put grey parrot prices at the equivalent of US$230, reaching US$330 to US$660 if birds are sold to expatriates. But of the 23 ex-trappers interviewed, 9 said that income became unsustainable in the mid-1990s. Some trappers turned to farming, but many immigrated to neighbouring countries to continue parrot trapping.
Ghana’s increasing population, from 8.5 million in 1970 to 24.2 million in 2010, has also contributed to the grey parrot crisis, shown by the reduction in forest coverage from 74,480 km² in 1991 to 49,400 km² in 2010. Grey parrot habitat is diminishing in size and quality due to extensive deforestation and from logging tall trees in forests and on adjacent farmland, where parrots have also been found to nest.
Catastrophic decline in grey parrots across West and Central Africa
Annorbah’s study corroborates anecdotal evidence of the grey parrot’s near disappearance from Ghana and indicates that further population studies are needed. According to Birdlife International, the crisis extends beyond Ghana, with population declines indicated in 14 out of 18 range countries.
“The rate of decline is hard to quantify, but given the massive level of capture for trade and the high levels of forest loss in parts of the range, a decline of 30-49% in three generations (47 years) may be a conservative estimate.”
The African grey parrot is the most traded CITES-listed bird. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Flora and Fauna Species (CITES) was set up in 1973 to limit unsustainable global trade in threatened species. P. erithacus is listed under Appendix II – “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
Birdlife International estimates over 1 million erithacus and timneh parrots have been taken from the wild. This estimate is based on CITES records for wild-caught birds entering international trade from 1982 to 2001, and accounts for deaths in capture and transit, as well as unreported illegal trade. In addition to international trade, a domestic trade supplies birds for pets and exhibits. Parrots are also hunted for bushmeat and body parts used in medicine and black magic.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has upgraded the grey parrot to ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. If habitat destruction and trapping activities are not curtailed, the next warning is ‘Endangered’, followed by ‘Critically Endangered’, and then ‘Extinct in the Wild’ – the final impact of human greed and apathy.
Consumer demand for grey parrot surges in Asia and the Middle East
With a long lifespan of 50 to 80 years and an amazing ability to talk, the African grey parrot is one of the most popular avian pets in Europe, the U.S and the Middle East.
Wild-caught mature greys are often taken from the wild to be used as breeding stock because despite the initial outlay, it’s more cost effective than waiting for captive-bred birds to reach breeding age. South Africa has become a hub for the pet trade, with breeders even creating a confusingly named ‘Red’ grey parrot that fetches US$150,000 to US$200,000 per bird with its prized rarity.
Emerging markets for wild parrots in Asia and the Middle East is a red flag to conservation groups. Birdlife International reports concern that Chinese businessmen in Central Africa, especially those involved in logging, could be profiting from illegal parrot exports. China has a poor record on wildlife conservation and animal welfare, especially in Africa with domestic demand for ivory and rhino horn a major factor in poaching.
The trade in wild-caught birds is highly lucrative. In Cameroon, the legal trade in grey parrots based on the annual export quota was worth around US$3 million in 2013, according to Birdlife International. Profit from the illegal wildlife trade has been compared to drug and arms trafficking and is equally difficult to police.
Birdlife International identifies multiple factors in trade-associated grey parrot decline: “over-harvesting arising from use of poorly-founded quotas; poor management and regulation of trade, including exceeded quotas, due to limited capacity and resources of authorities; high pre-export mortality from poor handling… and a large illegal trade due to weak enforcement.”
Campaigns to protect African greys
Before the U.S ban on unrestricted exotic bird imports in 1992, the U.S had been the second largest importer of parrots, behind Europe. The ban led to a significant reduction in the wild-caught parrot trade. In 2005, the European Commission banned the import of wild-caught parrots in response to 200 organisations led by the World Parrot Trust (WPT). The EU ban is estimated to have prevented the import of 2 million birds and spared 2 million more birds from cruel deaths from manhandling in trapping and transportation.
Through its FlyFree Campaign, WPT is involved in international projects that intercept smuggling and return parrots to the wild. In 2010, 108 grey parrots were confiscated in Bulgaria, en route from Lebanon to Europe with falsified CITES documentation. After 3 years in quarantine, the 33 birds that survived the stress of captivity were rehabilitated in Uganda where trapping and trade is banned. Only 17 made it back to the wild.
WPT was also involved in the confiscation of 500 grey parrots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2010. Indicative of the corruption that hampers conservation in Africa, government officials returned the birds to traders before they could be released into the wild.
South Africa a hub for wild-caught parrot trade
South Africa is also heavily involved in the cruelty and corruption of the parrot trade. Over 700 African grey parrots died in horrifying circumstances on a one hour flight from Johannesburg to Durban. They were part of an order of 1,650 adults caught in the DRC to be sold to South African breeders. On another occasion, 150 greys were confiscated at a border crossing with DRC only to be handed to a bird trader by the public prosecutor despite no proof of ownership.
Dr Steve Boyes, Wild Bird Trust scientific director and National Geographic explorer, investigated the airline tragedy and the changing stories on cause of death. He believes South Africa needs to improve standards and practices to the level found in the U.S, European Union, Australia and Canada.
“Most officials involved in the wildlife trade need additional training on bird identification, access to reference materials, and exposure to international quarantine, animal handling, and customs officials,” said Boyes.
Boyes questions why South Africa exported over 25,000 captive-bred African grey parrots in 2009, yet imported 5,400 wild-caught greys from DRC (exceeding DRC quota of 5,000). The answer lies in wild-caught parrots used as breeding stock in South African ‘bird mills’ to produce thousands of pre-weaned chicks for the growing market in the Far East. Breeding age wild-caught birds can be profitable straight away. With captive-bred birds, breeders looking for breeding stock would have to wait for new chicks to be weaned by the parent bird, with a further delay while the youngster reaches breeding maturity.
Wild-caught breeding birds live a miserable life, with chicks removed pre-weaning to encourage more breeding and more chicks on the conveyor belt of pet trade profit. By comparison, pet birds with responsible owners live a comfortable life, but prospective parrot owners can check parentage to avoid supporting the abhorrent wild-caught trade.
With the 2016 CITES Conference of the Parties taking place in Johannesburg, you might expect South Africa to up their game on vulnerable species conservation. But their involvement in the wild parrot trade and their desire to re-open the debate on a legal ivory trade suggests that wildlife conservation is secondary to wildlife exploitation.
Over-exploitation of wildlife through uncontrolled trade
The international parrot trade is made easier by poor enforcement of CITES regulations for vulnerable species, as well as local trappers trying to make a living from what they see as a natural resource to be utilised. Trappers are unaware of the wider environmental impact of species depletion, and may see no alternative income.
Where grey parrot populations have not yet been harvested to depletion, nestlings are pulled from nesting holes, glue sticks are used on perching branches, and birds are netted en-masse when flocks come to drink at watering holes or rivers. Trappers face injury or death when climbing tall roosting trees, while buyers, exporters and international breeders stand to gain the most financially.
In 2012, supported by 41,000 signatures from 130 countries, the World Parrot Trust petitioned CITES to remove quotas from the last two exporters of African grey parrots. Cameroon and DRC far exceed their respective export quotas of 3,000 and 5,000 greys each year, and an estimated 50% more birds are trapped than survive to export due to manhandling and being crammed in small crates. WPT said CITES was failing in its mission to protect wildlife from unsustainable trade, but CITES ignored the plea to remove quotas.
Birdlife International project to monitor and regulate trade
In 2013, a project instigated by CITES and funded by the European Union was set up by Birdlife International Africa to look at protecting African grey and timneh parrots. The project aims include setting sustainable quotas for parrot range countries based on scientific population survey data, and implementing national management plans, which include regular parrot population monitoring by trained rangers.
“These birds are particularly hard to survey in the wild, due to their flocking behaviour and preference for forest habitat. What we have done is to develop a standardised set of methods that can be put in place anywhere that African Greys are found, to monitor them in a reliable, easy, cost-effective way,” says Dr Stuart Marsden who designed the project’s framework of methods for assessing parrot populations.
In the project report, Strengthening Capacity for Monitoring and Regulation of International Trade of African Grey Parrot, the five African countries studied – Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of the Congo – are said to have a legal framework in place to combat illegal trapping, but enforcement is sporadic and open to corruption.
Although the African grey is a protected species in DRC, the report identified complex and confusing wildlife protection legislation that is poorly enforced with required permits not obtained and closed seasons for capture ignored. The project interviewed trappers and buyers whose logbooks showed at least half of all parrots caught will die before they are exported from Kinshasa.
DRC was found to have no survey data to show the CITES annual quota of 5,000 greys is sustainable, “DRC is huge and we know almost nothing about densities across the country. Many more data are needed to inform on likely quotas.” The Lukuru Foundation tracked the export of 6,300 African greys from eastern DRC over a four month period last year.
Protection legislation should include regulations on capture age, locations (abundant populations), and seasonality (non-breeding), as well as transport requirements and duration limits, price guides and revenue sharing, and controls to prevent permit falsification, the report says. Captive breeding in range states could be supported by increasing taxation on wild-caught birds and government assisted captive breeding facilities.
In concluding, Birdlife International Africa is clear on the importance of law enforcement, “any establishment of quotas is meaningless without concomitant proof that they will be enforced and that the trade and capture of AGP will be effectively monitored.”
With local extinctions having already occurred within range countries, time is running out for the African grey parrot. Effective management plans and sustainable quotas could come too late.
Committed to ending the wild-caught bird trade, Dr Rowan Martin, director of WPT ‘Save Africa’s Parrots’ project, wants a status change for grey parrots. A CITES Appendix I listing would stop commercial trade of grey parrots. Although it wouldn’t stop illegal trapping, it could no longer be disguised in legal quotas.
The CITES conference in September will be an opportunity for conservation groups to provide evidence of illegal trade, as well as population survey data and species management plans.
African conservationist Steve Boyes expresses the significance of the grey parrot to the natural world and why we must protect this intelligent and charismatic bird.
“A tropical African forest without grey parrots cavorting in the high canopy is like an ocean without waves.”
African grey parrot head and face By Paul McGuire (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
African grey parrot eating apple By Peter F. (originally posted to Flickr as thanksgiving) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Wild-caught parrots in crate by World Parrot Trust
African grey parrot fledglings by Terese Hart on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)
Wild-caught bait birds tied to perches by Terese Hart on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)
African grey parrot with glue on wings by Terese Hart on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)
Dr Terese Hart is Director of the Lukuru Foundation’s TL2 Project
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