The World’s Most Traded Wild Birds? Senegal Parrots, color morphs, and the wild-caught bird trade…

Over the last 30 years as many as 3 million wild Senegal parrots have been removed from the wild – 811,408 CITES Export permits have been issued since 1975. Unregulated trade in African parrots peaked in the 1980s and ’90s, and still exists today. This lucrative black market industry is fueled by profiteering middlemen who exploit wild bird populations. In 2005, the Senegal parrot was the most traded bird on the CITES Appendix II, with an average of over 45,000 individuals being removed from the wild each year. Today, African parrots remain among the most traded species on earth. See some alarming photographs from a market in Mali and enjoy some rare footage of Senegal parrots and rose-ringed parakeets in the wild…
Michele Roberts/Cape Parrot Project
Senegal parrots make wonderful companions and are very common in captivity in the United States and Europe for this reason. Before 1992, however, the United States imported hundreds of thousands of wild-caught Senegal parrots from West Africa. (Michele Roberts/Cape Parrot Project)
Bruce Wilson
Hand-raised Senegal parrot perched on a branch. This parrot thinks that at some point it will grow up into a human being. He/she has no idea what it is to be wild and is ready to be a companion to a lucky owner. How do we differentiate between wild-caught and captive-bred birds? (Bruce Wilson/Cape Parrot Project)
City Parrots
Feral Senegal parrot that lives near The Hague (Netherlands). Huge numbers of wild-caught Senegal parrots were exported to Europe and United States. (City Parrots)
Cyril Laubscher
Portrait of a rose-ringed parakeet. Distributed across the entire Sahel they have one of the widest distributional ranges of any parrot in Africa. These successful, aggressive generalists have managed to establish themselves in many large cities in Africa and Europe. (Cyril Laubscher)

 

The Senegal parrot forms part of a superspecies that also includes the Ruppell’s parrot, Meyer’s parrot, Red-billed parrot, Brown-headed parrot, and Niam-Niam parrot. These Poicephalus parrots are among the hardiest parrots on earth being able to survive in the harsh, seasonal African subtropics. All of their range states are under serious pressure from the booming charcoal industry, out-of-control commercial logging contractors, burning by local people for pastures and agriculture, as well as the longre term ravages of climate change. Deforestation rates on the continent are now twice that of the rest of the world and harvesting quotas are trending upwards as forest certification becomes less relevant with booming emerging markets in the Far East. Countries like Zambia, Kenya and Malawi have almost lost all old-growth forests and forest restoration has become absolutely essential to save endemic forest bird species. People in emerging markets are simply “keeping up with the Jones’s” (who already have hardwood floors) and are completely detached from the devastation they are causing on the African continent and elsewhere. Even if these people and others did know about forest patches and the species that rely on them disappearing, would they care? Or better put should they care? We cannot sit here in judgement of them without fully understanding their life experience by having lived it. All we can do is lead by example, share this information as widely as possible, and invest in projects that develop alternative livelihoods for rural communities that should be the custodians of our remaining wilderness areas.

 

Long-lived forest specialists like Senegal parrots and rose-ringed parakeets are particularly sensitive to forest degradation. The added pressure of the wild-caught bird trade is often catastrophic, resulting in local extinctions in many Africa countries. Meyer’s parrots have all but disappeared from South Africa, African grey parrots are no longer seen in Kenya or Tanzania, Ruppell’s parrot and the brown-headed parrot have disappeared from much of their ranges in Namibia and Mozambique respectively, and the Cape parrot is only found in small forest refuges in the high mountains. Anyone who has traveled by road in Africa will tell you that every time you are in or near a forest you will start seeing parrots in cages or with their feet tied up on the roadside. Africa is exporting its parrots, its wildlife, its birdlife, its natural heritage, its soul… You see these animals, plants and minerals at the ports, airports, borders, railway depots, and major city centers. If there are parrots in the region you will find them in the local markets, more often than not dying from malnutrition and disease. These are the parrots that the traders, exporters and middlemen that drive the wild-caught bird trade would not include in their latest shipment overseas. Do we want these skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring (UK) to be all we have left of the wild populations?

 

Steve Boyes/Natural History Museum at Tring (UK)
Skins of the six Poicephalus parrots comprising the P. meyeri superspecies. These are the quintessential African parrots best evolved for life on this harsh continent. (Steve Boyes/Natural History Museum at Tring (UK))

 

Witnessing African parrots in the wild is a very special experience. They are extremely high energy and somehow seem out of place in this wild and dangerous place. Their shrieks, whistles and calls usually appear cheerful and happy as they soar above the forest canopy, adding much need color to the all too utilitarian color scheme employed by most birds in the subtropics where predation is a huge risk. My PhD fieldwork on Meyer’s Parrot in the Okavango Delta revealed the degree to which you can interact with these intelligent little parrots. You learn about their complex society that supports pair-bonding for life, strong family ties, and the opportunity to grow up into a responsible adult parrot capable of breeding successfully. Young Meyer’s parrots were inquisitive and fun to be with, allowing me to climb into the tree with them and photograph them. Adult females at the nest cavity would get to know us very well and vocalize to tell the male that we were “Ok” and would not harm them or give away their location. Wild Meyer’s parrots are constantly sharing information with each other about social events, food resources, emotion, threat, and tragedy. Information is power and to protect it they have established local dialects to ensure more benefit for locals over seasonal nomads. Poicephalus parrots visibly have moods, personalities and emotions. You can literally feel this when there are enough parrots sharing the same emotion and vocalizing about it. This could be happiness, simple excitement, alarm, anxiety or simply confused discussion about something new like you. African parrots have taken my breath away many, many times and deserve to be free…

 

Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com
Senegal parrots are relatively rare in the wild today. Most of your contact with Senegal parrots in West Africa will be in the markets. (Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com)
Ralitza Tchiorniy
Brown-headed parrot hanging in front of the entrance to a nest cavity in a large hardwood tree targeted by the charcoal trade in the region. (Ralitza Tchiorniy)
Cyril Laubscher
Sequence of a captive Meyer's parrot flying to a perch in a studio. These tough little parrots have the largest distributional range of any African parrot and have been put forward as the ancestral species for the subregion. (Cyril Laubscher)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Pair of Meyer's parrot fledglings feeding on a sausage fruit in the Okavango Delta (Botswana). When they are this young, you are able to climb up into the tree with them. They are very inquisitive. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
© Diana May. All rights reserved. Source: World Parrot Trust – http://www.parrots.org
Timneh grey parrots flying away from a communal drinking point. These are most often the capture sites for hundreds upon hundreds of these parrots using nylon snares and fishing nets. (Diana May)

Rare video footage of the Senegal parrot in the wild:

http://youtu.be/Ky_mitNnDms

Rare video footage of rose-ringed parakeets in the wild:

http://youtu.be/e5F0-JjLKoc

 

On a recent trip to West Africa, Michael Sazhin (www.TrainedParrot.comwww.TheParrotForum.com), was aiming to survey the forest habitat of two popular African parrot species, the Senegal parrot and rose-ringed parakeet. Footage and photos of these parrots in the wild is very rare and remaining wild populations are sparsely distributed. In addition, most wild populations are still heavily harvested for the wild-caught bird trade, depleting local wild populations and making Michael’s job even harder. Often the best forest habitat for these species is in the cities of the region, which brings these parrots into contact with people and the associated problems. Trees survive in the city because specific people own them… There are few stable African parrot populations outside of protected areas and even these are not as healthy as they should be. Unfortunately, most of the parrots that Michael encountered were wild-caught and in very poor conditions in street markets. These are the parrots that the commercial traders and exporters did not want. All will die if they are not purchased and sometimes business is slow…

 

Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com
“The only Senegal Parrots I saw in Senegal were a pair of wild caughts for sale at the side of a road in the capital city of Dakar. As we were driving through heavy traffic, the seller of these parrots walked up to the car sticking the cage up to the window offering both of them with cage for 20 euros (approximately $30 USD).” (Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com)

Video footage of this man selling parrots to Michael Sazhin:

http://youtu.be/FUHVtGk0QFI

 

Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com
"Atop a garbage pail was a small round cage housing nearly 20 parrots and parakeets. The condition of the cage was so crammed that some of the parrots had to cling to the cage bars or stand on top of other birds. The poor condition of the parrots was evident through plucked feathers, missing eyes, missing limbs, and weak stance. Tossed on the bottom of the cage amidst feces was chicken feed mainly consisting of corn. Despite their tragic lives, the Senegal Parrots still gave off that typical parrot curiosity and watched me as I approached." (Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com)
Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com
"The market parrots were mostly being sold to local people (often as decorations for offices and hotels) but some to smugglers to be taken abroad. To show a parrot to perspective customers, the vendor opens a small door on the cage and reaches his arm in. The parrots immediately go into a frenzy and start jumping over each other to try to evade the approaching hand. Meanwhile he starts grabbing and pulling by their wings until they can no longer hold on and fall into his reach." (Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com)
Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com
"During the last segment of my trip in Bomako Mali, I was taken to see the local parrot market. Scattered on the side of the street under cover of trees were about a dozen vendors and many cages. At least as many other kinds of local birds were offered as parrots. Parrots came in two varieties: Rose Ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) and Senegal parrots (Poicephalus senegalus)." (Michael Sazhin/www.TrainedParrot.com)

 

International trade in wild-caught parrots threatens the persistence of many wild populations around the world. Indonesia, the Philippines, and several African countries (e.g. Senegal, Cameroon, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) are among the major exporters of wild parrots. Around Africa parrots are being treated like commodities by desperate people being taken advantage of by unscrupulous traders and middlemen. The parrots are not the only victims here. This unethical and unsustainable trade needs to be brought to a halt before it is too late. Rural communities need to find sustainable livelihoods have no impact on biodiversity and the ecosystems thats support it. People that own, love, and breed parrots around the world need to stand up and unite against the wild-caught bird trade. We have learnt enough over the last century about breeding birds in captivity to be able to supply the needs of the international bird trade. Please submit your thoughts and comments below this blog post…

 

Mark Brown/University of KwaZulu-Natal
Madagascar lovebirds in a market where they are sold for close to nothing... (Mark Brown/University of KwaZulu-Natal)
Bruce Wilson/Cape Parrot Project
African grey parrots being prepared for market by local traders... (Bruce Wilson/Cape Parrot Project)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Brown-headed parrots with broken wings trying to survive in a market in Mozambique. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)
World Parrot Trust/PASA
Grey parrots crammed into a travel crate and smuggled to emerging markets. Many die in transit of stress, dehydration and smothering. (World Parrot Trust/PASA)

 

We need to ensure that, in the future, all Senegal parrots in captivity (like the one below) are all captive-bred and hand-raised. After heavy regulation since 1992, the United States has proven that all African parrot species can be effectively bred in captivity and there is no need to source any species from the wild.

 

Mylene LaCroix/Cape Parrot Project
Captive Senegal parrot posing for the photographer. They form amazing bonds with their human companions... (Mylene LaCroix/Cape Parrot Project)
Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries
Brown-necked parrot hatchling at Old World Aviaries. These parrots are threatened by habitat loss and the wild-caught bird trade. Why do we continue to put pressure on wild populations? (Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries)
Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries
Baby, captive-bred African grey parrot chicks hatched at Old World Aviaries. Why do we still remove over 100,000 African grey parrots from the wild each year? Why did South Africa import over 5,400 wild-caught African grey parrots when we exported almost 25,000 in the same year? (Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries)
Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries
Juvenile Senegal parrot just before fledging age. These popular parrots are easily bred in captivity without any use of wild-caught parrots. (Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries)
Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries
Jardine parrot chicks at Old World Aviaries. We are unsure of how these parrots are doing in the wild...? (Scott Lewis/Old World Aviaries)

 

Does it not make sense for us to ban international trade in any birds that looks like their wild cousins? What I mean by this is that only captive-bred color morphs (e.g. pink African grey parrots) that cannot be confused with wild parrots would be allowed into international trade. The movement of what appear to be wild, indigenous species should not leave their country of origin. If captive populations need to be established to save a species from extinction, then this should be done within their natural distributional range. A color morph is the direct result of selective breeding by aviculturalists and part of this process is domestication. We have discussed the application of DNA fingerprinting to identify wild-caught birds, but this research is proving to be costly and the results often inconclusive. We have seen captive-bred color morphs of the rosy-faced lovebird establish a growing population on the South African south coast. There are concerns around their use of the indigenous Cape weaver nests for breeding. At least these escapees were far from their established distributional range and are easily identifiable. Please submit your thoughts and comments below this blog post… Is this a viable option? Are color morphs a threat to the gene pools of captive parrot populations? Why do we need wild genes introduced periodically to captive populations?

 

David Dennison/Avizamdum
"Pink" African grey parrots were bred over hundreds of generations to achieve 100% coverage in these feathers. The first pink African Greys were sold for over $150,000. Are clear color morphs not an option for the regulation of the wild-caught bird trade? Disallow ownership of birds that look like their wild cousins...? (David Dennison/Avizamdum)
Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust
Yellow color morph of a Rosy-faced Lovebird from Namibia. Escapees have established a growing population on South African south coast using Cape weaver nests for breeding. (Steve Boyes/Wild Bird Trust)

Human Journey

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Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.