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“African Grey Mafia” Threaten Grey Parrots in Wild

African grey parrots are the most populous non-human Africans outside of Africa… These charismatic parrots are our most important ambassadors, charming people around the world with vocabularies of up to 200 words and advanced cognitive abilities. For at least 50 years, grey parrots have been among the most internationally-traded wild birds on earth. CITES (the Convention...

African grey parrots are the most populous non-human Africans outside of Africa… These charismatic parrots are our most important ambassadors, charming people around the world with vocabularies of up to 200 words and advanced cognitive abilities. For at least 50 years, grey parrots have been among the most internationally-traded wild birds on earth. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) trade records and the most up-to-date research estimate that more than 4 million grey parrots have been captured for the wild-caught bird trade, for their feathers and heads, or simply for bushmeat. Local extinctions have occurred throughout their range with grey parrots disappearing from forests in Uganda, Rwanda, Cameroon, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, and elsewhere in central and West Africa. We are removing this iconic parrots from the map of Africa by capturing an estimated 21% of the global population every year. Why, in 2009, did South Africans import just over 5,000 wild-caught grey parrots from the DRC and then export over 25,000 grey parrots in the same year? Why do we need so many wild-caught African grey parrots when we can breed them so effectively? 

Please listen to this interview with Boyd Matson about the unethical and unsustainable trade in wild-caught African grey parrots on National Geographic Weekend in November 2011 (photos and video provided by the World Parrot Trust and PASA)… 


© Diana May. All rights reserved. Source: World Parrot Trust –
African grey parrots feeding in the wild. © Diana May. All rights reserved. Source: World Parrot Trust –
World Parrot Trust / PASA
Stressed out and mistreated grey parrots being unpacked from crates at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon. (World Parrot Trust / PASA)
World Parrot Trust / PASA
Confiscated, wild-caught grey parrots in their own faeces being unpacked at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon. These parrots live for 60-80 years, have advanced cognitive abilities and complex social interactions, and should be treated with the respect and care they deserve. (World Parrot Trust / PASA)
Bruce Wilson/Cape Parrot Project
African grey parrots being prepared for market by local traders… (Bruce Wilson/Cape Parrot Project)


How many wild-caught bird trade are traded internationally every year?

In 1975, an mind-boggling estimated 7.5 million wild-caught birds were traded around the world. Thousands upon thousands of birds, reptiles, fish and wildlife at international airports, ports and borders resulted in CITES and by the 1990s estimated global trade had come down to less than 5 million wild birds per year. Over recent decades trade figures have dropped due to the halt on wild-caught bird imports into the European Union and the tightening of international laws controlling the wildlife trade. To put today’s global trade in wild-caught birds, which stands at 1-2 million per annum, an estimated 750 million chickens, ducks, turkeys and other poultry are traded internationally each year. The modern world owes a huge debt to birds and a great way of paying this back is protecting wild birds from the wild-caught bird trade. As can se seen in this series of photographs, the wild birds always lose out and this needs to change…


Photos courtesy of World Parrot Trust
Photos courtesy of World Parrot Trust
Photos courtesy of World Parrot Trust
Photos courtesy of World Parrot Trust


Why use wild-caught African grey parrots that are potentially diseased?

People around the world associate parrots with cages and do not instantly visualize them flying free, high above the tree canopy in large, squawking flocks. Budgies and cockatiels are the most popular pet birds on earth followed by the grey parrot. We are now very good at breeding all three and do not need to rely on wild populations. The only problem is that the commercial bird breeding business plan today is better suited to short-lived, small-bodied parrots and finches, not grey parrots that live for up to 80 years and take a long time before they start breeding. Budgie and cockatiel breeders are so successful that wild-caught budgies and cockatiels traders cannot compete with them. As a well-known aviculturalists says: “You can breed cockatiels in a shoebox almost right away.” The European Union banned the importation of wild-caught birds after a few scares with H5N1 avian influenza appearing at airports in imported wild-caught birds, so there is a very strong food security and animal health argument for banning the trade in wild-caught birds around the world. H5N1 cost billions of dollars to bring under control and destroyed many local economies based on the poultry industry. Why then do we risk importing wild-caught grey parrots?


Grey parrots only start breeding at about 10 years old and need to be parent-raised for several years after hatching. Veterinary bills, housing costs, and good quality food over 10 years costs a huge amount of money. This makes using 10-year-old captive-bred grey parrots in commercial breeding facilities very difficult. This is not to saw that dedicated aviculturalists do not establish breeding facilities that sustainably supply grey parrot chicks at low prices to local and international markets. As a result of easy, cheap, legal access to wild-caught grey parrots in South Africa, “bird mills” have sprung up everywhere that use hundreds of wild-caught breeding pairs to produce thousands upon thousands of eggs and pre-weaned chicks for export. Healthy wild parrots are captured in tropical forests in the DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon and elsewhere, transported to markets, sexed and selected by veterinarians, and then sold to importers. Middlemen then sell shipments of 500-1,000 grey parrots for $60,000-100,000. This initial capital outlay is a fraction of the costs over 10 years to raise a grey parrot for breeding. All a misguided entrepreneur needs is a simple breeding facility and they have a lucrative grey parrot export business on their hands. In South Africa, organized crime has taken over the grey parrot export industry and have established global syndicates linked to Singapore, USA, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bahrain, Philippines and Taiwan. With the criminals has come a well-financed lobby to protect the trade in wild-caught birds and the rapid decay in the overall standards and practices in the South African avicultural industry.


World Parrot Trust / PASA
A view into the hell that these “Near Threatened” grey parrots have to go through before being quarantined for months and then condemned to a shortened life in a “bird mill”. (World Parrot Trust / PASA)
Karen Grace/Cape Parrot Project
Grey parrots make wonderful companions and can become a member of the family. (Karen Grace/Cape Parrot Project)
World Parrot Trust / PASA
Confiscated, wild-caught African grey parrots at the Lwiro Primate Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (World Parrot Trust / PASA)
Laura Tomini/Cape Parrot Project
Grey parrot that has been neglected. Is this a suitable fate for a very intelligent, wild-caught bird? (Laura Tomini/Cape Parrot Project)


“African Grey Mafia”

A small group of fraudsters and smugglers, the “African Grey Mafia” have dominated the trade in parrots and monkeys in South Africa for the past two decades. This trade is conservatively valued at more than US$50 million per year. Foreign currency profits are often re-invested into the importation of wild-caught endangered species such as Scarlet macaws (through the Philippines) and cockatoos (through New Zealand). In 2007, Phillipus Fourie was busted by customs officials at Auckland International Airport with 44 endangered cockatoo eggs hidden in special compartments sewn into a vest. In 2008, another young South African attempted to smuggle hundreds of rare Madagascan chameleons, snakes, lizards and frogs in his jacket and luggage. We do not have much left in our forests, oceans, grasslands and wetlands… The only remedy in Africa or anywhere else for that matter is to halt all further trade in wild-caught birds and find alternative livelihoods for local communities previously dependent on this trade. The days of being blindly pro-trade are over, the wild-caught bird trade is no longer a viable source of income for remote rural communities. Most  legitimate aviculturalists that do not use wild-caught birds and parrots as breeding stock have had to become non-commercial breeders, as they cannot match the low prices of the syndicates that often avoid customs and VAT to increase their margins. The message to the South African government is clear… Halt the wild-caught bird trade in South Africa and support the development of a sustainable avicultural industry that does not rely on wild-caught birds…


Excessive import levels and the death of 687 grey parrots on a commercial flight from Johannesburg to Durban on Christmas Eve in 2010 resulted in a moratorium of the issuance of CITES import permits for wild-caught grey parrots. The exponential growth in the use of wild-caught grey parrots in “bird mills” in South Africa has ended, but many facilities continue to operate on smallholdings and farms far away from law enforcement that use smuggled, wild-caught parrots and monkeys. It seems everything we do simply drives this lucrative business opportunity further underground. When it became too difficult to import wild-caught grey parrots by air into South Africa, we started getting reports of grey parrots being smuggled by road from Namibia and by foot from Mozambique into South Africa. Parrots hidden with plastic toys or motor parts, and in amongst fresh produce. In April 2011, a military petrol on the border between South Africa and Mozambique heard parrots screeching at midnight in the remote bush along the border fence, They discovered four barefoot Mozambican nationals carrying 4 crates with 50-60 grey parrots in each. The border patrol gave chase and one crate of 60 parrots disappeared into the cool night air, while the rest were confiscated and quarantined for 6 months before being surrendered to the Mozambican authorities, who then gave the parrots to the suspected smuggler. This is going to turn into a war unless global leaders step in to control this unsustainable, unjustifiable and unethical trade in one of our planet’s treasures, Africa’s grey parrot…


© Diana May. All rights reserved World Parrot Trust –
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)
World Parrot Trust / PASA
Confiscated, wild-caught grey parrots at the Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon. (World Parrot Trust / PASA)


The way forward…

The upgrading of the two grey parrot species to CITES Appendix I has been undermined every times by the perception that sustainable harvesting of grey parrots is the only way to effectively conserve them. This notion is somewhat counter-intuitive and anachronistic, but the new generation of statesman and conservationists in Africa and around the world are realizing this. South Africa has been allowed to become a global hub for the wild-caught bird trade over the last few decades. The trade in wild-caught birds in Africa has always been about exploitation. In 1992 the United States banned the importation of wild-caught birds due to concerns around disease and commitments to biodiversity conservation. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand followed shortly after and the European Union banned this trade in 2006. Since 1992 the South African avicultural and bird export industries have boomed and now we have Africans to blame for the exploitation of Africa’s natural heritage. New hubs are springing up in the Middle and Far East as emerging markets fuel demand. Trade levels needs to be brought under control without stimulating poaching. Welfare issues like dehydration and suffocation in cramped transport crates need to be  addressed. Africa is just now waking up to the reality that we have been taken advantage of for hundreds of years. The new statesmen of Africa understand the position of the continent – we have everything the world needs… We must support visionary leaders that guard natural resources and develop partnerships to better protect wildlife populations across borders. We are already seeing border fences dropping to accommodate “trans-frontier parks and conservation areas”. The growing perception that Africa’s grand wild places like the Serengeti, Okavango, Congo, Chobe, and Kruger are part of our global identity, national pride and natural heritage will save these wildernesses. African grey parrots are found in millions of homes around the world and should be considered our most important ambassadors…


Steve Boyes/World Parrot Trust Africa
Brown-headed parrots with their wings broken being fed rotten corn at a market in Mozambique. Parrots treated like this before a commercial flight would be very likely to die. (Steve Boyes/World Parrot Trust Africa)
Bridget Davidtsz/Cape Parrot Project
It appears that this little brown-headed parrot was wild-caught and then left in this cage by itself outside a nursery. Is it ethical to do this to a wild parrot? Some people say that they are saving these parrots from forests that cannot support them? (Bridget Davidtsz/Cape Parrot Project)
Mark Brown/University of KwaZulu-Natal
Young woman selling Madagascar lovebirds at a market. Trade in wild-caught birds is a clear and present threat to their forest biodiversity. (Mark Brown/University of KwaZulu-Natal)


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Steve Boyes
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.