Researchers in the field estimate that 45-65% of wild-caught African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) die before arrival at markets and quarantine facilities in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Terese Hart, Director of the TL2 Project (www.bonoboincongo.com), clarifies that trappers lose an average of 25%, local buyers declare a 10-40% mortality rate, and air transport to distant markets can kill up to 10% per shipment. Why are these losses acceptable? A local trapper gets only $15-25 per grey parrot. Local traders sell these parrots for $50-100 to international import/export specialists. In South Africa, for example, grey parrots can sell for over $300 in pet stores. Yes, we need better research on this problem, but it is clear that conservation action is necessary. Are individual grey parrots simply not valuable enough for local trappers and buyers to invest in better care? Do the syndicates, the “African Grey Mafia”, care about these losses or does this process simply get rid of the old and the weak? Hundreds of thousands of wild grey parrots have been unsustainably removed from the wild in the last decade. Now one of the most populous pets on earth and threatened with extinction in the wild, the grey parrot needs urgent conservation action…
Nestling grey parrots poached from nest cavities at the Banagumba communal nesting site to supply the wild-caught bird trade. (Terese Hart / www.bonoboincongo.com)
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is failing to protect grey parrots from local extinctions. CITES export quotas for grey parrots are still based on limited, out-dated census data from too few sample sites. We have now allowed grey parrots to be among the most traded wild birds on CITES Appendix II for several decades without any concrete data to support “harvesting” quotas. South Africa requested a Non-Detrimental Findings (NDF) report on the trade in wild-caught African grey parrots from the Ministry of Environment in the DRC, but no such study has been undertaken and trade continues.
Between 2007 and 2011 just over 60,000 wild-caught African grey parrots were recorded in exports from the DRC, South Africa, Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal, Guinea, Namibia and Bahrain. Exports of captive-bred grey parrots from just South Africa, Bahrain and Senegal over the same period total over 120,000! Why are we threatening wild populations if we are able to supply two-thirds of global exports with captive-bred stock? The answer: Most wild-caught grey parrots in international trade are used as breeding stock to produce thousands of pre-weaned chicks for export to both established and emerging markets. Well-meaning people are inadvertently supporting the trade in wild-caught grey parrots by buying chicks bred from wild parents in South Africa, Bahrain, Pakistan and Mozambique. This trade is perpetuated by a con and only benefits profiteering middlemen. Ongoing trade in wild-caught grey parrots needs to be shut down.
All trappers in remote parts of the DRC, Cameroon and West Africa are funded by traders that equip and support them. Government, state veterinarians and customs officials are consistently involved in this lucrative trade. Syndicates use profits to fund trade in other endangered species, including monkeys, parrots, reptiles, plants and tropical fish. Central and West African tropical forests have lost between 25,000 and 35,000 wild grey parrots each year over the last four years. We have no idea how many grey parrots remain in the wild, but have roost and flock size counts that demonstrate a population collapse in the last decade. We need to act now to bring back the massive flocks of grey parrots that used to fly over Africa’s tropical forests.
In the Congo trappers have been moving further east in search of new grey parrot capture sites in the Orientale and Maniema Provinces for the last few years. Once abundant forests are now being chopped down and the monkeys, birds, elephants, buffalo, parrots and everything else removed dead or alive. Many, many hungry eyes scanning through the forest canopy for any signs of life. The “African silence” is spreading into the remotest parts of the Congo forests as desperate trappers and poachers compete to supply traders that sell to booming emerging markets.
South Africa imports most of the Congo’s wild-caught grey parrots for use in large bird mills that export up to 27,000 grey parrots per year. In supplying South African syndicates with wild grey parrots for breeding stock in 2009, the DRC exceeded their CITES export quota by over double. After the death of 687 wild-caught grey parrots on a commercial flight in 2011, the South African authorities are familiar with the issues surrounding the ongoing trade in African grey parrots. CITES Import permits are, however, still being issued by the South African government for wild-caught grey parrots coming from the DRC. South Africans stand here in judgement of the people running the international trade in ivory and rhino horn, yet we allow the exploitation of wild African grey parrots within our borders.
There is no doubt that the global avicultural industry can supply all the demands of international trade in grey parrots using captive-bred breeding stock. Syndicates that use wild-caught grey parrots as breeding stock in South Africa, Bahrain, Mozambique and Senegal are, however, able to undercut aviculturalists that do not use wild birds. Laws must be put in place that restrict the use of wild-caught birds as breeding stock, while supporting the development of the avicultural industry. The only people not taken care of are the local trappers that receive very little per bird, but depend on this income to support their families. These people and communities must either be taught avicultural practices or provided alternative sources of income like ecotourism or agricultural development. We need to count exactly how many there are and then look at ways of protecting vulnerable populations without undermining local communities.
We know near nothing about the ecology of African grey parrots and have noted them nesting in tree cavities and clay cliffs. Why do they congregate each year in large flocks in forest clearings with salty mud that they ingest? Why do they have prominent day-time information centres and communal roost sites that form part of their little-known social system? We know how to catch them on the ground using nets, in trees using glue, and on poles with snares. We know how to keep them alive in captivity and how to transport them in large numbers, but we have no idea what their most important food item in the wild is or what tree species are the best for nest cavities. The Wildlife Conservation Society is convening a workshop in Cameroon this month to develop a strategy for grey parrot conservation and make sure we get the correct information to act upon…