THE JOURNEY FROM A BUSTLING
FOREST COMMUNITY TO SOLITARY LIFE
IN YOUR LIVING ROOM
Grey parrots are one of Africa’s treasures, and seeing them bank and wheel in the skies in noisy flocks, or chatter in the canopies as they forage is a delight and privilege. They surely represent freedom in its purest form. But grey parrots are also the epitome of life behind bars. These intelligent, enigmatic birds are perhaps best known as the feathered entertainers that chirp, wolf-whistle and mimic their way into our hearts from cages in homes across the globe. So this is the story of a special bird that is vanishing from Africa’s forests as fast as morning mist under a tropical sun, and how our fascination for a species can lead to its extermination from the wild.
The history of the grey parrot’s domestication dates at least as far back as 2000 BC with Egyptian hieroglyphics clearly depicting grey parrots as pets. The ancient Greeks also valued them, as did wealthy Romans who often kept them in ornate cages.
There are two distinct species. The one we know best is the Congo grey parrot that, as the name suggests, lives in the forests of Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Its range extends from western Kenya to Ivory Coast, and includes the islands of São Tomé & Príncipe and Bioko.
The lesser known Timneh grey parrot is slightly smaller in size with charcoal grey colouring, a darker maroon tail, and a light, horn-coloured area on the upper mandible. Timneh parrots are endemic to the western forests of the Guinean shield, from Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. Not much is known about this species, and many experts fear that the population has been severely depleted, placing it in an even more serious position than its better-known cousin.
The grey parrot has been heavily trapped for over a century, making it the most traded wild-caught parrot listed under CITES. It is listed on CITES Appendix II, which means that trade should be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with survival in the wild. The grey parrot is also classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, meaning there is a ‘high risk of extinction in the wild.’
Over 1.36 million grey parrots (including Timnehs) have been legally exported since 1975, but factoring in mortality rates prior to export of 33-60%, the number of parrots harvested from the wild to supply the legal trade could top 2 million. The high level of trade has been fraught with violations from CITES member countries, exports from non-range countries, abuse of export permits with quotas repeatedly exceeded, wild-caught parrots falsely declared as captive-bred, and continued trade despite zero quota recommendation by CITES.
Trapping for the pet trade has probably been underway in DRC since the early colonial era. Today, a variety of officials play some role in authorising and taxing the trade here, but have little impact on regulating capture or transport.
The grey parrot’s journey from a bustling forest community to a solitary existence in a living room is a long one fraught with danger and death. According to John Hart, the scientific director of Lukuru Wildlife Foundation in DRC, trappers operate at a variety of sites using a range of methods – most commonly trapping along frequently-used fly corridors, or at points of aggregation. Large numbers of birds are netted at clearings where they come to ground to drink or ingest soil. Fledglings are often harvested from nests, and flying parrots are lured by live or wooden decoys in oil palms, where they are trapped on glue-covered perches, as they come in to feed. Oil palms are part of their natural diet.
They are then sold to local buyers who fill orders from exporters based in Kinshasa. In a tragic irony, the parrots spend much of their incarceration in the air with other birds. They are crammed into small containers in Kindu and Kisangani, where Hart focuses most of his research, and then flown to the capital by light plane. The birds are rarely transported by boat or vehicle due to inaccessibility and the high mortality rate.
Hart calculates that at least 10% of birds die on planes, 24% die while being transported over long distance or when caught as fledglings, and between 10% and 40% die in the hands of local buyers. What this reveals is that approximately 50% of the birds die before they even reach Kinshasa. And those survivors still have a long, perilous journey ahead.
A 2006 EU import ban on wild birds means grey parrots are no longer transported to Europe, but CITES continues to support export from DRC, Congo, and Cameroon to South Africa, South East Asia and the Persian Gulf. There is rising demand for grey parrots in China, and the presence of Chinese business interests in range countries probably creates avenues for both illegal and legal trade.
South Africa is proving more and more irresistible to traders, with its toxic combination of excellent infrastructure, porous borders and high levels of fraud and corruption. In 2010, 731 grey parrots died en route by plane from Kinshasa to Durban. Speculation is that they were linked to the “Congo 500” – illegal parrots that had been seized in DRC, and taken to a sanctuary for rehabilitation and release back into the Congo forests. They were confiscated from the sanctuary by government officials, and then disappeared back into the system.
South Africa plays an increasing role in the trafficking of grey parrots (and many other African wildlife species) and has, over the last few years, consistently imported more from DRC than that country’s entire export quota of 5000 grey parrots.
Not to be overlooked is the number of grey parrots South Africa actually exports as captive-bred, close to 42,000 in 2012. With this level of captive breeding capacity there is little justification for continued import of wild parrots into South Africa, a practice with devastating consequences for wild populations. There is also a high mortality in South Africa’s captive exports. The intense breeding practices are a vehicle for diseases and a large number of the captive-bred greys are affected by the often deadly PBFD (Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease) and other diseases.
Many breeders portray themselves as saviours of wild parrots by producing captive-bred stock, and thus supposedly obviating the need to capture wild birds. Yet wild populations are under even more pressure to feed the growing parrot captive breeding industry.
Wild-caught birds (especially illegal birds) are cheaper than captive-bred birds, so a wild-caught bird is quicker and easier to sell. In addition, many breeders prefer wild-caught birds because they commence breeding almost immediately, whereas captive-bred birds only reach breeding age after four years. In order to increase yield, breeders often hand-raise fledglings that had been hatched in incubators, thereby robbing the birds of essential life skills handed down by parents. The result is a tame parrot, suitably conditioned for pet purposes, but of little use as a breeder – further increasing demand for wild-caught birds as breeding stock.
Experts say the grey parrot is so smart that it can perform cognitive tasks at the level of human toddlers, which is one of the properties that makes them so attractive as pets. But the majority of pet parrots are kept alone in cages whereas in the wild they are social birds – hard-coded to seek the comfort and security of their peers, roosting in groups and flying in large flocks. Many pet grey parrots end up as well-loved companions, but many more end up unwanted, misunderstood and socially maladjusted – often given away to friends, relatives or rescue centres.
A grey parrot lives for 50-60 years in captivity, which is something many prospective owners don’t fully comprehend. In fact, every responsible parrot owner should have a succession plan in place – someone reliable to carry on the commitment and relationship.
I would imagine both wild-caught and captive-bred parrots struggle to adjust to a life of solitary confinement in a cage or house a fraction of the size of their natural range. There is also the constant need of humans to prod, pick up, stroke and cuddle their pets, which must be stressful to birds not used to this form of close combat. Paramount is a lack of comprehension about their diet.
The tradition is to feed pet parrots dry seed, fleshy fruit with no nutritious kernel or “scientifically prepared” biscuits – whereas in nature, the parrot will commonly feed off a wide array of fresh food, especially the kernels of forest fruit (the flesh is mostly discarded). It’s not surprising that many grey parrots end up obese, socially awkward “problem children” growling, swearing and screaming at strangers, biting fingers and chewing furniture. And, unfortunately for the naïve purchaser, they don’t become well-adjusted adults at any stage of their lifetime. With the best of intentions it’s often a lose-lose relationship for parrots and their owners.
Some wild-caught grey parrots are lucky to escape such a future. Parrots seized in Bulgaria were rehabilitated and released by the World Parrot Trust on Ngamba Island, Uganda in July 2013. The parrots were caught illegally in DRC, shipped to Lebanon (where they were issued with fake papers) and then shipped on to Bulgaria. 108 parrots arrived in Bulgaria, but only 17 survived the quarantine imposed by Bulgarian authorities who were poorly equipped for the task. The process of international bureaucracy and rehabilitation took over 3 years before the 17 survivors tasted freedom again.
This iconic bird is clearly under pressure in the wild from habitat loss and from trapping for the pet trade. The proportion of birds dying en-route from capture to the market appears very high, and we have no idea of true wild population numbers. CITES has little control over the situation and member countries view the grey parrot as an inexhaustible harvest resource for revenue and employment.
A positive sign is that thousands of grey parrots have been confiscated from traffickers in several African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, DRC, Republic of Congo, and Guinea, and in special cases, these birds have been successfully released into their former ranges. These confiscation efforts, spearheaded by the World Parrot Trust and many other collaborating NGO’s and governments are proving a valuable deterrent and a source of birds for the restoration of the species in the wild. But much more needs to be done.
South Africa should be a conservation leader of grey parrots. There are more than enough birds in captivity to sustain a healthy gene pool for the pet trade. It should cease all imports of wild caught grey parrots while applying stricter controls against the illegal trade. The next CITES Conference of the Parties is in Durban in 2016, and given South Africa’s major role in imports from DRC and other countries it should be leading the way in pushing for an end to trade in wild-caught birds. The question is, do CITES and member countries have the political will and control over the situation to take this necessary action?
The information that went into the article was gathered from personal observations and experience, advice and info provided by experts and from various print and online resources. Most specifically I would like to list the following invaluable resources:
1. Rowan Martin, manager of World Parrot Trust’s African Conservation Program, for his advice, guidance and proof-reading skills.
2. John and Terese Hart, of the Lukuru Foundation in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
3. Cristiana Senni and Jamie Gilardi of World Parrot Trust.
4. Mike Perrin, whose book “Parrots of Africa, Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands” was an invaluable resource. I conducted a review of his book here.