African grey parrots are dying by the millions to satisfy the demands of the pet trade. But a new proposal at CITES could hold the key to keeping these birds from extinction.

The African grey parrot is a charismatic bird. It is well known for its characteristic grey coloring, red tail, intelligence, and ability to mimic words. But these same traits are also leading to the species downfall, making it a highly popular bird in the pet trade.

It has been estimated that more than 1.3 million of these birds have been captured and exported since 1975. But tens of thousands of Grey parrots die each year before being exported due to appalling conditions during the trade process. The birds are crammed like sardines into transport boxes where they suffer from stress, rough handling, sickness, crushing, asphyxiation, temperature shock, dehydration, and more. Experts estimate that a full 60% of the parrots taken from the wild (and in some cases even 90%) die before they ever leave the country. That devastating toll, along with illegal trade, puts the real number of African grey parrots taken from their habitat at more than 3 million, and around 1.7 million of the birds died.

Vanishing From the Wild

The African grey parrot lives in dense, lowland, moist forests in West and Central Africa, with a range originally covering 22 countries. Deforestation is extensive in many of these countries, and as the forests disappear, so do the parrots. Nevertheless, capture for the pet trade remains the single greatest threat to the species. The birds naturally gather in large numbers around roost trees and mineral licks, which makes them easy targets for poachers.

The African grey parrot has practically disappeared from many African countries. In Benin, Burundi, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Togo, populations of the species have declined 90% to 99%. In many more countries, the populations have declined more than 50% in the last three generations (46.5 years). In other nations, the bird is essentially extinct in the wild. If the capture for the pet trade is not stopped, we will see the African gray parrot succumb to extinction in most of the countries in West and Central Africa.

African grey parrot, © Wikimedia

Decades of Regulation Show Stronger Measures Are Needed

The African grey parrot was listed in CITES Appendix II in 1981 in an attempt to regulate capture and international trade, and avoid overexploitation and population declines. Unfortunately, demand for the birds has remained so high, and the cooperation from the species’ native countries so little, that controlling the trade has proven difficult. CITES has repeatedly investigated the conditions of the populations and trade in this species, and found that from 1994 to 2003, a full 21% of the total wild population of African grey parrots was captured and exported every single year for the pet trade.

At that rate of exploitation, it’s no wonder the species is struggling. CITES reduced the number of birds a country could legally export, but to no avail. Capture quotas were exceeded, permits forged, wild birds were passed as captive bred, permits were illegally copied and reused, and birds were smuggled from non-export countries into export countries. Though each country in the bird’s range had rules in place to prevent overexploitation, they were only very weakly enforced.

Eventually, population declines became so severe that the majority of the countries in the African grey parrot’s range stopped all legal exports of the bird, except for Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2007, CITES recommended a two-year export ban from Cameroon for noncompliance with the regulations. And in January of this year, they recommended that all CITES Parties suspend all trade of African grey parrots from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Decades of effort to regulate and control overexploitation, and to stop the mass deaths of these birds for the trade have had no effect. But now, several African countries have come together to present a proposal to save the Grey parrot from extinction.

Nations Join Forces to Protect their Native Species

The countries of Angola, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, European Union and United States of America presented a proposal to move the African grey parrot from Appendix II to Appendix I of CITES. Where species listed under Appendix II have their trade carefully regulated, for those listed under Appendix I, all international trade of wild-caught specimens is forbidden. Another nine African countries have joined in support of this proposal: Burundi, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Niger, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It is extremely encouraging to see such a wide show of support for these much stronger measures to protect this native African bird.

Our team, along with the Species Survival Network, World Parrot Trust, HSI, IFAW, WWF, ProWildlife and many other NGOs, are working in support of this proposal to make sure it is adopted at the upcoming CITES meeting in South Africa. We know it won’t be easy — the proposal needs support from two-thirds of all 183 voting parties in order to pass. Already, some of the countries that export and import African grey parrots are mustering their forces to block the proposal and continue the trade, regardless of the welfare of the species. But we will do all that we can to stop their efforts, and get the African grey parrot the protection it needs.

Over the years, trade has killed millions of these birds, and brought the species to the brink of extinction. Our team will keep you posted as the proposal is presented at CITES. If we are going to keep African grey parrots in the wild, we have to act now.




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