Our fascination with intelligent parrots drives the harvesting and poaching of wild birds, with the African grey parrot suffering catastrophic decline.
When we’re looking for an animal to keep as a pet, we think about food, exercise, and affordability. But how much thought do we give to where the animal came from? When we buy exotic birds through online ads or pet shops, we may be supporting the plunder of wild species. The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is one such species.
A plain parrot in comparison with the more flamboyant macaw or cockatoo, this medium-sized grey bird with poppy red tail is a popular companion bird. What may be lacking in dazzling colour is more than made up for in intelligence and speaking ability, demonstrated by the work of American animal behavioural scientist Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Pepperberg worked with African grey parrot Alex for thirty years, revealing cognitive ability never thought possible in a bird. Alex had a vocabulary of more than 100 words, he understood concepts of colour, shape, size and number, and he could add up. Solving puzzles on a par with a five year old, this remarkable African grey parrot changed our thinking about bird brains. Alex & Me tells the story of their friendship and ground-breaking research.
But the African grey parrot is fast disappearing in the wild, its popularity in part contributing to its depletion. A catastrophic population decline has occurred over the last twenty years due to habitat destruction and trapping for the pet trade.
New study shows African grey parrot plummets by 90% in Ghana
Despite anecdotal evidence of fewer sightings, no scientific research had previously been carried out to provide quantitative data on population changes in any country in the Congo grey parrot’s range, from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa, through Nigeria, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, going east to Uganda and Western Kenya.
Scientists from Manchester Metropolitan University and Birdlife International compared historical abundance data of African grey parrots in Ghana from Dandliker’s 1992 study with their study data collected in 2012 to 2014.
Researchers found that Ghana’s grey parrot population has declined by 90% to 99% since 1992. Similar declines are indicated across the entire West African range for this species, as well as for the closely related timneh African grey parrot (Psittacus timneh), which also suffers habitat loss and poaching in its smaller range.
Population decline estimates are often limited by the lack of robust historical data, but this study used the same 22 roost locations as Dandliker’s study to conduct new surveys. No active roosts were found this time and in three roosts where 700 to 1200 grey parrots were counted in 1992, only 18 were found.
Lead author Nathaniel Annorbah, a Ghanaian doctoral student, and co-authors Nigel Collar and Stuart Marsden also interviewed local people for their perception on grey parrot abundance.
The consensus among 906 villagers across roost locations is that population decline has been caused by trapping for the pet trade, as well as the destruction of tall trees used for nesting and roosting.
Active or previously active bird traders interviewed in urban areas said supply in grey parrots is now negligible. Traders at urban markets put grey parrot prices at the equivalent of US$230, reaching US$330 to US$660 if birds are sold to expatriates. But of the 23 ex-trappers interviewed, 9 said that income became unsustainable in the mid-1990s. Some trappers turned to farming, but many immigrated to neighbouring countries to continue parrot trapping.
Ghana’s increasing population, from 8.5 million in 1970 to 24.2 million in 2010, has also contributed to the grey parrot crisis, shown by the reduction in forest coverage from 74,480 km² in 1991 to 49,400 km² in 2010. Grey parrot habitat is diminishing in size and quality due to extensive deforestation and from logging tall trees in forests and on adjacent farmland, where parrots have also been found to nest.
Catastrophic decline in grey parrots across West and Central Africa
Annorbah’s study corroborates anecdotal evidence of the grey parrot’s near disappearance from Ghana and indicates that further population studies are needed. According to Birdlife International, the crisis extends beyond Ghana, with population declines indicated in 14 out of 18 range countries.
“The rate of decline is hard to quantify, but given the massive level of capture for trade and the high levels of forest loss in parts of the range, a decline of 30-49% in three generations (47 years) may be a conservative estimate.”
The African grey parrot is the most traded CITES-listed bird. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Flora and Fauna Species (CITES) was set up in 1973 to limit unsustainable global trade in threatened species. P. erithacus is listed under Appendix II – “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
Based on CITES records for wild-caught birds entering international trade from 1982 to 2001, and accounting for deaths in capture and transit, as well as unreported illegal trade, Birdlife International estimates over 1 million erithacus and timneh parrots have been taken from the wild. As well as international trade, a domestic trade supplies birds for pets and exhibits. Parrots are also hunted for bushmeat and body parts used in medicine and black magic.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has upgraded the grey parrot to ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. If habitat destruction and trapping activities are not curtailed, the next warning is ‘Endangered’, followed by ‘Critically Endangered’, and then ‘Extinct in the Wild’ – the final impact of human greed and apathy.
Birdlife International project to monitor and regulate trade
In 2013, a project instigated by CITES and funded by the European Union was set up by Birdlife International Africa to look at protecting African grey and timneh parrots. The project aims include setting sustainable quotas for parrot range countries based on scientific population survey data, and implementing national management plans, which include regular parrot population monitoring by trained rangers.
“These birds are particularly hard to survey in the wild, due to their flocking behaviour and preference for forest habitat. What we have done is to develop a standardised set of methods that can be put in place anywhere that African Greys are found, to monitor them in a reliable, easy, cost-effective way,” says Dr Stuart Marsden who designed the project’s framework of methods for assessing parrot populations.
In the project report, Strengthening Capacity for Monitoring and Regulation of International Trade of African Grey Parrot, the five African countries studied – Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – are said to have a legal framework in place to combat illegal trapping, but enforcement is sporadic and open to corruption.
Although the African grey is a protected species in DRC, the report identified complex and confusing wildlife protection legislation that is poorly enforced with required permits not obtained and closed seasons for capture ignored. The project interviewed trappers and buyers whose logbooks showed at least half of all parrots caught will die before they are exported from Kinshasa.
DRC was found to have no survey data to show the CITES annual quota of 5,000 greys is sustainable, “DRC is huge and we know almost nothing about densities across the country. Many more data are needed to inform on likely quotas.” The Lukuru Foundation tracked the export of 6,300 African greys from eastern DRC over a four month period last year.
The report says that protection legislation should include regulations on capture age, locations (abundant populations), and seasonality (non-breeding), as well as transport requirements and duration limits, price guides and revenue sharing, and controls to prevent permit falsification. Captive breeding in range states could be supported by increasing taxation on wild-caught birds and government assisted captive breeding facilities.
In concluding its report, Birdlife International Africa is clear on the importance of law enforcement, “any establishment of quotas is meaningless without concomitant proof that they will be enforced and that the trade and capture of AGP will be effectively monitored.”
With local extinctions having already occurred within range countries, time is running out for the African grey parrot. Effective management plans and sustainable quotas could come too late.
Committed to ending the wild-caught bird trade, Dr Rowan Martin, director of WPT ‘Save Africa’s Parrots’ project, wants a status change for grey parrots. A CITES Appendix I listing would stop commercial trade of grey parrots. Although it wouldn’t stop illegal trapping, it could no longer be disguised in legal quotas.
The CITES Conference of the Parties taking place in South Africa in September will be an ideal opportunity for conservation groups to provide evidence of illegal trade, as well as population survey data and species management plans.
African conservationist Steve Boyes expresses the significance of the grey parrot to the natural world and why we must protect this intelligent and charismatic bird.
“A tropical African forest without grey parrots cavorting in the high canopy is like an ocean without waves.”
This article is an edited version of the full article published on Nature in Mind 27th February 2016
African grey parrot pet by Peter F. [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Wild-caught parrots in crate from DRC by World Parrot Trust
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