Plan to stop par­rot poach­ers

Wildlife traders have cap­tured 2 mil­lion African Grey par­rots since 1975, writes CHARLES BERGMAN

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

ON PRES­I­DENT Barack Obama’s trip to Africa this year, he made his­tory with a ma­jor speech on wildlife traf­fick­ing. Il­le­gal trade is one of the top threats to wildlife world­wide, and it is on the rise glob­ally. The pres­i­den­tial spot­light on the is­sue is in­valu­able.

As Obama was mak­ing his speech in Tan­za­nia, I was also in Africa, work­ing on a his­toric project in the fight against traf­fick­ing.

With Jane Goodall, I was part of a four-per­son team from the World Par­rot Trust.

We were in Uganda to re­lease a group of African Grey par­rots that had been con­fis­cated as they were be­ing smug­gled into Bul­garia.

It was the first time that par­rots smug­gled out of Africa were re­turned to the con­ti­nent and re­leased back into the wild.

“It’s a story of how bad the trade has be­come,” Goodall said over din­ner the night be­fore the re­lease. “And it’s a story of hope.” African Grey par­rots are among the most heav­ily traded of all an­i­mals.

Their pop­u­lar­ity is fu­elled by re­cent re­search on their as­ton­ish­ing in­tel­li­gence.

In some ways, their cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties ri­val those of a three-yearold child.

Alex, the “ge­nius” African Grey par­rot stud­ied by Irene Pep­per­berg, had a vo­cab­u­lary of more than 100 words and a sassy tongue – a real smart Alec.

In fact, par­rots may be the smartest birds in the world.

Ac­cord­ing to Rowan Martin, the en­er­getic or­nithol­o­gist who man­aged our re­lease of the par­rots, about two mil­lion African Grey par­rots have been cap­tured from the wild for the global pet trade since 1975. This fig­ure is stag­ger­ing. Most of the par­rots were cap­tured as part of a thriv­ing le­gal trade in wild-caught par­rots.

It seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive: Obama and many con­ser­va­tion­ists fo­cus on the il­le­gal trade, with its shadow world of poach­ers and smug­glers, but the real prob­lem may be the le­gal trade it­self.

On July 10, Goodall and Martin pulled on a long rope, and a win­dow slowly jerked open on the makeshift aviary where the con­fis­cated par­rots were housed.

The par­rots didn’t rush to free­dom as you might ex­pect. In­stead, they hun­kered in the cor­ner of their aviary.

Unas­sum­ing gray birds with fiery crim­son tails, th­ese par­rots have clear yel­low eyes and the stare of fully con­scious be­ings.

They eyed us from afar with ev­i­dent dis­trust and sus­pi­cion. It was un­der­stand­able. They had been through hell.

It had been three and a half years since they were cap­tured, prob­a­bly in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo.

They were smug­gled out of Africa into Le­banon, given fake pa­pers, and shipped to Bul­garia.

A sharp-eyed cus­toms of­fi­cial seized the ship­ment of 108 par­rots when he no­ticed a prob­lem with the pa­pers.

Most of the birds were in bad shape. Sev­eral died shortly af­ter ar­rival at Bul­garia’s Sofia Zoo.

It took the World Par­rot Trust another three years to find a suit­able place to re­lease the par­rots, to nav­i­gate the in­ter­na­tional bu­reau­cracy, and to re­ha­bil­i­tate the birds suf­fi­ciently for re­lease.

Uganda agreed to the re­lease on Ngamba Is­land, in Lake Vic­to­ria.

The is­land is a forested sanc­tu­ary for or­phaned and res­cued chim­panzees, an ideal place to safely re­lease the par­rots.

African Grey par­rots can live as long as 40 to 50 years with good care in cap­tiv­ity, and per­haps 20 to 25 in the wild.

But just 17 out of the 108 con­fis­cated birds were still alive – sad tes­ti­mony to the trauma and suf­fer­ing that the trade in­flicts on its crea­tures.

The re­leased par­rots re­veal the strange en­tan­gle­ments of the le­gal and il­le­gal trade.

The le­gal trade of­ten serves as a cover for traf­fick­ers – just as th­ese par­rots had been “laun­dered” in Le­banon – and many ar­gue that it supports traf­fick­ing.

In a sys­tem where mon­i­tor­ing and en­force­ment are fee­ble to nonex-



of is­tent, traf­fick­ers ex­ploit a sim­ple fact: It’s very dif­fi­cult to tell a le­gal par­rot from an il­le­gal par­rot.

“There’s no doubt,” said James Gi­lardi, pres­i­dent of the World Par­rot Trust, “the le­gal trade pro­motes, en­cour­ages, and pro­vides cover for the il­le­gal trade”. The brief against the le­gal trade goes deeper, to the heart of the sys­tem it­self.

Martin put it this way: “Peo­ple think as long as there is a le­gal trade – that it’s be­ing man­aged and su­per­vised.

“If it weren’t sus­tain­able, they would not al­low the trade.”

They took off in small groups, us­ing wings that had not flown in years. It’s hard to ar­gue that the le­gal trade in African Grey par­rots has been well-man­aged.

Ac­cord­ing to BirdLife In­ter­na­tional, 21 per­cent of the wild Africa Grey par­rot pop­u­la­tion has been har­vested an­nu­ally dur­ing some pe­ri­ods.

The le­gal trade has a 40 to 60 per­cent mor­tal­ity rate be­tween cap­ture and ex­port.

The re­sult is pre­dictable – the African Grey par­rot has suf­fered dra­matic de­clines.

It is ab­sent in many places and rare in oth­ers.

The il­le­gal trade pro­vides a nar­ra­tive that lays the blame on poach­ers, of­ten poor peo­ple in strug­gling de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

Or on the dark ro­mance of smug­gling.

A nar­ra­tive that ex­am­ines the le­gal trade re­quires a shift in think­ing and brings the is­sue home.

Pro­tect­ing val­ued wildlife is a pol­icy is­sue, one with global im­pli­ca­tions – and we all can in­flu­ence pol­icy.

The global trade in par­rots and other wildlife is man­aged by the Con­ven­tion on the In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species, which sets quo­tas for legally traded species.

Ac­cord­ing to the World Par­rot Trust, Cites will con­sider a pro­posal to end the le­gal trade in African Grey par­rots at its next meet­ing, sched­uled for 2016 in South Africa.

Mean­while, at the aviary on Ngamba Is­land, it was deeply mov­ing to watch those first flights of free­dom know­ing all the trauma and stress the par­rots had en­dured. – Slate


MILE­STONE: Jane Goodall opens the hatch of an African Grey Par­rot aviary at World Par­rot Trust. It had been more than three years since they were cap­tured, prob­a­bly in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo.


SAVED: African Greys res­cued from an il­le­gal trader by of­fi­cials at the Uganda-Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo bor­der.

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