Illegal Hunting and Trade of Africa's Parrots and Wild Birds Threaten Their Population

Two African parrots sitting on a branch, nestling
The Standard
Kigali, Rwanda
 Illegal Hunting and Trade of Africa's Parrots and Wild Birds Threaten Their Population

African grey parrots and lovebirds are among the most traded of all birds, with large numbers captured in the wild to supply locals' appetite for wild meat and for medicinal purposes, while others are traded as pets to the lucrative European Union market.

The increasing illegal hunting and trade of these wild birds has caught the attention of scientists and conservationists who warn that unsustainable trade of these endangered bird species could push them into extinction quicker than anticipated.

Lovebirds (genus Agapornis of family Psittaculidae) are a group of small, colorful parrot species endemic to Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, two-thirds of which are considered to have declining populations. 

This trade has driven declines in the wild populations of exploited species, the spread of infectious diseases, and the establishment of non-native species both within Africa and beyond, said Dr Rowan Martin, Director of the Africa Region, World Parrot Trust, during the International Congress for Conservation of Biology held in Kigali, Rwanda.

Dr Martin noted that developing interventions to manage this trade and mitigate associated harms requires an understanding of the scale and scope of trade, its impacts and the factors that drive, facilitate and motivate those involved.

For a long time, Africa has been a source of live birds captured from the wild for the exotic pet trade. In the early 2000s, West African countries accounted for over 70% of exports of CITES listed birds, primarily to the European Union.

The researchers say that though trade in wild lovebirds has been much reduced compared with historical levels, considerable numbers are still captured for local and international trade without any monitoring of the wild populations.

According to data from BirdLife International, the total number of grey parrots extracted from the wild during the period 1982 to 2014 is estimated to be 1.3 million, with 100,000 birds per year being captured in Cameroon during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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 their habitat, the decline is likely to be in the range of 50-79% in three generations (43) years.

Two lovebirds
Lovebirds/Credit: Johannes Giez via Unsplash

Local population declines have been noted in Kenya, Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2007, many African bird species, including songbirds, parrots, turacos and doves were removed from the CITES Appendices, and as a result CITES Parties were no longer requested to report on 116 of the most traded species.

Scientists noted that several of the studies referenced in order to gain insights into patterns of global trade in non-CITES birds from Africa reveal substantial volumes of international trade in at least 83 species of wild bird originating across the region.

Consolata Gitau, a researcher at Nottingham Trent University says killing and smuggling is the world's second greatest hazard to wildbird species, threatening some to extinction.

“Human exploitation has already resulted in the extinction of some species, including the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Eskimo Curlew."

Despite legal protection, data from 1990 to 2021 from English peer reviewed paper, TRAFFIC and the BirdLife Data Zone — which analyzed the scale of illegal hunting, killing, stealing, and usage of birds (IKB) that occurs in African countries (except Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) — showed that parrots, hawks and vultures were the most affected among 43 bird families.

The study notes that 188 parrots and 133 hawks and vultures were hunted and traded, and the main reasons behind this were, trade (42%), food and subsistence (29%) and belief-based use (14%). The study also found that the most common method of killing was poisoning.

“West Africa had the most recorded cases of wild birds illegally being killed, hunted and traded with incidences at 33% out of the five sub-regions analyzed," said Gitau, while delivering a presentation at the International Congress for Conservation of Biology in Kigali, Rwanda.

African grey parrots have been among the most traded of all birds protected under CITES and in 2017 were categorized as Endangered and placed on Appendix I of CITES due to rapid population declines, driven by overexploitation.

The researchers noted that the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has emerged as a major center for the capture of wild grey parrots to supply international trade with nearly 100,000 estimated to have illegally passed through regional airports since 2017.

Dr Tiwonge Ivy Mzumara-Gawa, an ecologist at Malawi University of Science and Technology, also noted that accidental and deliberate introductions of traded birds to the wild have led to the establishment of naturalized populations of multiple lovebird species outside of their historical ranges, especially within urbanized areas.

“Within Africa this has led to contact between wild lovebirds and recently introduced populations, with implications for biodiversity conservation, this has led to the development of hybrid populations both within existing species ranges and within newly established populations" said Mzumara Gawa.

The ecologist says deliberate hybridization and genetic selection for specific morphological traits by aviculturists means that introduced populations may differ substantially from wild lovebirds.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in print in The Standard Newspaper on the 22 August 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner Image: African grey parrots, once an abundant species, are at risk of extinction in many parts of their natural habitat/Credit: Tam Nguyen via Unsplash

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