What started as a trial to ascertain how easy it is to acquire the endangered African Grey parrot in Kenya has revealed a thriving online illegal trade of the bird that has been accorded the highest level of protection globally.
The investigations unearthed a web on how endangered birds are traded virtually as pets while traffickers exploit buses and long-distance vehicles to conduct their deliveries.
African Grey parrot is listed as Endangered by the International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN) and ranked as the world’s most traded bird. The bird has been accorded the highest level of protection under Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that the bird is threatened with extinction and that they are not allowed to be traded locally or internationally.
Although Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) do not give permits to the public to keep the bird, a wave of wildlife cybercrime where hundreds of the birds are virtually traded annually poses a threat to their survival The trade involves a lucrative trafficking ring right under the nose of authorities in websites like pigiame.co.ke and jiji.co.ke.
One of the investigations conducted by this writer, found that sellers of African Grey parrots conduct their businesses online without any fears. The sellers go ahead to contact customers who have shown interests but most avoid the question on permits. The engagements with online traders reveal how traffickers exploit public service vehicles to deliver the birds to their customers across the country. Traders of the birds deliver the birds from Mombasa to Nairobi at a fee of Ksh 500 and to Naivasha at Sh 700, amount traders reveal is a tip for the drivers to deliver the package by themselves.
On March, 7, this year, this writer pretended to have an interest in purchasing an African Grey Parrot that has been put up on sale at jiji.co.ke, where tens of the birds are advertised monthly. The birds, as per the posts on the website, retail between Ksh 25,000 ($250) and Ksh 30,000 ($300). The interest prompted the seller to contact the writer through a phone call.
The seller, who is highly rated on the website, revealed to the writer that the bird would be stuffed in a box and packaged as a parcel to be delivered by a bus from Mombasa to Nairobi. Upon inquiring whether he would help process the permits that allows one to own the bird, the seller admitted that permits do not exist. However, he advised that in case the writer encounters run-ins with the authorities, he/she should state that the bird was a gift from a friend. He warned the writer against revealing that the bird was being traded since it was against the laws.
“Delivering the bird is easy, I have friends who are bus drivers and will deliver the bird. You will just pay for the bird and delivery fees but in case the police officers or Kenya Wildlife officers find you with the bird, tell them it was a gift from a friend. If you revealed that you bought the bird, that will be the case,” the seller warned.
Initially, the bird was retailing at Ksh 25,000 ($250) which was finally reduced to Ksh 23,000 ($ 230) after negotiations. The writer however aborted the mission after negotiations.
A separate engagement with yet another seller of the birds based in Thika prompted him to share videos and photos of the bird which he sells at Sh 30,000. The bird, the seller told the writer, could be delivered through private means once payment is complete.
“I always do deliveries of the birds once you pay. In case you do not have a cage, I can deliver alongside it at a fee,” the seller, who went ahead to send pictures of cages, told this writer.
Unlike pigiame.co.ke which has fewer adverts of the birds, jiji.co.ke has tens of the birds being advertised for sale weekly. To transact businesses in both websites however, sellers post pictures of the birds alongside their contacts to ease negotiations and transactions. The sellers are aggressive and often make follow up with the buyers whenever they show interest, they call the buyer for negotiations and arrange delivery of the birds. At Jiji.co.ke, African grey parrots mostly rank among the most popular advertisements every week under the Birds category.
While wildlife cybercrime exploiting African grey parrots thrives in Kenya under the watch of authorities, Katto Wambua, a Senior Criminal Justice advisor who formerly worked with the office of the Directorate of Public Prosecution, said no single case of wildlife cybercrime has successfully been prosecuted in Kenya. He says wildlife cybercrime is the new frontier used by perpetrators to continue their trade.
Wambua, who currently works with the Space for Giants, a conservation organisation says that prosecuting wildlife cybercrime in Kenya is still a challenge. Lack of capacity among investigators, he says, is one of the biggest challenges.
“Wildlife cybercrime is a fertile ground that needs urgent attention before it blows out of proportion. Criminals are now exploiting the internet, a case which needs a lot of sensitization. Investigators still lack the capacity to investigate these crimes and press the charges,” Wambua said.
Tackling wildlife cybercrime, he says, is a challenge given that while wildlife traffickers market the products in visible websites, many others operate in the dark web to sell trophies like rhino horns and elephant ivory.
“There is still a big challenge in prosecuting these crimes. While some websites are not based in Kenya, many others operate on the dark web and it needs a lot of skills to prosecute these crimes,” he added.
According to Wambua, training of wildlife prosecutors, rangers and investigators on wildlife cybercrime has been conducted twice jointly by Kenya Wildlife Service, Director of Public Prosecutions, Space for Giants, Africa Wildlife Foundation among other agencies.
Wambua said wildlife, cybercrime dealers of African grey parrots can be charged with several counts, including dealing with endangered species, a live species without a permit and contravening the new law on Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act.
KWS only gives permits to farming of crocodiles, tortoises, chameleons, ostriches, frogs, lizards, guinea fowl, quails, snails and butterflies.
A person trading on a critically endangered species, like the African grey parrot, can be jailed for seven years with no option of a fine. They can also be charged with trading on a live species without a permit that attracts a minimum of three years’ imprisonment. Selling an African grey parrot online with pictures attracts three years in prison with an option of a fine and being in possession of the bird without permits attracts seven years in prison.
Dealers of wildlife cybercrime, Wambua says, can also be charged under the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act while e-commerce platforms accelerating wildlife crimes can also be charged for contravening ethical and legal laws that protect wildlife.
Bird experts and researchers now warn that African Grey Parrots are facing population collapse within its ranges. The declines are driven by capture for the pet trade and habitat loss within its ranges.
Paul Gacheru, a bird expert at Nature Kenya, a conservation organisation that majors in conserving birds, says the social nature of African grey parrots has been the major reason for their exploitation for pet trade. He said that over the years, the birds have been over harvested, a major contribution to their declining populations in the wild.
“African grey parrots are quite social birds. However, these birds rank as the world’s most trafficked birds as they are exploited for pet trade. Coupled up with loss of habitat within areas which the birds exist in, the declines have been massive,” Mr Gacheru said.
Mr Gacheru says that African Grey Parrots, like chameleons and other small amphibians, among other small- sized wildlife, are heavily traded because they are easy to smuggle in boxes and even pouches and pockets.
“Unlike the attention the big five are normally given, this small-sized wildlife is heavily traded because of the ease with which they can be smuggled. The regulation of its trade also has its own challenges, especially with the rising exploitation through virtual marketing websites,” Gacheru said.
Are Kenya’s rare grey parrots disappearing?
In Kamamega forest, Dominic Shilabila peeps through the high canopies created by the extraordinarily tall trees in an effort to get a glimpse of a rare talking bird -the African grey parrot. Except for the light bursts through the leafy canopies and constant twitches on the bushes, it is not easy to spot the bird that once was a common spectacle in the 23,000-hectare forest.
Shilabila is the chairperson of Kakamega Environmental Education Programme(KEEP) that undertakes conservation programmes within the forest, among them raising awareness in conservation of the rare birds that have been disappearing over time.
The forest, which is Kenya’s only tropical rainforest, is part of the Congolean rainforest that stretches from Central Africa through Uganda and into Kenya. It is the last fragment on the extreme eastern end of the tropical forests also known as Equatorial forests.
“This forest is unique. It is almost like a museum and a home of rare species, some of which are not found anywhere else in the world. It hosts rare butterflies, bird species and plants among other wildlife. It is also a home of the endangered African grey parrots,” Shilabila said.
Kakamega forest, unlike most forests within the country, is jointly managed by the Kenya Forest and the Kenya Wildlife Service due to its large presence of both plants and wildlife.
However, it is only deep inside the lush and greenery of the forest that one can, if lucky, spot the world’s brainiest bird. Years ago, Shilabila said birds could easily be spotted. But not in the recent past.
“Habitat destruction has been a challenge, a move that might have seen these birds preferring the other side of Uganda where they can still be spotted in larger numbers,” Shilabila explained.
Kakamega Ecosystem Conservator John Rono confirmed that among the challenges the forest is currently facing included illegal logging, charcoal burning coupled with shortage of rangers and inadequate funding for planned activities within the vast ecosystem.
“Kakamega forest remains a critical catchment area and a home to different species of animals and birds including the African Grey parrot. There are still challenges including charcoal burning, illegal logging and shortage of rangers and funding for planned activities,” Mr Rono said.
Efforts to get statistics on population trends of the birds from the Kenya Wildlife Service however did not bear any fruit. In a response, KWS noted that their CITES and Regulations department would answer the questions seeking answers on wildlife cybercrime as an emerging threat and what the Service was doing to regulate the thriving trade. No response.
KWS did not also respond to emails inquiring on the challenges they are facing in controlling wildlife cybercrime as well as the source of the birds being sold on e-commerce websites. The story was also seeking to know the population trends of the bird in the last five years. The emails were both sent to the KWS Cites department and KWS department in charge of licensing and regulations.
BirdLife International warned of a possible population collapse of African Grey parrots in 2016, citing the declining range with trapping for trade implicated as a major cause. The organisation revealed that there is still poor information on the status.
But while the birds are now a rare sight in Kakamega, investigations have revealed how easy it is to own an African grey parrot in Kenya. Owning an African grey parrot, is just a click away. The demand for the birds has seen tens of them up on sale on e-commerce platforms daily, a new trend that contravenes Kenya's Wildlife conservation laws that prohibits commercialisation of an endangered species.
How birds are trafficked across borders in and out of Kenya
Dr Rowan Martin, the director for World Parrot Trust’s Africa Conservation, also reveals that the use of long-distance trailers was the most common means of transporting the birds across borders by wildlife traffickers.
He reveals that there is also a growing preference by traffickers using air transport in cases where distances are long and multiple borders must be crossed.
Dr Rowan explained that the most common way used by parrot traffickers across the borders is using long-distance trailers, a case confirmed by the truck driver plying the Kenya-DRC route.
However, there is a preference by traffickers using air transport in cases where distances are long and multiple borders must be crossed. “While there are people breeding the birds locally, the original birds would have been wild-caught and while there have been suggestions that captive-breeding could help reduce pressure on wild populations, there is a risk that the move is perpetuating pressures on wild populations as wild birds may be laundered through captive breeding facilities or used as breeding stock,” Dr Rowan said.
Alex Ngari, BirdLife International Africa Flyways manager said that there is possibility of smuggling off the birds from other countries in to Kenya. He said that while laws and regulations protecting birds from illegal trade exist in most African countries, illegal trade still takes place.
“There is need to review the existing laws and regulations regarding the trade of birds; the regulations and setting of trade quotas should be in line with CITES regulation,” Ngari said
He added that besides trade the illegal trade of African grey parrots, other birds including owls and ostriches are also being illegally traded every year.
Dr Patrick Muinde, a research manager at World Animal Protection, said it has been established that traffickers source the birds from the forest where they use glue to smear on trees which the birds like to perch on.
“The phenomenon is a common occurrence in Congo. Once the birds land on the glue, they get stuck and traffickers harvest them and package them in boxes where they are transported,” Dr Muinde said.
The birds are then trafficked to their different destinations using different means including road and air transport. In airports, Dr Muinde says, the birds are packaged as cargos in boxes where they are smuggled.
“Wildlife trade is big business globally and traffickers use every other means to keep the business going. It is a shock that a larger population of African Grey parrots are in peoples’ homes than in the wild,” Dr Muinde says.
Between 2014 and 2017, social media platforms, according to Dr Muinde, led in the sale of wild-sourced wildlife products.
Although the bird has already been declared extinct in Ghana, he says with the ongoing trade of birds especially through e-commerce platforms, the situation is expected to get worse in other countries where the bird was once in abundance.
Unfortunately, he says of out of 10 African Grey parrots trafficked, only four make it, a case that puts the mortality rate of trafficked birds at 60 percent.
While countries including Jordan and Pakistan remain the major consumers of the birds, Dr Muinde says porous borders have also seen trafficking of birds within African countries to meet the growing pet trade.
“In the last 50 years, Africa has lost 71 percent of its African grey parrots and if action is not taken now, we will continue witnessing the extinction crisis,” added Dr. Muinde.
African Grey Parrot falls under the category of the most trafficked wildlife because of its small size that makes it easier to be trafficked.
Dr Muinde said the ‘Little Five’ including scorpions, pythons, chameleons and African Grey parrots are some of the most traded species. The little species, he says, are disappearing in alarming rates as opposed to more charismatic species.
“There is a need for creation of awareness that is not cool,” Dr Muinde says. “it is not fancy to keep these birds in the houses whereas they were meant to be in the wild,” Dr Muinde says.
In yet another interesting twist, it is revealed that some African Grey parrots being sold in Nigeria are traced to Kenya.
A research report shared by World Parrot Trust released in March 2021 titled ‘African Grey parrot conservation in Nigeria’ documented revelations from traders who admitted to sourcing parrots from trappers and suppliers within Nigeria and other countries including Cameron, Gabon and Kenya.
“Intriguingly our research in Nigeria has identified Kenya as a source for parrots sold in Nigeria”, Dr Rowan revealed.
In the report, traders in Nigeria admitted that most parrots they are supplied with, are exported to countries in Africa, Middle East and some in Asia. Traders in Nigeria, as per the report, also acted as an important link in international trade of live Grey parrots where they export the birds to Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Togo, Benin Republic, Egypt, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Senegal, Niger, South Africa and Asia
“Traders in Nigeria not only solicit imports from neighbouring countries but also facilitate exports in wild-sourced Grey parrots for commercial purposes,” the report noted.
The birds are also smuggled from Congo through Uganda or Tanzania. Some traffickers also smuggle the birds from DRC to Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in The Standard on 31 May 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: African grey parrots inside an enclosure / Credit: The Standard, Kenya.