Bird mafia threatens African greys

An “African grey mafia” is channelling thousands of wild parrots from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) through South Africa to overseas pet markets and is pushing the species towards extinction, conservationists warn.

Details of the underworld trade emerged this week after military police patrolling the border between South Africa and Mozambique confiscated 162 African grey parrots stuffed into three small crates. The smugglers, who were carrying the crates on foot during the night, escaped into the bush after opening a fourth crate and allowing 50-odd birds to fly away.

Dries Pienaar, a Mbombela-based representative of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said smugglers were bringing the birds in from neighbouring countries because a moratorium had recently been placed on direct imports of African greys from the DRC. “We’ve caught a lot of parrots at the border posts and in cars,” he said, “but this was the first time the army caught them being smuggled in across the border”.

Cites implemented the moratorium after 730 African greys died on a flight from Johannesburg to a bird dealer in Durban in January. Interpol is investigating the case.

Steve Boyes, the director of the World Parrot Trust Africa and Wild Bird Trust, said South African bird breeders who opened a pipeline for importing parrots from the DRC in the past decade had paved the way for the African grey mafia to smuggle the birds. He said breeders needed wild caught birds to supply lucrative markets in Bahrain and the Far East because captive bred birds did not breed as well.

Official records showed the DRC exported at least 13 000 African greys in 2009, more than double its annual quota of 5 000. Boyes said the real figures were likely to be much higher.

“African greys are now the third most abundant pet on Earth, behind cats and dogs,” he said. “The corollary of this has been local extinctions in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, DRC, Cameroon and many other forest patches throughout their range.”

BirdLife International estimates 21% of the global African grey population is harvested out of the wild every year. The organisation has asked Cites to reclassify both African greys and the Timneh grey parrot from West Africa as endangered, to place strict regulations on the trade.

Richard Thomas, the communications coordinator at Traffic International, which monitors wildlife trade, said the bird trade to Europe had dropped off after the H5N1 avian flu scare and a ban on bird imports into the European Union in 2006.

“Today the main markets are in Asia. Wildlife trade in general has seen an increase, in a large part because of rising affluence in South-East and East Asia, meaning birds are far more affordable as pets.”

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.


‘Frustrated’ police resort to force

Regulation uncertainty leaves slap-happy police and soldiers to decide when people should or shouldn’t be allowed on the streets

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders