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.”