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.”

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.


Stay in China, government tells homesick South Africans

As ‘impisoned’ children at epicentre cry to be reunited with their parents, top official says families mustn’t be ungrateful

Cradock Four back to haunt De Klerk

Pressure is mounting on the NPA to charge the former president and others involved in political killings during apartheid

Ramaphosa makes peace with Malema over gender-based violence comments

In his Sona response, the president apologised for the weaponising of gender-based violence, saying the attack on the red beret leader was "uncalled for"

Steenhuisen takes the lead in DA race while Ntuli falters

‘If you want a guarantee buy a toaster. This is politics’

Press Releases

Response to the report of the independent assessors

VUT welcomes the publishing of the report of the independent assessors to investigate concerns of poor governance, leadership, management, corruption and fraud at the university.

NWU student receives international award

Carol-Mari Schulz received the Bachelor of Health Sciences in Occupational Hygiene Top Achiever Award.

Academic programme resumes at all campuses

Lectures, practicals, seminars and tutorials will all resume today as per specific academic timetables.

Strategic social investments are a catalyst for social progress

Barloworld Mbewu enables beneficiaries to move away from dependence on grant funding

We all have a part to play to make South Africa work

Powering societal progress demands partnerships between all stakeholders

So you want to be a social entrepreneur?

Do the research first; it will save money and time later

Social entrepreneurship means business

Enterprises with a cause at their core might be exactly what our economy desperately needs

Looking inwards

Businesses are finding tangible ways to give back – but only because consumers demand it