Among the treasures that Alexander the Great brought back to Europe from his travels in the east around 400 BC were some longtailed parakeets tamed by the people his armies conquered. Parrots were also kept in ancient Rome, where the tongues of talking parrots were taken as a cure for speech impediments. Columbus brought parrots back from his 1492 expedition to the Caribbean, and presented some as gifts to his royal benefactor, Queen Isabella of Spain. Henry VIII of England had a parrot in his palace. A few of his subjects kept them too. As new lands were colonised, the supply of parrots grew and grew. Today tens of millions are kept by pet owners and enthusiasts worldwide.
So what’s the attraction? Why parrots? Certainly parrots are very beautiful. Most are acrobatic, and many show real intelligence. There is, however, one thing above all that sets parrots apart. They can talk. Language defines humans, and people find birds that say words extremely appealing. While some dismiss the human-seeming sounds made by parrots as unthinking repetition, growing evidence demonstrates how some parrots use words to convey meaning. Perhaps the finest talker is the African Grey. The ability of these birds to master vocabulary is legendary. Parrots are smart birds, and that’s why we love them so much. Unfortunately, however, our love causes immense suffering, and is even helping with the annihilation of entire species.
When working with BirdLife International in 1989, I helped to launch the Protect the Parrots campaign. The campaign was a response to growing alarm about the rapid decline in many parrot species, both as a result of habitat loss and trade in wild-caught birds. In association with groups including the Environmental Investigation Agency, the campaign managed, in the early 1990s, to squeeze a resolution out of the European Parliament stating that the trade in wild-caught parrots should end. A decade and a half later, I am amazed that it continues to this day.
Most parrots are highly intelligent creatures with complex social lives. These spectacular birds think, talk and play: in several ways they are just like us. Many can live nearly as long, too. The commerce in wild-caught parrots not only amounts to an animal welfare scandal; it is a catastrophic conservation failure of which EU countries should be utterly ashamed. It is not as if the evidence of the birds’ decline has not been placed in front of policy-makers: it has, repeatedly, most recently in a new campaign being run by the World Parrot Trust.
Every year up to 20 million exotic birds of some 2,600 species are trapped and traded internationally. Birds are the third most popular pets in the world and this popularity, particularly of parrots, is leading to their rapid downfall. The Parrots are being mined like minerals. They vanish from the landscape almost overnight, extracted from their natural state by brutally efficient but totally inhumane and often lethal methods capture of wild parrots for commerce remains an appalling pressure that helps year by year to lengthen the list of more than 100 species that are considered at some risk of extinction. The roll call includes some of the world’s most critically endangered birds.
The main culprits in this massive commerce in the lives of wild birds are the countries of Europe. The EU is the largest importer of wild birds in the world, bringing in millions each year. According to BirdLife International, 10 per cent of the species being traded are now considered ‘globally threatened’. Between 2000 and 2003, the EU imported nearly half a million parrots.
The devastating impact of the wild bird trade on the conservation of species has been very well documented. My 2002 book Spix’s Macaw: the race to save the world’s rarest bird recounts the demise of the eponymous blue parrot. The entire wild population, save for a last single bird, was captured and traded. The species now hangs by a thread in captivity. That story, although in some ways an extreme example, is tragically just the tip of the iceberg. The population of the most desired bird in the world, the hyacinth macaw, has plummeted from 30,000 to 5,000. In Bolivia, the blue-throated macaw has been reduced by capture for trade to less than 100 wild birds. The Philippine cockatoo has been lost from most of its former range and is now nearly extinct – mostly because of capture. There is a long list of species in a similar predicament.
Parrots are being mined like minerals. They vanish from the landscape almost overnight, extracted from their natural state by brutally efficient but totally inhumane and often lethal methods. They are ruthlessly and injuriously trapped. They suffer and die in transit. At the export markets, they are crammed into overcrowded conditions, typically with a mixed variety of species, exposed to diseases and injury and subjected to a battery of stresses. Studies in both Africa and the Americas have shown that between 40 and 70 per cent of all birds captured die before they have even left their home countries. Yet more die during international shipment. The number of birds reaching consumers is a fraction of the total originally caught.
Parrots that do arrive alive at a retail destination mostly face a grim fate. Some turn up in pet shops. Some come to market via so-called bird fairs. Some are even sold out of the backs of vans in car parks. Many are sold to owners who have little or no idea about how to properly care for a captive parrot. The majority are sold as pets to live out their lives in cages too small for them to spread their wings.
These complex, intelligent and sociable creatures are plunged into a totally alien world, deprived of their natural diet or the companionship upon which they depend. Most are denied even flight, essential for their quality of life. Flight is so much more than a mode of transport: every aspect of a bird’s make-up is designed around it. Few can ever again fulfil their natural instincts. A wild-caught parrot released in a living room will fly straight into the window. If it is lucky it will break its neck and die. The unlucky ones linger for a few weeks, suffering from intense stress that will either kill them outright, or lead to disease that will soon deliver the same fate.
It’s not even as if wild-caught parrots are a pet-keeping success: the truth is that they are a dismal failure. The small minority that survive for any length of time are prone to a catalogue of captivity induced psychoses: they growl in fear; they scream at 120 decibels; they pluck out their own feathers; and they bite. Parrots wrenched from their natural habitats rarely make happy or successful pets. Their keepers can’t cope with them, and the birds are often passed on to the growing number of parrot rescue centres. These centres are like refugee camps in which traumatised parrots from all parts of the world live a miserable existence utterly divorced from their context and roots. Unlike refugees, however, the parrots have no hope of ever going home.
Importing wild parrots defies logic. All of the many parrot species that are popular as pets are bred widely in captivity and are easily available to collectors, breeders and pet owners in the EU. In fact, European aviculturists already produce far more parrots than are needed to meet demand. Captive-bred parrots are healthier, tamer and happier. Captive-bred birds live in contentment with people, some for many, many years – providing they receive the time, care and attention they need. Even if policymakers don’t give a damn about parrots (and they don’t appear to), surely they should be concerned to prevent a serious outbreak of any number of avian diseases.
Just as we are waking to the threat posed by a global pandemic of bird flu, it seems incredible that European legislators remain in slumber when it comes to the bird trade. The devastating impact of highly contagious and deadly avian diseases on human lives, livelihoods and agricultural economies is now well documented in almost daily World Health Organisation alerts, scientific reports and mainstream news stories. And yet the EU sleeps on.
The justifiable panic about bird flu has meant some small respite for the parrots. The temporary ban on bird imports to the EU from Asia has already saved hundreds of thousands in one year alone. It is likely that the EU will extend the ban, as we now know that it is simply a question of when and where the next outbreak of infectious disease will occur and how many hundreds of millions it will cost to contain. The EU’s fears that quarantine provides insufficient protection were confirmed recently by the arrival in Brussels of eagles infected with a lethal version of avian flu capable of infecting humans.
Considering that the import of wild parrots is obviously so damaging, and that there is a readily available alternative, it was perhaps reasonable for conservation groups to assume that it was only a matter of time before laws were enacted to end it. But not only were we wrong to believe that the European Parliament’s early 1990s resolution would actually lead to a trade ban, we put far too much faith in commitments from national governments (including that of the UK) to end the import of wild birds.
We also put far too much trust in the notion that the trade would be rendered sustainable by regulations, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). One hundred and fifty-eight countries work through this treaty to ensure that the international trade in threatened species does not cause declines of vulnerable plants and animals in the wild. Or at least that is the theory. In reality, and despite clear requirements in the convention for signatories to sustain the wild populations of traded species, more and more parrots have had to be banned from international commerce because exploitation was so unsustainable that they were in real danger of extinction. Cites has failed in its primary aim of ensuring that the trade in wild species is rendered sustainable.
Perhaps even more surprising is how Cites has managed to galvanise so little effort to even assess the impact of the trade: at best the performance in this regard has been patchy; the pitiful amount of research that has been commissioned has been ignored. For example, research into the trade of African grey parrots from Guinea conducted for Cites and the World Conservation Union in 2001 found the species highly threatened by trade in that country. Although the report in question recommended the suspension of all exports from Guinea, the export quota remained unchanged. In the 30 years since Cites was established not a single documented example of a truly sustainable bird harvest has yet come to light. There are of course many examples to the contrary.
So why does the EU continue to justify such environmentally harmful and inhumane policies?
Many believe that purchasing wild birds supports the indigenous people and local economies of developing countries. This is rubbish. Retailers and middlemen overwhelmingly monopolise any profits generated by the wild bird trade. Any wages for local trappers are at best meagre. Most bird trapping (legal and illegal) in the tropics is carried out by small bands of trappers who have no loyalty or ties to the local community: they are simply very efficient at removing all the valuable parrots from the local habitat. If you think the bird trade can be justified because it helps the rural poor in developing countries, think again.
Indeed, far from aiding development and supporting livelihoods in the Third World, the European market for wild-caught parrots perpetuates the unsustainable exploitation of the natural resources of developing countries. It thereby undermines positive, sustainable options for development such as eco-tourism, which has proven highly effective in generating real jobs in conservation for local populations.
The economic arguments made by European bird traders are less subtle. They seek to justify wild bird imports simply on the grounds that buying and selling wild parrots is a profitable business. We don’t tolerate the legal import of slaves or drugs (even though they are often profitable), and we should not allow the hugely damaging wild bird trade to continue simply to support the personal profits of a few shady bird importers.
Many traders claim that banning the bird trade would drive it underground. This is also nonsense. As things are now, millions of wild birds find themselves stuffed into bags and headed for the black market. Yellow-headed Amazons, for example, sell for between $800 and $1,500 each in the US. The traders argue that increasing protection for birds increases the demand for them. But in reality most traders, breeders and collectors steer away from birds given additional protections. No increase in demand for rare parrots is evident in markets in which the trade in such species is banned. In fact, the evidence suggests that the legal trade provides a cover and infrastructure for the illegal trade. A recent scientific review on the poaching of parrots in the New World showed that illegal trade actually dropped dramatically when imports into the US were banned.
Europeans have become accustomed to adopting a smug and superior tone when comparing themselves to the US on environmental policies and laws. In the case of the wild bird trade, however, the US is way ahead. In 1992 the US, which was then a huge importer of wild-caught birds, passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act, doing at a stroke what the EU should have done long ago: banning the import of wild-caught birds.
Other countries have similarly opted out of the wild bird market, including Australia, Canada and Israel. And a growing number of former bird-exporting countries have recognised the trade’s threat to their natural resources and national heritage and have ended or substantially reduced their involvement in it, too. The results of these changes have demonstrated that trade legislation is extremely effective. Stopping legal imports (and exports) takes the money out of the trade and leaves the wild birds where they belong: in the wild. Since the Wild Bird Conservation Act was introduced in the US, poaching levels of valuable parrots in Latin America more than halved from 48 per cent of nests to 20 per cent. This single piece of legislation has saved an estimated 8.5 million wild birds.
Clear and simple rules have been demonstrated to be an enforceable and effective deterrent for would-be smugglers. Well-implemented legislation could eliminate the threat posed by this market overnight. Banning the trade altogether would make the job of customs officers so much less complicated. Smugglers would know that they could no longer get away with their old tricks of dying feathers (to temporarily disguise rare protected species as common ones) or faking paperwork. Prohibiting imports could also change the consumer attitudes that drive the trade, reducing demand for wild birds.
Conservationists are once again campaigning for the EU to act on the bird trade, and this time they are determined not to accept the illusion of a ‘sustainable harvest’ of wild birds. We tried that and it didn’t work. Only a permanent and across-the-board ban will do the job, and that is what European countries must now support. The EU must join the growing number of nations around the world that have withdrawn from the economically risky, environmentally backward and ethically unacceptable trade in wildcaught birds.
And support for that demand is building. More than 230 NGOs, led by the World Parrot Trust and supported by Friends of the Earth Europe, the RSPCA and hundreds of experts in wildlife conservation, wildlife trade, the economic and health impacts of bird-borne diseases and animal welfare, have all endorsed a ‘Wild Bird Declaration’ calling for an immediate and permanent end to the bird trade. All that is needed is for the EU to harmonise its policies with those of other developed countries; doing so would generate a range of conservation, welfare and health benefits.
Nearly two and half thousand years ago Alexander the Great brought parrots to Europe, where, as sought-after pets, they became a symbol of civilisation. Perhaps a more fitting symbol of our civilisation today would be a complete ban on their import.
Tony Juniper was the director of Friends of the Earth and scientific advisor to the World Parrot Trust. He is the author of Spix’s Macaw: the race to save the world’s rarest bird and, with Mike Parr, Parrots: a guide to the parrots of the world
Researchers are finding that some parrots have the ability to use language creatively to convey meaning. One African grey called Alex works with US psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex has learned many words and phrases, some of which he learnt to use in the right context without being taught. Alex is apparently not the first African grey to master this skill. Published in 1884, Parrots in Captivity by William Thomas Greene, relates the story of another talking African grey parrot. It says: ‘The bird… was presented to us by a man who had lived in the East Indies for a long time. The bird could already speak well, but only Dutch. In a short time, however, he learnt both German and French. These three languages he spoke as distinctly as a human being… [He] was so attentive that he often caught up expressions that had never been used before him; introducing them appropriately to the astonishment of every one. ‘He spoke single words and sentences in the Dutch language, and also introduced Dutch words with judgment between German ones when he did not know or had forgotten the German equivalent. He asked questions and returned answers, made requests and returned thanks; and used words correctly in relation to time, place and persons. ‘It is impossible for me to relate all that the bird did and said. He seemed almost a human being.’
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2005