Exotic birds are beautiful animals, kept by millions of people as captive companions. Sadly, the global trade in wild birds has a drastically negative impact on their ability to survive in their natural habitats. Mortality of wild-caught parrots prior to export has been documented to range from 45-70%, as a result of poor nutrition, stress, and overcrowding.
The complex international web of bird smuggling and illicit trade reveals the breadth of the problem today: Indonesians smuggle parrots into Singapore, Italians smuggle exotics out of Yugoslavia, and countless species of wild-caught birds are kidnapped in Central and South America and illegally imported into the European Union. Last year, British citizen Raymond Humphrey, for example, was sentenced to more than six years in prison for smuggling internationally-protected birds into England. Do we literally love wild birds to death in our quest to keep parrots and other exotic birds as pets? Current threats to bird species in the wild vary. They are at risk from habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation from hunting for food and live capture for the pet trade. Regardless of which threat poses the greatest risk to the birds' long-term viability, one thing is clear-wild birds are disappearing fast. A new paper by the Worldwatch Institute, Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds, presents some startling statistics. In general, "almost 1,200 species-about 12 percent of the world's 9,800 bird species-may face extinction within the next century.... Human-related factors threaten 99 percent of the most imperiled bird species." Specifically, with respect to the trade in parrots as pets, "almost a third of the world's 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction due to pressures from collecting for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss." The World Parrot Trust (WPT) agrees that there is an on-going and dramatic decline of wild parrots worldwide and notes that the parrot family has more globally threatened species than any other family of birds. The World Conservation Union's "Red List" contains 94 species of parrots that are currently considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, and many more sub-species are equally at risk of disappearing forever. Recent scientific findings from studies throughout the Neotropics demonstrate that the demand for large expensive parrots as pets is a key driving force for this trade. In June 2001, Timothy Wright of the University of Maryland published an important study in the respected journal Conservation Biology entitled "Nest Poaching in Neotropical Parrots."
Wright and his team concluded, "Poaching of parrots from the wild is an economic activity driven by a combination of the market demand for parrots as pets, the large profits to the pet industry, and the rural poverty in many countries with wild-parrot populations." As a result, nest poaching of wild birds in unprotected areas is rife. Deaths from poaching of nests, they found, was "significantly greater than mortality due to natural causes." Further, "nest poaching for the pet trade is a major conservation threat for many parrot species." The underlying importance of the study was its attempt to assess whether greater protection for birds in the wild exists after trade bans on their international commerce are put in place. The international trade in threatened and endangered species is governed by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). But sometimes stricter national measures are vital to add an extra layer of protection for wildlife at risk. For instance, a number of countries, among them, Australia, Ecuador, and Guyana, have imposed export bans to prevent their native bird species from being exported commercially.
The United States took the equally important step in 1992 of banning the importation of some of the most critical bird species. As a major importer of wild birds, the U.S. action was remarkably significant and successful. The Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) converted the U.S. from the largest importer of wild-caught birds to a virtual non-importer of wild-caught parrots. The Wright study importantly concludes: "Poaching rates were significantly lower in the years after enactment of the WBCA.... [suggesting] that importation bans reduce poaching in exporting countries by limiting the demand by consumers in developed countries." Legal and illegal imports have been reduced to a trickle, though it surely still exists, and captive bred parrots are now more available and less expensive than ever for pet owners, breeders, and collectors. Restricting or eliminating the legal trade will reduce the illegal trade, rather than drive it underground as is often suggested. But not all countries have gotten the message. Between 1997 and 2000, the European Union officially imported 469,602 wild-caught birds of 111 species. Wild-caught birds are generally unsuitable as pets when they arrive in European homes, and thousands of these birds end up unwanted and ill-cared for. By importing wild-caught parrots, developed European nations are, in fact, unconscionably exploiting the resources of developing nations by creating a harvest that is neither biologically nor economically sustainable.
Therefore, WPT is spearheading a campaign to immediately cease the importation of wild-caught birds into the European Union, following America's wise lead from a decade before. According to Dr. James Gilardi of the WPT, "The existing trade is cruel and inhumane to tens of thousands of highly intelligent and social parrots. Figures on the unacceptably high mortality that occurs during the trapping, shipping, and quarantine of these birds demonstrate that the trade impacts far more wild birds than the numbers which end up for sale in Europe and Asia."
The spectacle of wild parrots is now an enormously popular ecotourism attraction and generates millions of dollars annually for tropical nations. Tourism creates solid employment for indigenous people as guides and lodge operators, and, if implemented well, ecotourism facilitates the long term protection of natural areas. The international attention that comes along with the tourism also builds local pride in natural heritage, which further facilitates nature conservation. In contrast, harvesting parrots for the pet trade provides small numbers of temporary jobs, and the financial benefits fall primarily in the hands of unscrupulous dealers in large cities rather than indigenous people.