The future is bleak for the world’s most traded bird

An African gray parrot.  PHOTOS/ERIC NTALUMBWA

What you need to know:

A parrot conservation centre will be established to improve breeding, reproduction, releasing techniques and educational techniques. It will also promote the development of eco-tours and tourism resources using grey parrots.

On April 16, UWEC received 122 endangered African grey parrots seized in the illegal wildlife trade. The birds believed to have been from Kinshasa, Congo, were intercepted in Kibaya village at Bunagana border town in Kisoro District.

According to a press release issued on April 21, by Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), a Congolese national identified as Bob Mbaya Kabongo was arrested during a joint operation conducted by UWA, UPDF, and Police. The suspect was found in possession of two cages containing 122 African Grey parrots three of which were dead, a passport, two phones and a power bank.

“The parrots came in two boxes. Three of them had died and two birds were injured. We are taking care of them in a captive environment as they undergo mandatory quarantine for 30 days,” says Dr James Watuwa, a veterinarian at Uganda Wildlife Conservation Education Centre (UWEC) says.

The suspected trafficker from DRC and the exhibits were taken to Kisoro police station, a case opened under CRB: 216/2022 and later, transferred to Kampala Central Police Station. It is believed he intended to sell the parrots in Kisoro District.

UWEC, popularly known as the Entebbe Zoo is the national designated CITES Wildlife Rescue Centre. This is under the mandate of rescue, rehabilitation of injured, confiscated, or orphaned wildlife stipulated in the UWEC Act 2015.

Animal caregiver feeds parrots at UWEC. PHOTO/ ERIC NTALUMBWA

The endangered bird

Six years ago, at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP13) in Cancun, Mexico, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List assessments, revealed that some of the world’s most popular birds may soon disappear in the wild, if appropriate steps were not taken.

The iconic species, such as the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) registered a significant decline and conservationists were worried about their extinction in the wild due to unsustainable trapping and habitat loss.

The natives to rainforests of Central Africa declined in Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome, and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda and parts of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with Pet trade, loss of habitat, and fragmentation having a heavy toll on specie numbers and distribution.

As a result, the grey parrot conservation status degenerated from vulnerable to endangered. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It uses a criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies.

In a study spearheaded by BirdLife International, it was revealed that in some parts of Africa such as Ghana, the population of grey parrots had reduced by 99 per cent.

According to the IUCN Red List, the total population of African grey parrots is around 40,000 to 100,000 in the world. The current numbers in Uganda are not known owing to lack of quantitative data on abundance within its habitat range.  

Children connecting with nature. PHOTO/ERIC NTALUMBWA 

 Zero-tolerance to wildlife crime

UWA executive director, Sam Mwandha, has echoed determination to make Uganda a dangerous route for wildlife traffickers. “We will not allow Uganda to be used as a transit route for wildlife traffickers; we will continue to arrest and prosecute wildlife offenders,” he said.

Mwanda says UWA has over the years built the capacity to combat wildlife crime and is now in a good position to detect and deter wildlife trafficking in the country. He further lauds the support extended by the UPDF and Police, which is crucial for the protection of Uganda’s wildlife resources.  In January 2011, more than 130 rare African parrots were confiscated from a woman smuggling them from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda, a departure point for lucrative European and Asian markets.

The woman possessed a fake permit to transport more than 500 grey parrots. She was stopped by UWA officials along that country’s border to Uganda. In the same year, 270 parrots were rescued from smugglers at the Mpondwe Customs border post in Kasese and at a private farm at Kawuku on the Kampala-Entebbe highway. UWEC rehabilitated the birds and subsequently, released them at Ngamba Island on Lake Victoria and Kibale Forest National Park.


Trade is illegal

Following, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Johannesburg, South Africa, the  17th Washington Convention Conference of the Parties in 2016, voted to ban the commercial trade of wild grey parrots.

This accorded it the highest level of protection, implying it is threatened with extinction. CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species, except when the purpose of the import is not commercial. The proposal to strongly protect the specie was supported by the European Union, Gabon, Guinea, Angola, Nigeria, United States, Chad, Togo, and Senegal.

According to the Uganda wildlife Act 2019, a person who without a permit is found in possession of, sells, buys, transfers, or accepts the transfer of protected specimen classified as extinct in the wild; critically endangered, or endangered on conviction is liable to a fine not exceeding 1m currency points or to life imprisonment or both (where a currency point is equivalent to Shs20,000).

Wildlife cybercrime

In October 2021, research from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) and World Parrot Trust (WPT) suggested a growing illegal trade online for endangered birds most especially African grey parrots as pets in Africa.

Hundreds of online advertisements selling exotic wildlife as pets suggest a rise in the illegal trading of endangered animals in Africa. A total of 782 online advertisements on classified websites in six countries were identified by automated methods over a six-month period in 2021. The highest number and frequency of advert were found in Kenya (455) and Nigeria (264), but ads in Benin, Ghana, and Angola were recorded as “early-warning signs” of budding markets in these countries. Jumia, one of the classified platforms identified in the report, responded to the findings by removing all the offending posts, introducing new filters, and undertaking to revise its wildlife policies.

Acquisition as a pet

The large-sized beautiful bird has been revered as a pet and used as a status symbol by some people because of its brainpower. The social parrot’s intelligence is arguably equivalent to that of a five-year-old human. This is characterised by the specie’s mimicking skills in captivity, the ability to count, identify colours, solve problems and offer companionship.

Dr Racheal Mbabazi, the manager animal and horticulture department at UWEC, says the centre receives an average of five applications every month from UWA for persons who want to acquire grey parrots as pets.

 According to the Uganda Wildlife Act 2019, a person, local community, or organisation can be granted a right to utilise wildlife in accordance with part VI Section 35 of the existing wildlife legal framework.

The wildlife use rights are categorised in classes A to H. For the acquisition of parrots, Class E permits using wildlife for educational or scientific purposes including medical experiments and developments. Class G permits the use of wildlife as pets or ornaments, whereas Class H grants the use of wildlife for tourism and recreation.

The Act also states that it is an offense for a person to engage in any of the activities under section 35 or any other activity of a like nature that involves the utilisation of wildlife or wildlife products without a wildlife use right.

Illegal to harvest grey

Dr Mbabazi says it is illegal to harvest grey parrots in the wild and keep them as pets. Upon receiving an application, Dr Mbabazi and the birds’ section check availability in the aviary (bird cage) and report back to the Authority. With availability, an applicant undergoes a one-week intensive training at UWEC, after which a certificate of training is issued upon completion.

Based on this and other requirements, UWA uses its discretion to grant one a wildlife use right.  “The training entails grey parrot housing, enrichment, feeding, ensuring proper health and protection against diseases among others,” Mbabazi says.

 “Prior to taking the grey parrot, a preliminary visit is conducted to assess the suitability of the parrot’s destination. UWA later monitors the pet owner to ensure compliance,” she adds.

Conservation efforts

At the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP13) in Cancun, Mexico, former IUCN, director general, Inger Andersen tasked governments at the UN biodiversity summit to step up their efforts to protect the planet’s biodiversity.

In Uganda, UWEC is mandated to promote wildlife breeding for conservation and commercial purposes, a role that enables the entity to build a healthy and viable animal population as a backup for endangered species for both research and conservation education.

Musingo David, the manager of education and information at UWEC, says protecting the remaining wild individuals in their habitats, breed them away from the natural location, and return them to the wild habitats.

“When a specie is nearly extinct, it is hopeless to restore the population due to the genetic diversity loss, even if much effort is put into in projects for conservation and reproduction. In such cases, reintroduction from other areas is required. That is why facilities with methodologies to preserve, breed, and reintroduce parrots are needed,” he reiterates.

Feeding and health checks

Bulemu Hannington, an animal caregiver in the birds’ section at the Entebbe Zoo, has a role to provide quality, balanced, and quantified amounts of food to meet their nutritional values.

He feeds parrots twice a day; morning and late afternoon because they are more active in the morning and late evening hours. “The diet comprises fruits, grain, but once in a while food enrichment is done by hiding the grey parrot’s favourite food in bamboo designed sticks to ensure animal behaviour is stimulated,” he explains.

The veterinary unit conducts health checks annually to assess the health status of the birds. Dr Watuwa says some of the common diseases and vices among grey parrots include Vitamin A and D deficiency, aggression, respiratory infections, psittacosis, psittacine beak and feather disease, and nasal blockages due to bacteria, fungal, and also secondary malnutrition. “The behavioural problems are feather picking, fearfulness and aggression,” he adds.

Parrot conservation facility

Dr James Musinguzi, a seasoned conservationist at UWEC is concerned about the plight of endangered birds, but is optimistic that Uganda has the conditions to become an international base for parrot conservation. “We have had experiences sheltering grey parrots that have been seized. Later some of these birds have been released into several locations across the country,” he adds. 

He says UWEC has embarked on a joint conservation programme on African grey parrots with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to establish the Grey parrot Conservation Centre and build a parrot conservation model by improving the livelihoods of local populations.

 “We hope to establish the Parrot Conservation Centre and enhance its function as a conservation and reproduction facility to improve breeding, reproduction, releasing techniques and educational techniques. It will also promote the development of eco-tours and tourism resources using mainly the grey parrots at the centre,” he explains.

Dr Musinguzi says plans are underway to create a robust approach to work with the communities living in reintroduced areas. “Communities need to appreciate the value of grey parrots as tourism resources as well as promote the return of revenue from tourism to communities,” he adds.

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