Wild African grey parrots have been awarded the same protection as tigers, gorillas and the blue whale after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species summit agreed to give them “Appendix I” status, so outlawing their commercial sale.
The highly intelligent species with its grey plumage, scarlet tail and knowing eye has become one of the most popular global pets because of its amusing antics and ability to mimic humans. They have been selling for more than £1,000 a bird online in recent years.
Yet the demand to provide a constant supply for the pet trade has pushed the species to the brink, with up to 3.2 million birds plucked from the wild between 1975 and 2013.
The legal trade in African greys saw more than 1.3 million exported from their native haunts, yet with as many as 60 per cent of the birds dying because of the deplorable way they were ferried around the world, the death toll reached appalling levels.
A study by Birdlife International and Manchester Metropolitan University gave a gloomy prognosis for African greys earlier this year after a search in Ghana found no active roosts and only 18 individuals at sites which held 1,200 birds two decades ago.
Besides the demands of the pet trade, habitat destruction has also played a significant part in the parrot’s demise.
The highly intelligent species has become one of the most popular global pets
Welcoming the decision by CITES delegates to “uplist” the African grey, Kelvin Alie, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s wildlife trade programme, said: “An Appendix I listing by CITES will immediately improve the welfare and conservation of African greys, by protecting them from overexploitation, from uncontrolled and illegal trade; and requiring countries to support all efforts to increase protections for the parrots.
“This is a great day for a species under threat simply because of their popularity as a pet bird.”
Although Hollywood and television producers have relied on a variety of colourful parrots to play the role of Long John Silver’s trusty Cap’n Flint, there is every likelihood that Robert Louis Stevenson had the African grey in mind for the character while writing Treasure Island.
The parrot have been selling for more than £1,000 each online in recent years
The birds were a favourite of British sailors returning from distant lands and became popular pets because of their devoted nature, longevity and vocabularies of more than 100 words.
Plans to save the African grey were submitted by five range states to CITES – Gabon, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Togo – and backed by Chad, Senegal, USA and the EU.
They were agreed by 95 votes in support, 35 votes against and five abstentions.
Although WWF global wildlife policy manager Dr Colman O'Criodain described total ban on international commercial trade as a “huge step forward”, he stressed traffickers also need to be targeted.
He added: “(This) will help to protect this extraordinary species from the rampant trapping and trading that has contributed to population collapses and local extinctions across Africa in recent decades.
“Fraud and corruption have enabled traffickers to vastly exceed current quotas and continue to harvest unsustainable numbers of African grey parrots from Congo's forests to feed the illegal trade.
“Banning the trade will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on the poachers and smugglers, and give the remaining wild populations some much-needed breathing space.”
However, he added that a “total trade ban was absolutely essential”, as the bird was being “trapped and traded towards extinction in its last major bastion in the Congo basin”.
Dr O'Criodain warned the ban alone “will not be enough”, and stressed that illegal networks will continue to “plunder parrots” until countries target traffickers.