By Mohamed Daghar*
The population of African gray parrots in the wild is declining at a rate assess 21% each year. Found in West and Central Africa, the birds are being sold by illegal wildlife dealers as exotic pets, and their natural habitat is being destroyed. Licensing policies and practices governing parrot ownership are not widely known and rarely implemented.
The birds are threatened with extinction in Ghana, with almost entire population lost to the slave trade. In other countries, the figures have decreases more than 50%. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the last natural habitat of the parrot, poachers are trafficking the last of them. In April this year, a Congolese smuggler was stopped in Uganda with 122 parrots and sentenced to seven years in prison.
In 2017, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) moved the African gray on the list of species threatened with extinction, which prohibits trade except in exceptional circumstances.
Prior to this CITES re-listing, pet keepers in some East African countries were required to register parrots with wildlife authorities, but this was rarely enforced. Since the CITES amendment, Kenya, Uganda and the DRC have established parrot registration procedures and offered amnesty to those who had purchased them irregularly.
In Kenya, the annual license to keep a parrot costs US$100 (KES 12,000). Some pet owners buy trafficked parrots but skip license payments, while others are unaware that certificates have been mandatory since 2017.
An active smuggling network operates from the DRC to Kenya, with Uganda as a transit point
Law enforcement agencies in East African countries have focused on intercepting the growing illegal trade via online marketplaces. Meanwhile, the physical sale of parrots between the DRC and other East African markets continues apace. An active network operates from DRC to Kenya, with Uganda as a transit point, according to a licensed parrot keeper and law enforcement officer who spoke to ENACT.
Poachers in the DRC capture juvenile birds from their nests in the canopy of woodland trees. They also use large woven cages to catch parrots on the ground. The conflict in eastern DRC has caused some residents to turn to poaching birds rather than working in the illegal timber or mineral trade, which are controlled by armed rebels and pose a risk of violence.
Poaching is also attractive as payment is in cash, with each parrot selling for around US$10. The healthier the bird, the higher the price, as healthy parrots can tolerate long journeys even at a young age.
Brokers in the DRC source African grays from poachers and transport them to Kampala in Uganda via bus networks linking major cities in eastern DRC, such as Goma and Bukavu, to Kigali in Rwanda and in Kampala. Freight trucks are also used. Birds are stored under the bus or truck in dark boxes with no ventilation – sometimes under other luggage. They risk death from fumes, thirst and hunger on these long journeys, the shortest of which is two days.
Law enforcement in East African countries has focused on growing illegal online trade
Once in Kampala, brokers are instructed by agents in Mombasa, Kenya to transport the birds there or deliver them to buyers in Kampala. Kenyan law enforcement agencies believe that a central trafficker in Mombasa controls the entire network.
The agent sells the parrots to pet owners for US$100-250 (KES 12,000-30,000) each, using a complex word-of-mouth system. His identity is unknown to buyers and police do not know how his trading system works, according to the licensed parrot keeper who spoke to ENACT. The East African crime chain may also work with other networks trafficking birds to the Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Intercepting smugglers using online marketplaces is worthwhile, and organizations such as the World Parrot Trust and Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime are building knowledge about this practice. But countries must take action against the often hidden physical trafficking of African Greys. Coordination between wildlife authorities, border officials and those working in the transport sector in Central and East Africa is also essential.
In October 2021, the police chiefs of the two regions and their respective ministers signed an agreement on police cooperation and criminal matters, supported by policy advice and technical assistance from ENACT. The agreement comes into force once ratified by the parliaments of the 21 member countries. It could – bolstered by intelligence gathered from the virtual African gray trade – be a platform for the government and other agencies to bring down traffickers.
*About the author: Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator, East Africa, ENACT Project, ISS Nairobi