< < Back to Rosemary's Page         730 Grey Parrots die on flight to Durban

By Rosemary Low

On December 24, 730 wild-caught grey parrots were transported on a flight from Johannesburg to Durban. When the crates were unloaded, 730 were dead and ten died later. This story has set the South African press alight, with many people demanding an end to the trade in wild-caught animals.

The parrots were part of an order of 1,650 adult grey parrots which were caught in the Democratic Republic of Congo to be sold to South African dealers and breeders. The birds were imported with valid CITES permits. This shipment was not illegal. It highlights the trade in this popular parrot which is fast declining in the wild due to the scale of trapping. During the past decade more than 400,000 wild-caught greys have been traded. The number that died before being shipped would certainly equal or exceed this number. Wildlife organisations rightly say that trade of these proportions makes a mockery of the CITES permit system.

Why did the greys die? State vets were investigating. Suggestions as to cause of death include carbon monoxide poisoning, the most likely cause -- although a small dog on the same flight survived. However, as most parrot owners know, birds are much more susceptible to fumes than are mammals.

The deaths raise all kinds of issues. How can an average of more than 48 parrots per crate be tolerated? Such conditions can only be described as inhumane. And what was the reaction of the airline that carried the birds? I asked Dr Steve Boyes, director of World Parrot Trust Africa about the airline’s response. He said that WPT Africa has been told that the airline will either ban the transport of wild-caught birds or will implement strict measures to ensure that the relevant people are notified before a shipment is accepted. One of these alternatives seems appropriate but the second totally ineffective to stop a repeat of such a tragedy.

But the real issue is that of the continuing trade in wild-caught greys and other parrots. The EU and the USA have banned such imports but unfortunately many countries have not. Many captive-bred grey parrots are exported worldwide from South Africa but sadly wild-caught greys are exported in huge numbers from South Africa to Israel, Saudi Arabia and many other countries in the Middle and Far East.

A leading breeder in South Africa told me what happened to these wild-caught greys. Because they breed more quickly than young captive-bred birds set up for breeding, they are immediately placed in small, dark cages with no disturbance and very little human contact. They do not receive sufficient exercise, light or ventilation. Nevertheless they breed well for two to three years. All the young are removed for hand-rearing. After this period results deteriorate and the birds are then sold as "proven pairs". But being wild-caught, unused to human contact and still afraid of people, it could be years before they breed again.

Nigel Collar, one of the world’s leading authorities on parrot conservation and trade, spoke on the subject of the grey parrot trade at Parrots International’s symposium in San Diego last May. He mentioned especially South Africa and the fact that during the period 2000 to 2003 this country reported exporting 43,154 captive-bred grey parrots. It is very obvious that most of the parrots exported as captive-bred are wild-caught birds. This makes a travesty of the system as many countries can only import birds with CITES certificates that state they are captive-bred. In the case of grey parrots, most are not.

The grey parrot, stated Nigel Collar, is the third most traded wild bird in the world (as reported to CITES). He fears its extinction if the current rate of trade continues.