The Plight of Parrots

Joanna Eckles
World Parrot Trust USA

Parrots are among the most familiar and charismatic of all birds. Their stunning plumage and boisterous displays are unmistakable. They are well known even to the uninitiated, adored by the devout. But their magnetism has come with a price. As a group, parrots are the most endangered of all birds. Of the estimated 330 living parrot species, almost 1/3 are considered to be threatened or endangered.

THE WORLD PARROT TRUST

The World Parrot Trust was established in 1989 in response to the overwhelming need for parrot conservation. Today, the Trust remains a leader in parrot conservation by funding field projects, lobbying for legislative changes to protect parrots, and educating people about the plight of parrots worldwide.

The original founders of the Trust are Mike and Audrey Reynolds, and David Woolcock of Paradise Park, a popular bird park in Cornwall, UK and Andrew Greenwood, an internationally respected veterinarian. Rosemary Low is the editor of the World Parrot Trust’s quarterly magazine PsittaScene.

There are now 12 branches representing members all over the world. Projects funded by the Trust over the years are many and varied. All the projects contribute towards this mission: The survival of parrot species in the wild and, the welfare of captive birds everywhere.

PARROT ACTION PLAN

One of the great achievements of the World Parrot Trust was the completion of the Parrot Action Plan in 2000. This comprehensive publication is a working document to guide anyone interested in supporting or conducting fieldwork on parrots. It addresses the basic conservation of the worlds parrot species including detailed accounts of almost 100 globally threatened species. It was produced as a result of collaboration among parrot experts and serves as a plan for conservation action. The World Parrot Trust coordinated and funded this project and published the document jointly with the IUCN (World Conservation Union).

THE WORLD PARROT TRUST 12

In November 2000 we unveiled a list of 12 species that illustrate the reasons why parrots need help to survive in the wild. The current World Parrot Trust 12 are:

Kakapo Echo Parakeet St. Vincent Amazon Imperial Amazon
Golden Conure Moluccan Cockatoo Red-throated African Grey Parrot Lorikeet
Palm Cockatoo Blue throated Macaw Great Green Macaw Lear’s Macaw

  
With the exception of the African Grey Parrot all of these species are among the species identified as high priority in the Parrot Action Plan and are on CITES Appendix 1 (most threatened). We added the African Grey because this species is in imminent danger if attention is not drawn to its plight immediately.

WHAT’S HARMING PARROTS - THE BAD NEWS

Like any group of animals on earth, parrots face a matrix of threats, mostly as a result of humans. They are hunted for food and feathers, eliminated as pests, killed by introduced predators and disease, captured for the pet trade, or pushed out as their habitat is destroyed or degraded. Most species face a combination of these pressures. Some are declining before their fate can be classified. The following stories illustrate the pressures facing parrots in the wild.

The Echo Parakeet
The Echo Parakeet (Psittacula eques) was the first project funded by the World Parrot Trust and an effort we support to this day. This spunky emerald beauty is the last of a group of island dwelling parrots in the Western Indian Ocean. It is found only on the island of Mauritius, former home of the infamous Dodo – one of perhaps 17 species to have disappeared from this island. For the Echo, a population of 600-800 in the late 1700’s was severely impacted by rapid and nearly complete destruction of habitat. The small amount of native forest remaining was further degraded by fast growing introduced plants that limited feeding and nesting options. Compounding the problem were introduced nest predators and competitors like rats and macaques, nest flies and fungus, and an occasional cyclone. Only 8- 12 Echos held on by 1986. Only 2-3 females were known to exist in this vulnerable population.

The Hyacinth Macaw
The Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) was our second focal species. Found primarily in 2 regions in the South American country of Brazil it is a unique and special bird – arguably among the most magnificent of all the parrots. Sheer size and volume set it apart before you consider its beauty – Iridescent ultramarine blue plumage superbly contrasted by yellow-orange skin around the lower mandible and eye. It is no surprise that illegal trade in this species became the major factor in its decline. In the late 1980s the wild population was declining drastically, inspiring fears of extinction. Perhaps only 3,000 individuals remained in the wild by 1990.

The Blue-throated Macaw
The Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) is the highly threatened relative of the larger Blue and Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna). Unlike its more familiar and widespread cousin, Blue throats occupy only a tiny range in north central Bolivia. Though ornithologists have known of this species for decades, they did not know where the wild birds were. Unfortunately, the trappers did. Between the early 1980’s and 90’s an estimated 400-1,200 birds were exported from Bolivia to North America and Europe. In 1992 an ex-trapper led macaw researcher Charlie Munn to the last group of wild birds. Recent estimates indicate between 40-60 birds remaining in the wild.

The Great Green Macaw
The Great Green or Buffon’s Macaw (Ara ambigua) hasn’t drawn a great deal of attention among ornithologists. Not as striking as the red or blue macaws, this regal bird has all the problems, yet little of the panache. It occurs in small populations throughout Central America from Eastern Honduras into northwestern Columbia, South America. A tiny population in Ecuador is near extinction. The World Parrot Trust’s involvement has been primarily with the Costa Rican population of perhaps 200 birds. Their breeding range is being compacted by habitat destruction. A more imminent threat, however, is the loss of crucial nesting trees. Extensive research being conducted in this area has confirmed over 50 nest sites throughout the first 6 years of study. The preferred nest tree is a large leguminous species known as ‘almendro.’ Unfortunately, this tree has become a primary source of hardwood in Costa Rica. Nine or more nest trees have been cut down in the course of the study, despite well-publicized laws.

The Spix’s Macaw
Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) is one of 3 living species of Blue Macaws (along with Hyacinths and Lear’s). Most avid birders are familiar with the story of the Spix though few have ever seen one. It is quick and graceful in flight adorned in pale blue with a powder blue head. The habitat of the Spix’s was dwindling when the illegal trapping of adult birds in the 1970’s and 80’s took it over the edge. Rich bird collectors in Switzerland, the Philippines and Spain added a trophy to their collections and the world lost another wild species. Tales of the capture of the last few wild birds are heartbreaking. After decades of exploitation one bird remained in the wild in 1988. That bird paired with a female Illiger’s Macaw and evaded capture for another dozen years before disappearing in 2000. There remains a small captive population of about 60 birds – most in private hands. Unfortunately, the birds are generally closely related and cooperation among these collectors is limited at best. A committee set up for the recovery of the species has recently failed.

The following is a poignant excerpt from a new book on the Spix’s by Tony Juniper that has just been published in the UK.

Before our eyes, the most closely observed extinction of a wild species ever to take place has just occurred. But while news bulletins broadcast images of the Afghan Taliban blasting with anti-tank artillery unique thousand year old Buddha statues carved into an ancient mountainside, the world heard hardly a murmur about the loss of Spix’s fabulous blue macaw. It was one more reminder of the human propensity to regard the destruction of its own creations as tragic and immoral while the annihilation of creation raises hardly an eyebrow.
Tony Juniper “Spix’s Macaw – The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird”

The Problem of Poaching
Wherever there are hungry people and animals large enough to eat, there will be hunting. Species congregating in any substantial numbers draw special attention and face additional pressure. The Clay Licks in Peru and Bolivia have historically been prime hunting areas. There and elsewhere hunting parrots for feathers for ceremonial dress is also a concern.

No other bird exemplifies the problem of poaching better than the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). This species is sadly emblematic of the huge problem of wild caught birds. While its range is broad and it is not technically threatened, it will soon become so if current trends continue. There are still thousands of African Grey Parrots remaining in the wild across equatorial Africa. Currently they are being trapped in great numbers and are likely disappearing throughout much of their historic range. In one single area in Cameroon an estimated 15,000 birds are trapped and exported annually. The extensive trapping in this area targets birds descending to the ground to feed on vegetation and soil – presumably for essential minerals. Tethered birds are used to lure small flocks to the ground where they are netted in knee deep mud. Transferred into cramped boxes, they may remain in terrible conditions for months with devastating results. The trappers estimate up to 50% mortality using this and other unsustainable practices.

WHATS HELPING PARROTS –THE GOOD NEWS

Anti-Poaching Measures
To address the problems of poaching for food, feathers and the pet trade, the World Parrot Trust is funding anti-poaching efforts in three countries. In Indonesia, all cockatoo species are protected by law, yet illegal trapping and trade are widespread. Additionally, Indonesia has been exporting a number of Cockatoos reported as captive bred, although there are no known breeding facilities able to produce the number of birds exported. The World Parrot Trust is assisting an organization called ProFauna Indonesia (formerly KSBK) in an educational campaign against poaching and the wildlife trade. We provided funding for the printing of educational posters that were distributed to schools and local communities.

In Bolivia we are supporting the protection of clay licks and other parrot hot spots. The funds have been used to pay local families to live near and protect the clay licks to eliminate hunting. Where conditions are right ecotourist sites have been established around these sites with excellent results. The Timpia site on the Urubamba River in Peru is owned and operated by local Machiguenga Indians. It directly protects 2 major clay licks and by its presence protects several areas upstream. The entire community is now aware of the local involvement in tourism and that they cannot shoot birds there. Recently, another clay lick was discovered in this area. It was completely unprotected and only 1/2 hr by boat from a ‘major’ city. Hunting was a serious issue at this site. Within a few months, this new site was completely protected. Hopefully, a whole generation of attitudes has been changed as the local families find success and prosperity in these new ventures.

In Cameroon we are paying for guards to protect African Grey Parrots and other species that frequent the recently established park called Lobeke. Cameroon has historically been one of the primary sources of the African Grey Parrots exported annually. Up to 80% of the birds taken out of Cameroon are coming out of just two forest clearings in Lobeke. These clearings are special because of their vegetation and the mineral content of the soil. They are highly frequented by parrots and poachers alike. By protecting this park alone we are hopeful that we can save 15,000 greys per year. Our goal is to end the trade in wild-caught African Grey Parrots.

The Trade Ban
Among our most monumental undertakings to date is our Trade Ban Campaign. The goal of this venture is to completely shut off the trade in wild caught birds into the European Union. Parrots continue to decline worldwide and for most, the pet trade is the primary and immediate problem. Further, there is a clear and positive correlation between the legal and illegal trade such that any restriction in the legal trade will concurrently depress the illegal harvest. The Wild Bird Conservation Act became law in 1993 and prohibited the importation of all wild caught parrots into the United States. At that time the USA was the largest importer of wild caught birds in the world. The European equivalent would end 60% of the current trade. Between 1997 and 2000 the EU officially imported almost 500,000 wild caught birds (PsittaScene 13.3, August 2001). This trade is biologically and economically unsustainable. There are no good arguments for it to continue. Rosemary Low’s recent article in PsittaScene (No. 53, November 2002) effectively dismisses the current arguments in favor of continued trade as invalid. In summary, she states that: ‘new blood’ is not needed; trapping does not support local communities; and breeding by private aviculturists ex situ does not contribute to conservation. Add to that the harm to individual parrots and whole populations caused by trapping and transport and the case seems clear. We are addressing the EU Trade Ban Campaign from several perspectives. We have generated a petition that now contains over 16,000 signatures from 83 countries (visit our website at www.worldparrottrust.org to sign). We are supporting research that will lend further concrete data to show how trade is impacting wild populations. We are also launching a bumper sticker campaign in Europe to continue to spread the word. Hopefully we can generate enough momentum to get the attention of some of the large and influential conservation organizations.

The Captive Solution?
Around the time Tony Juniper’s Spix’s Macaw book was in its final edit, a phone call came in to a veterinary clinic in Colorado. A woman wanted suggestions for caring for her pet Spix’s macaw. Another misguided claim from an uneducated parrot owner? Perhaps. But what if it wasn’t? Fortunately, the right person answered the phone and in turn contacted World Parrot Trust director Jamie Gilardi. Four months later the only known Spix’s macaw in the United States was ‘brought in.’ Blood and feather samples allowed officials to sex the bird as a male. After some intensive care and seemingly endless discussions with authorities in the US and Brazil, the World Parrot Trust and the bird’s caretaker orchestrated its return to Brazil on December 22, 2002. There ‘Presley’ will join a small breeding group and hopefully he’ll be ‘at home’ enough to lend his valuable genes to a new generation of Spix’s.  “In 15 years, there’s every likelihood we will be talking about Presley having reproduced or his genome having been cloned,” Gilardi said. “In some way he will contribute to the continuation of his species.”

A Hyacinth Hotel
A few concerted efforts began to take hold for Hyacinths in the early 1990s. The Brazilian government along with several NGO’s, including the World Parrot Trust, took a stand for this long sought after bird. The government initiated stricter enforcement of existing laws protecting the birds from trade. We concentrated our efforts on funding basic biological research and ecotourism opportunities. These sites established around the Hyacinth would prove to be a model for the protection of other high profile endangered parrots such as the closely related Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) – also highly endangered.

Ecotourism is just part of the story. The really captivating part of this tale is the players. Macaw researchers slowly infiltrated the existing smuggling ring in Brazil and eventually convinced a few key trappers to switch sides. Over time they became reluctant partners and the tide turned for the Hyacinth. Now, the former trappers serve as guides in at least 2 ecotour ventures for Hyacinths and Lear’s. Their knowledge of the plethora of birds and animals in the region are invaluable to the tourists. In turn, their families and the families of those who used to trap for them are better. The current word is that trapping of the Hyacinth has been virtually eliminated and the population is now around 5,000 birds in the wild. When we retired the Hyacinth from our World Parrot Trust 12 last year we wrote “Our hope is that with the ongoing protection, education, ecotourism and other conservation action, this species will continue to recover and lend its spectacular stature to the conservation of the entire region.” (PsittaScene, No. 52. August 2002).

Nest Helpers
Since the last blue throats were discovered in 1992 efforts have focused on searching for more birds and protecting their nesting sites. Ex-poachers have also been enlisted here to protect the birds that remain. A multi-faceted approach has been proposed to aid this tiny population in recovery. Tactics include guarding nests from all threats including competition from the larger Blue and Gold Macaws in the area; enhancing success at active nests by helping chicks and eggs along; and, supplying artificial nest boxes to minimize sometimes deadly conflicts with Blue and Golds for nest sites. Lastly, efforts will be made to gain more understanding of the demographics of the large captive population of Blue-throated Macaws around the world. It is possible that these birds will someday augment the wild population. Much of the problem with this species comes from the fact that the adult birds were trapped for so long that the wild population is spread out and vulnerable. Pairs were broken up and now age and sex ratios are skewed across large territories. Given sufficient protection there is a good possibility they will recover in time.

In writing about the prospects for this rare macaw Charlie Munn wrote: “It’s helpful to bear in mind that several parrots have been rarer than this species ... and there is every reasons to believe that orchestrated action now will lead to a substantial recovery of this species in the next decade.” (PsittaScene 13.4, November 2001).

Great Green Flagship Species
A dedicated group of researchers has kept this species on the front burner with great results. They have spent 8 years implementing a multi-faceted conservation project using the endangered Great Green as the focus of a campaign to conserve a unique lowland Atlantic forest in Costa Rica (PsittaScene 53, November 2002). They are working to help establish a National Park and associated protected corridor to support both the macaw and the almendro tree it relies on. They have succeeded in convincing the government to suspend the harvest of this valuable tree until more studies have been done. A public awareness campaign along with strong partnerships with many like-minded organizations has brought much needed attention to this bird and its habitat. Working with local landowners, specific individual nest trees are being protected. A macaw festival held in the spring of 2002 culminated in the presentation of awards to 18 local farmers who served as nest caretakers.

Captive Breeding and Release
When we first reported on the handful of Echo Parakeets of Mauritius in 1986 Carl Jones, the project leader, said “All is not lost and there is a good chance that we can bring the parakeet back from the brink.” With help from the World Parrot Trust and several other conservation groups Jones led an intensive management campaign with the remaining wild birds. Rats were controlled at and around nests, supplemental food was provided, nest productivity was closely monitored and aid was provided for weak or sick chicks. Meanwhile, ongoing research continued to determine the basic biology of the species. A small breeding and release program was begun and great energy focused on giving new life to the degraded habitat. By 1999 there were about 100 wild Echo Parakeets on Mauritius and many reasons for optimism. The Echo Parakeet is a true parrot conservation success story.

Other hopeful signs
Besides the stories of ongoing research and various populations rebounding there have been new discoveries. In July 2002 a small flock of Fuertes’ Parrots (Hapalopsittaca fuertesi) were sighted and photographed in the high Andes of Columbia. This was the first confirmed sighting since 1911. The strange and fascinating flightless Kakapos (Strigops habropilus) of New Zealand bred at an unprecedented rate this year producing 24 chicks and increasing the world population by over 25%. Besides these successes on the ground, parrots received some much-needed legislative support as well. Three species – The Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata), Yellow-headed Amazon (Amazona oratrix) and Blue-headed Macaw (Ara couloni) – were upgraded from CITES Appendix II to Appendix 1, making trade much more difficult. These stories are proof that some things are moving in the right direction.

Parrots have faced many hardships at the hands of people. Yet they are so well known and loved by people that there is hope for them as a group. When educated about their plight, people will rally behind them. There are many positive and exciting things happening on behalf of parrots now. These new beginnings will be too late for some species but hopefully, with time, the bad news stories will all have good news endings.


For more information or to join the World Parrot Trust contact:
The World Parrot Trust
PO Box 353
Stillwater, MN 55082
Phone (651) 275-1877
Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Website www.worldparrottrust.org


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