When we’re looking for an animal to keep as a pet, we think about food, exercise and affordability. But how much thought do we give to where the animal comes from? When we buy exotic birds through online ads or breeders, we may unknowingly support the plunder of wild species. The African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is one such species.
A plain parrot in comparison with the more flamboyant macaw or cockatoo, this medium-sized grey bird with a poppy-red tail is a popular companion bird. What may be lacking in dazzling colour is more than made up for in intelligence and speaking ability, demonstrated by the work of American animal behavioural scientist Dr Irene Pepperberg.
Pepperberg worked with African grey parrot Alex for thirty years, revealing cognitive ability never thought possible in a bird. Having acquired a vocabulary of more than 100 words, Alex also understood the concepts of colour, shape, size and number, and he could add up. Solving puzzles on a par with a five-year-old, this remarkable African grey parrot changed our thinking about bird brains. Pepperberg’s book Alex & Me tells the story of their friendship and ground-breaking research.
But the African grey parrot is fast disappearing in the wild, its popularity in part contributing to its depletion. Over the last twenty years, a catastrophic population decline has occurred due to habitat destruction and trapping for the pet trade.
New study shows African grey parrot plummets by 90% in Ghana
According to research published in the avian science journal Ibis, this sociable bird, once seen in flocks of 2,000 in Ghana in the 1970s, has been clipped to flocks that only just make double figures.
Despite anecdotal evidence of fewer sightings, no scientific research has previously been carried out to provide quantitative data on population changes in any country in the African grey parrot’s range: from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa, through Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa, and eastwards to Uganda and Western Kenya.
Scientists from Manchester Metropolitan University and Birdlife International compared historical abundance data of African grey parrots in Ghana from Dandliker’s 1992 study with their study data collected from 2012 to 2014.
Researchers found that Ghana’s grey parrot population has declined by 90% to 99% since 1992. Similar declines are indicated across the entire West African range for this species, as well as for the closely related timneh African grey parrot (Psittacus timneh) in its smaller range.
Population decline estimates are often limited by the lack of robust historical data, but this study used the same 22 roost locations as Dandliker’s study to conduct new surveys. No active roosts were found this time and in three roosts where 700 to 1200 grey parrots were counted in 1992, only 18 were found.
Lead author Nathaniel Annorbah, a Ghanaian doctoral student, and co-authors Nigel Collar and Stuart Marsden also interviewed local people for their perception on grey parrot abundance.
The consensus among 906 villagers across roost locations is that population decline has been caused by trapping for the pet trade as well as the destruction of tall trees, which greys use for nesting and roosting.
Ex-trappers confirm grey parrot scarcity in Ghana
Active or previously active bird traders interviewed in urban areas said supply in grey parrots is now negligible. Traders at urban markets put grey parrot prices at the equivalent of US$230, reaching US$330 to US$660 if birds are sold to expatriates. But of the 23 ex-trappers interviewed, 9 said that income became unsustainable in the mid-1990s. Some trappers turned to farming but many immigrated to neighbouring countries to continue parrot trapping.
Ghana’s increasing population, from 8.5 million in 1970 to 24.2 million in 2010, has also contributed to the grey parrot crisis, shown by the reduction in forest coverage from 74,480 km² in 1991 to 49,400 km² in 2010. Grey parrot habitat is diminishing in size and quality due to extensive deforestation as well as logging tall trees in forests and on adjacent farmland, where parrots have also been found to nest.
Catastrophic decline in grey parrots across West and Central Africa
Annorbah’s study corroborates anecdotal evidence of the grey parrot’s near disappearance from Ghana and indicates that further population studies are needed. According to Birdlife International, the crisis extends beyond Ghana, with population declines indicated in 14 out of 18 range countries.
“The rate of decline is hard to quantify, but given the massive level of capture for trade and the high levels of forest loss in parts of the range, a decline of 30-49% in three generations (47 years) may be a conservative estimate.”
The African grey parrot is the most traded CITES-listed bird. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Flora and Fauna Species (CITES) was set up in 1973 to limit unsustainable global trade in threatened species. P. erithacus is listed under Appendix II – “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
Birdlife International estimates over 1 million erithacus and timneh parrots have been taken from the wild. This estimate is based on CITES records for wild-caught birds that entered the international trade from 1982 to 2001 and accounts for deaths in capture and transit, as well as unreported illegal trade. Alongside international trade, domestic trade supplies birds for pets and exhibits. Parrots are also hunted for bushmeat and body parts used in medicine and black magic.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has upgraded the grey parrot to ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. If habitat destruction and trapping activities are not curtailed, the next species threat level is ‘Endangered’, followed by ‘Critically Endangered’, and then ‘Extinct in the Wild’, the damning impact of human greed and apathy.
Consumer demand for grey parrot surges in Asia and the Middle East
With a long lifespan of 50 to 80 years and an amazing ability to talk, the African grey parrot is one of the most popular avian pets in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East.