The African grey parrot population in the wild is dwindling at a rate of 21 per cent every year. Found in West and Central Africa, the birds are sold by illegal wildlife traders as exotic pets, and their natural habitat is being destroyed.
Licensing policies and practices regulating ownership of the parrots are not widely known and rarely implemented.
The birds face extinction in Ghana, with almost the entire population lost to trafficking. In other countries, numbers have decreased by over 50 per cent.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – the parrot’s last natural habitat – poachers are trafficking the last of them. In April this year, a Congolese smuggler was arrested in Uganda with 122 parrots and sentenced to seven years in prison.
In 2017, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) moved the African grey to the list of species threatened with extinction, which prohibits trading except under exceptional circumstances.
Before this CITES relisting, pet keepers in some East African countries had to register parrots with the wildlife authorities, but this was rarely enforced. Since the CITES change, Kenya, Uganda, and the DRC established procedures for registering parrots and offered amnesty to those who had bought them irregularly.
In Kenya, the annual licence to keep a parrot costs $100 (KES12 000). Some pet keepers buy trafficked parrots but skip the licence payments, while others are unaware that the certificates have been mandatory since 2017.
Law enforcement agencies in East African countries have focused on intercepting the growing illegal trade through online markets. Meanwhile, the physical sale of parrots between the DRC and other East African markets continues apace.
An active network operates from the DRC to Kenya, with Uganda as a transit point, according to a licensed parrot keeper and a law enforcement officer who spoke to ENACT.
Poachers from the DRC capture juvenile birds from their nests in forested tree canopies. They also use large woven cages to catch parrots on the ground. The eastern DRC conflict has made some locals turn to poaching birds rather than working in the illegal timber or minerals trades, which are controlled by armed rebels and pose a risk of violence.
Poaching is also attractive because payment is in cash, with each parrot selling for around $10. The healthier the bird, the higher the price, as healthy parrots can tolerate long journeys even in infancy.
Brokers in the DRC source the African greys from poachers and transport them to Kampala in Uganda via bus networks connecting major cities in eastern DRC, such as Goma and Bukavu, to Kigali in Rwanda and on to Kampala.
Cargo trucks are also used. Birds are stored under the bus or truck in dark cartons with no ventilation – sometimes beneath other luggage. They risk death from fumes, thirst and hunger on these long trips, the shortest of which is two days.
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 officers believe a kingpin trafficker in Mombasa controls the entire network.
The agent sells the parrots to pet keepers for $100-250 (KES12 000-30 000) each, using a complex word-of-mouth referral system. His identity is unknown to buyers, and police are unaware of how his trading system works, according to the licensed parrot keeper who spoke to ENACT.
The East African criminal chain may also be working with other networks trafficking the birds to the Gulf, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Intercepting smugglers that use online markets is worthwhile, and organisations 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 the wildlife authorities, border officials and those working in the transport sector in Central and East Africa is also essential.
In October 2021, police chiefs from the two regions and their respective ministers signed an agreement on police cooperation and criminal matters, supported by ENACT policy advice and technical assistance.
The deal comes into force once ratified by the parliaments of the 21 member countries. It could – bolstered by intelligence gathered on the virtual trading of African greys – be a platform for government and other agencies to bring down traffickers.
Mohamed Daghar, Regional Coordinator, Eastern Africa, ENACT Project, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Nairobi
This article was produced by ENACT, which is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies and INTERPOL, in affiliation with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
(This article was first published by ISS Africa).