Despite clear evidence that African Gray Parrots (Psittacus erithacus) are declining in the 23 countries to which they are native, conservation horror stories continue to mount. Recently, for example, 750 parrots died on board an airplane in South Africa, and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo returned 500+ wild-caught birds to smugglers. So it was a pleasure to read that Uganda has recently taken a giant step forward in parrot conservation. For the first time ever, African Gray Parrots seized in Europe have been returned to the wild. The historic 3-year effort also illustrated an unprecedented degree of cooperation between governments, zoos, airlines and conservation organizations.
Can 32 Birds Make a Difference?
Conservationists estimate that at least ¼ of the adult population of wild African Gray Parrots are trapped each year. The return of 32 birds to the wild in Uganda may, therefore, seem to be insignificant. However, I believe that the operation’s value goes well beyond the number of birds that were rescued.
For too long, wildlife criminals have operated with near impunity once they managed to get parrots and other African wildlife out of the continent. Cooperation with unscrupulous officials in Africa and abroad, and the inability of under-funded law enforcement agencies to compete, have kept convictions low and penalties inconsequential. Uganda’s dogged determination to see justice done has recently broken new ground, and has hopefully set a standard for neighboring countries to follow.
A Conservation “First”
The parrots in question were illegally trapped in Uganda in 2010. They were routed through Lebanon and were eventually seized in Bulgaria. Uganda has a history of releasing confiscated wildlife, but no African country has ever been able to locate, seize and return to the wild parrots that have been shipped to another continent. The costs are prohibitive, and expertise in the laws of several countries, and in international law, is essential. In addition, a core group of people must be in place long term, as even where there is no question that the birds were illegally removed from the wild, the process usually takes several years (over 3, in this instance).
In this case, everything came together in a way that has not been seen in the past. Financial assistance was provided by Qatar Airlines and the World Parrot Trust, and the government of Bulgaria cooperated with that of Uganda throughout. The Sofia Zoo held the parrots for a time and screened them for diseases before the release was approved. The parrots were re-habituated to the wild at the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary and then released on Ngamba Island.
Continuing Threats to African Gray and Other Parrots
Despite the fact that wild-caught adult parrots make notoriously poor pets, demand remains high. In addition, numerous chicks are collected, often by felling nest-bearing trees. Nesting hollows are a scarce commodity in parrot habitats, and their destruction seriously impedes the breeding success of the resident parrot population. Other African Psittacines, including the Red-Fronted Parrot (Poicephalus gulielmi, please see photo), also remain at risk despite local and international protections. In recent years, Uganda has confiscated many parrots destined for European markets; 204 African Grays were released to the wild in 2011.
You can read more about African Gray Parrot conservation and natural history in the articles linked above and below. Unfortunately, bad news is still the norm, and many people here in the USA are unaware of the scope of the problem (as wild-caught parrots have long been illegal to import or own)…please post any information you may come across below.