SMUGGLED: African grey parrots.

A company of 141 wild-caught African grey parrots smuggled into South Africa will be given to a Limpopo bird breeder who took the World Parrot Trust Africa and the government to court, sparking an ownership row. The parrots will be sent to his breeding facility in Mozambique.

The office of the state attorney, acting on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Board (MPTA), revealed this week that the parrots, snatched from the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and smuggled into South Africa through Mozambique earlier this year, have now been forfeited to the MPTA.

They will now be “disposed of by handing them to Willem Grobler and sending them back to Mozambique on certain conditions”.

But Dr Steve Boyes, the director of the trust, is “massively disappointed”.

“If we didn’t step forward the parrots would be dead,” he said, adding that the trust had spent R50 000 on holding the parrots in quarantine in Kempton Park.

“Because of this a conservation organisation has been asked to cover the costs of looking after the parrots for four months, before the court sends them back to Mozambique.”

In May, the department requested that the trust take over “ownership” of the birds, by supporting all feeding, disease testing, veterinary and quarantine costs, as well as to arrange to have them released at a suitable site.

The original consignment of 161 African greys was found stuffed inside three tiny crates in April on the Mpumalanga border. A group of Mozambicans, on foot, had tried to smuggle the birds into South Africa.

Grobler claimed the birds were his but couldn’t prove ownership.

In an e-mail sent to Boyes, Ben Minnaar from the office of the state attorney said the state wanted to include in the agreement with Boyes that “as far as possible” it reimburse him for all costs incurred.

“We cannot give you an undertaking that it will be reimbursed but some of these may be included in the agreement,” Minnaar said.

“We also advised the department to hold a roundtable with yourselves (the trust) to come to an agreement for co-operation in future (and) will revert to you in this regard.”

Grobler told the Saturday Star that he was pleased the birds would be sent to him. “I’ve waited a very long time for this and I’m very happy to see this whole thing settled.

“They will come to Mozambique, where I’m setting up a breeding operation here. I hope the day comes, sooner, rather than later. I just want this whole thing settled and done.”

On the matter of the costs put up by the trust, he stated: “I don’t care a damn. I offered food the first day the birds went into quarantine and medicine but (the department) didn’t want to give me the time of day.”

Boyes said there was no evidence linking the parrots to Grobler, “beyond the boxes they were being carried in”, adding that the “whole process has been totally mismanaged by the Department of Environmental Affairs”.

The department, he said, stalled an export permit issued by Gauteng conservation authorities to send the birds to a suitable release facility in Uganda or Rwanda.

Both departments refused to comment because the matter was still being handled by their legal teams.

South Africa imposed a temporary moratorium on the issuing of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species import permits for African greys from the DRC after a recent spike of imports into the country, following calls by the trust.

In December, 700 African greys caught in the wild died in transit on a commercial flight from Joburg to Durban.

“The government has bent the rules to support this trade,” said Boyes. “Officials seem to be unable and unwilling to look at the case objectively and act according to an international treaty to which we are signatory.”

Before dealing with the trust, officials had only interacted with traders, breeders and importers.

“The local trade in animals caught in the wild is worth hundreds of millions of rand and supplies massive emerging markets centred on Bahrain and Singapore.”

Boyes said the parrots being sent back to Mozambique was designed to create a pipeline for the importation of African greys and other parrots into South Africa, and is a sign of much bigger problems.

Her called on the government to investigate the case further “as it appears that they are being taken advantage of and unknowingly contributing to the extinction of this species”.

“We get all high and mighty about the rhino horn and ivory trade, yet we continue to allow the export of thousands of wild-caught animals that have been ‘laundered’ through breeding facilities,” he added. - Saturday Star