File picture: James Akena/Reuters

Pretoria - A consignment of 800 dead African Grey parrots which arrived at King Shaka International Airport in KwaZulu-Natal in 2010 and their ownership is the subject of a legal tussle in the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria.

The death of the parrots, imported from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), sparked an outcry among conservationist and bird breeders. The parrots had been caught in that country and were destined to be sold in South Africa.

They were part of an order of 1650 African Greys which Boksburg company Iceland Industrial Projects said it had imported.

The company said in court papers that it had a deal with DRC-based company Bulk Birds International to buy the birds at $70 (R800) each. The total purchase price was $115000.

Iceland said it paid R90000 to Bulk Birds between September 15, 2010, and November 18, 2010. In terms of the deal Bulk Birds had sent the first consignment of 800 African Grey parrots to South Africa. They arrived in two consignments of 400 parrots each on November 22, 2010.

In terms of South African law, the parrots had to remain in quarantine for 30 days at a state facility in Kempton Park.

During this time a dispute arose between Iceland and Roodepoort bird breeder Hendrik Matthews. Matthews claimed the parrots were intended for him to cover outstanding debts.

The parrots at the time became the subject of two urgent applications in the Johannesburg High Court, where Matthews first obtained an order from Judge Thokozile Masipa that he could attach the parrots, pending further litigation by him regarding their ownership.

Matthews then received the parrots and he in turn shortly before Christmas 2010 flew them on a commercial flight to KwaZulu-Natal, where they were destined to remain in quarantine at a facility at Gateway in uMhlanga.

Iceland in the meantime also turned to the court for an urgent order that it was the owner of the exotic parrots.

The court at the time ordered that Matthews could transport the birds to KwaZulu-Natal and that he be held responsible for their safety pending the finalisation regarding the ownership dispute. But the court also at the time ordered in favour of Iceland Industrial that Matthews had to pay it R2million for the parrots.

Judge Roger Claassen at the time further ordered that if Matthews did not pay the money, this order would lapse and the parrots had to be released into the custody of Iceland.

According to Iceland, Matthews never paid it a cent and the parrots thus belonged to the company.

But when the parrots meanwhile arrived at the King Shaka International Airport, there was no life to be detected in the crates and it was established that they were all dead.

Iceland, in its latest court bid before the high court in Pretoria, is now claiming the R2m for the parrots - dead or alive. It said Matthews was in terms of Judge Claassen’s order compelled to deliver the parrots to it.

It stated in court papers that the parrots were earmarked for the open market and that it had paid for these birds. According to Iceland, the market price for one African Grey at the time was R2500. This times 800 totalled R2m, it said.

Matthews, on the other hand said he did not owe Iceland a cent. He said the birds were never in his possession, as they remained in quarantine all the time.

He said that when the birds were put on the plane destined to KwaZulu-Natal, they were alive and well. He said he could not be blamed for them dying en route.

The matter was before court last week, but was postponed indefinitely.

Lawyer Miné van Zyl of Gildenhuys Malatji law firm, acting for Iceland, said they hoped the matter would serve before court again before the end of this year.

Pretoria News