African grey parrots are rescued from an illegal trader at the Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo border crossing.
African grey parrots are rescued from an illegal trader at the Uganda-Democratic Republic of Congo border crossing.

SA-US breeding programme poses risk to wild birds

By sheree bega Time of article published Mar 7, 2020

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A Miami, Florida bird breeder and his two South African counterparts have applied to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to import 4000 African grey parrots from SA, around half of them wild-caught, for a proposed co-operative breeding programme (CBP).

The application by Paul Marolf of the Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida and locals Ray O’Neill of Sondlo and Jason Mitchell of Amazon Inn, under the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), states how the proposed CBP “will have the promotion of the species as its primary goal”.

But wildlife, conservation and animal protection organisations have slated the proposal, warning how it poses potential risks to wild populations by fuelling the illegal trade in wild-caught African greys.

The applicants, represented by immigration and nationality law firm Prada Urizar, PLLC, explain how the proposed CBP will be operated from Marolf’s facility in Miami, Florida with all the breeding stock acquired from O’Neill’s and Mitchell’s facilities in SA.

These facilities, the application states, have been registered and approved by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The proposed project will be overseen by the Organisation of Professional Aviculturists (OPA) in the US, of which Antonie Meiring (see adjoining story) is described as a “distinguished member”.

The proposed CBP will establish a “self-sustaining population of grey parrots in the US after years of improper management have rendered the existing population unviable ... Without drastic and imminent intervention the US grey parrot population will disappear,” the application reads.

Around 45% of the breeding stock to be sourced from SA is captive-bred. “Although the breeding stock will include wild-caught birds, they have been long removed from the wild and transferring them from a captive breeding facility in SA to a captive breeding facility in the US will have no discernible impact on wild populations.”

While the endangered wild grey parrot population is “reported to be struggling”, the CBP will have no “negative effect on the survivability of the wild population”. The uplisting of the wild grey parrot to Appendix 1 of CITES, giving the species the highest level of protection, has “ended the trade in grey parrots” and “should result in the rebounding of wild populations”.

Approving the proposed CBP will “be a boon to US aviculture and to the continued existence of the species”.

But the World Parrot Trust says the proposed CBP will make no contribution to the survival of the species in the wild and instead poses potential risks to wild populations.

“Transferring 4000 grey parrots ‘from a captive breeding facility in SA to a captive breeding facility in the US’ will make no contribution towards ensuring an adequate captive population of grey parrots as a genetic repository of the species.”

The trust says there are around 1.6 million grey parrots in captivity in the US. “There are more grey parrots in captivity in the US alone than there are populations of dozens of other parrot species anywhere in the world, captive and wild populations combined ... Given this situation, it is difficult to countenance the statement that ‘current trends suggest that the species will be completely extinguished in US aviculture within the next generation.”

The proposal lacks detail over how the CBP will manage genetic diversity and how this will support the conservation of wild populations.

“It appears that all the parrots proposed for import are of unknown geographical origin. Grey parrots have been imported legally and illegally into SA in very large numbers from a diversity of range states in west and central Africa.”

The proposed CBP risks “exacerbating illegal trade”. Markets for wildlife are complex and the relationship between captive bred production and demand for wild-sourced birds is unclear.

“SA has been by far the largest producer of grey parrots in captivity yet prior to the species transfer to Appendix 1 of Cites, it was also the largest importer of wild-sourced specimens with reported gross imports of 20610 specimens since 2010.”

There is no evidence that the recent uplisting of the grey parrot to Appendix 1 has ended the illicit trade in grey parrots. “Ms Jean Pattison (vice president of the OPA) and other members of the OPA have repeatedly stated on social media that far from being ended, the trade in wild-sourced grey parrots has increased in recent years.

“Our own investigations of levels of capture in range states and of illegal trade taking place online... confirm the capture of wild-sourced parrots for international trade is an ongoing threat that should be taken seriously.”

The Environmental Investigation Agency and Centre for Biological Diversity state in a letter to the USFWS, that “seeking to create yet another breeding programme that requires the import of 4000 highly imperilled African grey parrots - almost half of which are wild caught - to non-existent facilities operated by a single individual in the US with no track record of being able to successfully care for and breed grey parrots in captivity cannot be condoned under the WBCA”.

The Humane Society International, Humane Society of the US and Humane Society Legislative Fund write in their letter to the USFWS that the wild grey parrot population “have been and continue to be harmed by the exotic pet trade. “Commercial captive breeding is not conservation; captive grey parrots are abundant in the US and the applicant has no plans for reintroduction of grey parrots to the wild”.

"African grey parrots are listed on Appendix 1 of CITES specifically due to the fact that the exotic pet trade was driving a dangerous decline of the species in the wild," World Animal Protection, told the USFWS.

African grey parrots, it says, "cannot sustain removal from the wild at current levels of likely exploitation, and the application fails to indicate how the programme would reverse or even stabilise such a decline. Moreover, the application itself is for the import of 2200 wild caught birds.

African grey parrots are one of the most illegally trafficked birds, with an estimated two to three million deemed to have been taken from the wild over the last 40 years, it says.

A year-long undercover investigation "revealed the sad reality that these birds are still in high demand and thousands of birds are illegally taken from the wild".

It uncovered an elaborate network of poachers, middlemen, government agents, transportation providers and importers who continue to profit, "finding ever more covert and clandestine ways to skirt the legal protections these birds have been granted by international law".

The World Parrot Trust says that the CBP proposes to support conservation through donating a portion of the income from the placement of offspring in the hands of qualified breeders to "grey parrot conservation projects in situ" with the application citing a fund managed by the Parrot Breeders Association of southern Africa (Pasa).

"However, there is a notable lack of detail on how this fund will operate," says the trust, noting how no information is provided in the application on how the amount that will contributed or how this fund is administered.

The fund was first proposed by Pasa in 2016 following the species' transfer to Appendix 1 where Pasa sought the approval of CITES to apply their contributions, to "preparations for the eventual release of viable captive bred offspring to their natural habitat".

But the trust says multiple Parties and conservation organisations "expressed concerns over the lack of conservation relevance and risks of this approach". 

An "African Grey Conservation Fund" was announced by Pasa in August last year.

"Recent communication with the CITES Secretariat indicates that contrary to statements made ... in the application the fund is neither 'overseen by the CITES Secretariat' and nor was it 'established by the CITES Secretariat'. It would appear that such statements are made to give the impression of legitimacy and oversight by a professional body," says the trust.

Pasa's chairperson, Ben Minnaar, says: "The proposed transfer of 4 000 CITES-registered Greys from South Africa to a breeding programme in the US will certainly be very good unrelated genetic material for aviculture in the US, confirming South Africa’s importance at conserving the species in breeding programmes all over the world.

"Pasa is not a party to the proposed breeding programme and do not know where the parrots originated from."

Pasa, he says, does have a "designated fund for preservation of African Grey parrots in the wild and we are investigating various programmes for this purpose".

The Saturday Star

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