Watching Congo’s Grey Parrots Perish

captured fledglings
Nestling parrots plucked from tree holes in their Banagumba communal nesting site for the parrot trade.

The export of Congo’s African Grey parrots was first recorded in the 1980s and exports rose sharply in the 1990s (CITES and Birdlife Int’l). In the 21st century the exports have far surpassed the CITES quota of 5000 birds per year. That is living birds, legally recorded. Actually many more parrots are caught, but die in captivity or are exported illegally and never make the export statistics.

The Aikongo parrot opening
Free parrots fly into a forest opening, Aikongo, on the border of the future Lomami National Park.

The parrot capture-campaigns started in the west of Congo hitting hard the forests of Salonga National Park. Now captures are moving further east. The seasoned trapper, from Equateur Province looks for better capture grounds in Orientale and Maniema Provinces.

Mehwa opening  © Reto Kuster
Parrots at Mehwa opening in the Ituri Forest (Orientale Province). Five years ago these populations were not exploited. Now? Insecurity makes it impossible to check their current status. Reto Kuster copyright.

Traders are now on the borders of TL2. Parrots for export are still primarily sent west through Kinshasa, but shipments have picked up in the east as well. What do we see of this parrot trade in the TL2 forests ?

parrots in Gilbertodendron tree
Parrots on a tree at the edge of a natural opening near the Lomami River.

In TL2 John came across capture teams on the Lomami River, “Parc Perroquet”, and Bravo and others visited a capture team near our Katopa camp, Bamanga opening. In both cases the trader’s collection permits were bogus. Salumu documented grey parrot shipments from the Kindu airport. All we needed was a nudge to pull our information together and to fill in some of the holes. Birdlife International provided the push – they wanted to know what was happening in DR Congo for their September meeting in Monrovia.

NOTE-the field team: a few words about our TL2 parrot team at the bottom of the post.

location of parrot aggregations
Map of Grey Parrot range in DR Congo and the areas from which we gathered information.

Gilbert and Bravo made expeditions to various forest openings in central Congo frequented by parrots. Robert ferreted out the climbers, the buyers, and the authorities in Kisangani. And he visited a village, Bananguma that profits from a nearby capture site. Willy made inquiries in Kinshasa: “who were the national buyers behind the trade?” That latter was where we met a brick wall.

climbing for parrots
Climbing for parrots in the town of Kisangani. Robert found a profitable parrot trapping and selling business within his home-town.

John took the information and put it together. We are still receiving more information, but here is some of what we had to say in Monrovia:

Capture Methods and Parrot Mortality:

We found several methods being used in areas of parrot aggregation around TL2:

(1) Pre-dawn glue covered sticks are fixed in a likely perching tree. A captive bird can be tied to a branch to lure in wild birds;
(2) On the ground where birds come down, presumably for minerals, nets are set up and again a live bird or decoy can be used as a lure;
(3) Nestlings are pulled from nest holes before fledging but old enough to eat independently.

All middlemen in Kisangani who bought from the trappers, shipped the birds out by plane to Kinshasa….

parrot with glue on wings
Bird with glue on wings after being caught on a glue-stick placed in a palm tree in Kisangani.

 Information for three Kisangani middlemen and the trappers with whom they work.

parrot middlemen in Kisangani

holding cage near clearing

A holding cage from a previous trapping expedition in Parc Perroquet on the border of the park.

Total Mortality of captured birds:

(1) Mortality for Kisangani trappers averages 25 %  before sale;
(2) Local buyers declare 10-40 percent mortality before shipment;
(3) Air Transport has average mortality of 10 % per shipment.

Probable range of mortality from capture to Kinshasa buyer is 45 -65 %.

camera trap photo of grey parrot
Camera-trap photo of a single parrot in a natural opening near the Lomami River.

hippo parc perroquet_camera trap

Camera-trap photo of Hippo at night in the same opening.

Total Number being Captured:

Exports out of Orientale Province indicate captures of probably 1000 to 1500 birds per month even during the closed hunting season.
Annually we estimate 12,000 to 18,000 birds are captured every year in Orientale province.

Orientale is a major province for parrot trapping but we know that trappers frequent other provinces including Kasai Oriental and Maniema and almost certainly the Kivus. It is likely that Equateur province is still involved, as well, even if resident populations are greatly reduced.

Gilbert parc au perroquets
Parrots congregate on the edge of a natural opening.

How much profit and for whom?:

Trappers receive from $15 to $25 per bird.
In Kinshasa the buyers will pay $50 to $100 per bird.

How many are left to exploit?:

Grey Parrot aggregations on the borders or in the buffer of the future Lomami National Parksites where parrots congregate

A disturbing comparison is at Bamanga. We know that at least 100 birds were removed in 2010; only 14 were counted in 2013. Although parrots continue to roost at Bamanga, very few are left. Is this a harbinger of what will happen at site after site as the trappers from Equateur move east?

éclaireurs in Kisangani
Live decoy birds tied into Palm tree in Kisangani.

How can the grey parrot trade be controlled? CITES quotas are not doing it.

Regulations that exist:
(1)  Capture permit is required, but rarely acquired,
(2) Government tax of $0.50 per bird is not a deterrent,
(3) No-hunting season not observed by trappers and middlemen.

Conclusion: lack of appropriate rules and lack of enforcement of any rules, permits over exploitation with rampant parrot mortality.

Abani and Chief Jean Lomande
Robert on left and chief Jean Lomande on the right. The chief oversees the Parrot capture site at Bananguma and was previously a climber himself. He is open to a more regulated commerce.

Robert and John both felt that the authorities were open to tighter controls; however, local authorities felt powerless. As with so much in Congo: someone is making a profit somewhere else and – even without outright corruption – effective controls mean mastering a system that is far larger and far more diffuse than we can fully grasp.

grey parrot nesting cliff
Communal nesting site in cliffs at Kingombe, Lusambo forest.

NOTE the field team:
John Hart – Scientific Director for the TL2 project. Designed the parrot study, assembled and analysed results;
Robert Abani – Country Director of the local NGO, SOSNature. Collected and summarised trapping and trade information from Kisangani and Bananguma;
Willy Mekombo – Financial and Personnel Director for the TL2 projet. Made inquiries into Kinshasa trade and represented TL2 project at parrot meeting in Monrovia;
Bravo Bofenda – A field worker with the TL2 project since 2008, camera traps and forest scoping for the grey parrot;
Gilbert Paluku – A field worker with the TL2 project since 2008, inventory and forest scoping for the grey parrot;
Léon Salumu – Project TL2 point person in Kindu, interviews and observations;
And thanks to all the support crew!


  1. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-09-27 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Who is the final buyer? The birds are not coming the US people here do not want wild parrots that scream, bite and may be sick when they can get domestically raised, healthy and friendly birds. Wherever, these wild birds are going the buyers should be encouraged to breed so that people will not want or buy wild caught birds. If there is no market, there is no trapping and they will leave the wild birds alone.

  2. John Hart
    Posted 2013-09-27 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    This study had one major surprising discovery for us, and one that is sobering…

    The surprise was just how highly valued is a live African Grey Parrot “in the hand” in Congo. Based on logbooks kept by cooperating trappers, we estimated monthly gross income of $ 800 to $ 1200 at the start of the trade chain.

    Though the middle men were often coy in their responses to our queries, it is clear that the value added at the next step in the chain brings us to $40 to $50 per live parrot. Trappers and traders pay out half or more of their gross income in taxes, access fees transportation and other costs, thus extending the economic benefits of the trade. At an estimated value of $40 to $50 a bird leaving Kisangani by air, the value of the trade could conservatively average $450,000 annually.

    The sobering discovery was just how far the actors in this chain are from reducing mortality. The attitude of the trappers to dead birds is simply to get another live one. They have very little interest in investing in care to reduce mortality at their level. Maybe no surprise there.

    But what was disturbing is that even moving up the trade chain, as value is added, this same attitude prevails. None of the middlemen invested in veterinary care, improved diets, cages, or handling. We don’t know much about the dealers exporting from Kinshasa, but based on the birds I saw handled at Kinshasa’s international airport, there is surprisingly little care provided at this level as well.

    The DRC parrot trade it seems is not yet ready for “managed care”. A bird in the hand might be worth a lot, or even not very much, but it doesn’t matter as long as the solution to its death is to go get another one. In Congo, that bird in the hand means two birds are dead, and starting right in the bush. As long as there are no costs to high levels of mortality, little will be done to change that.

    With Grey Parrots, as with so many other extracted “wildlife commons’’, a sustainable and managed exploitation is proving difficult to achieve, Though the value added is far less, the parallels between DRC’s uncontrolled parrot trade and the trade in illegal ivory are disturbing to contemplate.

    The solutions to the unsustainable AGP trade, as with the illegal ivory trade, is at the international level where the chain of added value culminates. Congo’s Grey Parrots would have many fewer problems if there was no international demand for live wild caught parrots.

    Meanwhile the uncontrolled captures and trade continue to grow.

  3. Cynthia LaChestet
    Posted 2013-09-27 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    This is so sad, please stop the capture of these parrots. Start throwing them in jail, maybe if they get harsh jail term they will stop

  4. Posted 2013-09-27 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I wish they would leave these birds alone. Not only do they endure maximum stress on this trip but there are so many that already do not have homes that it is not necessary for them to be taken from the wild and depleting the species.

  5. Ami Fleischman
    Posted 2013-09-28 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    But who is the final buyer? Where are these birds being exported to? Without demand, as Kashmir Csaky pointed out, the trapping would end.

  6. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-09-28 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Before captive raised Greys could be shipped overseas to spoil the market for wild caught birds, the rescues would have to be willing to give them up. The restrictions on exporting from the US is so strict and riddled with paperwork, that the costs of the birds would be prohibitive and it would not damage the market for wild caught birds.

    Implementing harsher penalties is a poor option. People will just do something even more heinous to cover up their behavior, like the ivory poachers killing vultures. They kill the vultures so that the dead elephant bodies are not discovered. The rangers look for circling vultures.

    As with all unwanted behaviors, change the antecedent conditions and you change the behavior. Get rid of the demand and you’ll stop the poaching. People have kept pet parrots for thousands of years and as long as there are parrots, they will continue to keep them. So the best option is captive breeding to take the pressure off the wild population.

  7. John Hart
    Posted 2013-09-28 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    We have not been able to get much information on the destinations of DRC parrots once they leave the country.

    In 2010, we found illegal trappers at the parrot clearing in Lomami NP. They produced a CITES permit with Singapore as final destination. We have subsequently learned that this permit may have been a fake.

    The only other export permit we have seen is for buyer in Istanbul.

    I think that a monitoring of air transport from Kinshasa is doable and would provide a profile for the destinations for parrots exported from Congo.

    As Kashmir points out, it must be easier — and preferable– for parrot owners to buy captive bred birds than to buy wild caught birds from Africa…This will reduce the demand….and the mortality.

    Our collaborating parrot trappers and traders are not pleased with this scenario (which we discussed with them). I think ultimately they would be willing and able to comply with regulations, including quotas and provide better care for birds if the market required. This would require a credible certification process, and Congolese authorities able to enforce that. None of this is immediately at hand, whereas the depletion of DRC”s parrots is readily visible.

    International demand for these birds has to be be reduced if the parrots are to survive.

  8. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-09-29 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    John, breeding Greys would have to take place in Singapore, Istanbul and anywhere that is a final destination for the birds. Most likely by a number of dedicated hobby breeders. I believe that people in Asia and Middle East can buy captive parrots from the Philippines and perhaps some places in Europe.

    To establish a commercial breeding facility in Africa would not be feasible from a financial perspective and I can see why the trappers would view it as a viable option. They would have to invest in land, flights, nest boxes, food, incubators, brooders, security from predators and theft as well as a tremendous about of time. Breeding is hard work. Then, they would really care if one of the birds was injured or died. At this time they do not have to worry about a financial loss.

    Breeding birds is a labor of love and that is why hobbyist make the best breeders. I do not like taking peoples jobs away from them, and for these tappers, this is a job. However, what they are doing is not acceptable.

    As a parrot behavioral consultant, I look at human behavior in the same way that I look a parrot behavior. The science applies to all animals. Provide the trappers with an alternative behavior that is more reinforcing then the unwanted behavior. Change the conditions that cause the behavior. Then it will be their choice to stop and conflicts are avoided.

  9. Posted 2013-09-30 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    For the past three years, the DRC wild-caught Greys were imported by several Arab countries, Russia, South Africa, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Lebanon, Hong Kong.
    In 2009, South Africa alone imported 5450 Greys, exceeding the total yearly DRC export quota of 5000.

    In many of the importing countries captive breeding is well established, the demand is generated by the fact that wild-caughts are much more inexpensive.

    This is similar to what was happening in Europe, before the imports of wild-caught birds was banned. Huge number of Greys were being imported although captive breeding was, and still is, very widespread in most of the EU countries.

  10. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-09-30 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank-you Cristina! I should have known you would have this information. The solution is still the same. Destroy the market for wild caught birds. Here in the US no one wants a wild caught bird anymore. Are there bird clubs or perhaps WPT branches that can promote captive bred birds over wild caught birds in these countries? In the long run it is cheaper to get a captive raised bird. A dead or sick bird is no bargain.

  11. Posted 2013-09-30 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kashmir, this problem is really not easy to solve.
    There is a market for less expensive parrots that survives even where captive breeding is well established.
    The demand comes from lower end pet stores, street markets, breeders looking for cheap adult birds ready to breed, and uninformed pet buyers.
    To a certain extent it’s possible to improve the situation, for instance educating potential pet owners, but we can’t reach them all.
    Then there is the category that simply doesn’t care and is after a bargain.

    Realistically, the only way to effectively control this trade is to stop it. There will always be a level of illegal trade, but nothing close to what we are seeing now.

  12. Posted 2013-09-30 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    As Cristiana mentioned. When the importation of wild caught parrots was still legal. The main demand for those birds was the (hobby)breeder of parrots. Breeding with not tame parrots made hand feeding a commercial entity and necessity with the excuse that handfeeding was the only way to get tame parrots that could be sold as companion parrots. When the parents are tame, the baby parrots will be tame. I.M.E. the majority of the hobby breeders considers it still normal that the breeding birds are wild instead of tame.
    During the campaign that was done in the Netherlands by the Dutch Parrot Foundation, the campaign againt this importation was not supported by the avicultural societies. Breeders started a campaign against me as avian veterinarian, involved in this campaign, and I lost the majority of breeders as clients.
    There is more than enough data to show that parrots in nature have become endangered because there was a demand for breeding them in captivity for commercial reasons by hobby breeders. I personally do not think that breeding parrots in captivity by hobby breeders is in the best interest of parrots in nature. It is no secret that even the breeding programms in Zoos are not in the best interest of parrots in nature but to ensure parrots within the Zoos. Of course I do support and sponsor those breeding programms. As Avian veterinarian for more than 30 years I am very sorry to say that I know very few hobby breeders that are breeding parrots for the best interest of the birds. The large scale and interest in breeding mutations, breeding hybrids and breeding rare parrots can only be explaned because of the commercial interests involved. The only way to stop this bizarr situation is to stop any trade in wild caught birds as it is prohibited for many decades to capture and sell/buy wild birds in Europe. Secondly there is every reason to discourage people to buy a parrot because the majority of the people that are buying a parrot should not do so knowing that the vast majority dies at a young age and a high percentage end up in the (internet) trade or end up in rescue facilities. At the end it is the consumer that is keeping this horrible trade and exploitation of non domesticated wild animals to continue. Even those who are buying (expensive)captive bred parrots are creating the demand for cheap wild parrots. That’s the reality of any commercial legal and illegal activity.
    Drs. Jan Hooimeijer Avian Veterinarian Certified Parrot Behaviour Consultant.
    Founder/Chairman Dutch Parrot Foundation

  13. Posted 2013-10-01 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    @Drs. Jan Hooimeijer – I agree with many of your points.

    however, the one issue i will dispute with you (and others here) is the idea that stopping the pet trade will stop the capture and loss of wild greys. I have talked to people who are familiar with the trade, and read the dreadful articles that tell of alternate “business opportunities” for grey trappers when the pet trade is slow… it’s the parrot parts for voodoo. instead of 40 percent mortality, there is a 100 percent mortality–since they only want heads and body parts. these trappers are now good at their ‘trade’ and will search for a market.

    @Kashmir – based on the interviews, it is clear that there isn’t much you can replace for the trappers because they *like* what they do, plus aren’t motivated to learn a new ‘trade.’ they either enjoy the ‘hunt’ too much that they are addicted to it…or have been doing the trapping for so long that it’s too much work to change. i’m sure we all know people who actually hate their job, but are still reluctant to move on or learn a new skill–even if it means more money. well… this is where the ABA theory breaks down–there are psychological barriers preventing change. therefore, without some kind of forced impetus (like one-on-one personal guidance to train a better-paid skill, or arrest and huge penalties to deter them).

    and then…even if you could re-direct every trapper…there would be another new one waiting to take his place. you would have to elevate the whole economy beyond the base pay for captured greys to eliminate all of it that way.

    This is one instance where i would welcome drones or other technology to monitor for trapping activity!

    Ii agree with Kashmir–that given what has happened in the usa, it would seem that it was a success for the destination country to ban imports and *enforce* it. and that yes…it may only work well if there is a decent breeding program to prevent the black market. I do not think the incidence import to usa is all that big–considering what it takes to get the birds into the country. i’m quite sure it’s done, but not mainstream…and i wonder what the numbers actually are?

    @Drs. Jan Hooimeijer – as to why breeders want wild-caughts…i have found that many breeders are convinced that wild-caughts make better parents–even those breeders who don’t let the parents raise their chicks. i’m sure that it could be true, but it’s only because the breeders haven’t properly raised the babies to be good birdie parents. i know of breeders who do raise breeding parents properly–they don’t need wild-caughts.

    the breeders also seem to feel they need wild parrots to improve or rejuvenate their bloodlines. this is totally bogus in the usa–given the countless existing bloodlines already in captivity (at least for greys). however, it may have some validity in other countries.

    re: cheap wild-caughts… in the usa, the marketing of the supposed superiority of the ‘hand-fed’ baby bird seems to have permeated through to the consumer. the consumer does specifically ask for a hand-fed bird…and the breeders, stores, and other points of purchase will instruct the consumer to demand hand-fed.

    @Christiana – I haven’t found there to be a price break for wildcaughts in the usa–at least not that a consumer will easily encounter. the demand for greys is so high that the savvy sellers tend to want full price and just sell the birds without a band.

    @John Hart – I especially don’t like that having allowed quotas hasn’t improved mortality rates of birds that are trapped. i cannot believe they don’t put more value on the lives of these birds!!! it’s so tragic. 🙁 that info bums me out the most because i had firmly believed that if at least the trappers could see the value in keeping the birds alive (from a financial standpoint), it would at least help the condition of the parrots and stop the unnecessary loss of life! but now i see that it would take much more than just simple explanation and education.

    the trappers are bullies. if we knew how to deal with bullies, maybe we could use that same mentality here? is there any precedent with other depletion of natural resources or anything else that can give us a hint as to what might work on this?

  14. Posted 2013-10-01 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    The trapping of Greys for the collection of body parts used in traditional rituals has often been very exaggerated as well as threatened as a consequence of trade bans.
    In fact, there have been only two documented cases in Cameroon and none in the other countries that are part of the Grey’s range, including those that have ceased exports of this species. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening, but that this type of use is small and marginal compared to the live parrot trade. The amount of work to trap Greys is the same, but a live bird will fetch a much higher price and the market for body parts is much more limited than the one for live birds.

    I am not sure how much the trappers like what they do. I believe that it’s just a way of making a living that could be replaced with different and non-exploitative activities. For instance, this has been done in South and Central America with trappers that have become guides or are assisting conservation projects. But the large scale conversion of the wild bird trade income into something truly sustainable would require a strong political will.

  15. Terese Hart
    Posted 2013-10-01 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    If there was an important and profitable market in grey parrot body parts, I think the dead birds would not be just eaten or else tossed. That is, however, what happens…and if eaten the head is not saved.

  16. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-01 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Before the WBCA was passed in the US, many people screamed that it would bring an end to captive breeding. “Captive bred birds do not make good parents.” They were indisputably wrong. Captive raised birds breed better, faster and make great parents. Most breeders only allow their birds to raise the chicks to five or six weeks, for many reasons, most of which are based in fear. Fear that the chicks will not make good pets and sometimes fear that the parents will harm the chicks. I cannot address this since my personal experience in this area has been very good, but is limited to macaws and Greys.

    Similar to Jan’s situation, anyone who supported the WBCA and wanted importation of wild parrots to stop where chastised and considered pariahs. This included a large number of breeders and some veterinarians. Dick Ivy who was outspoken in his support of the WBCA was particularly harassed. So, I am not surprised to see it happen elsewhere.

    Breeding Greys in countries where the birds are destined must be so well established that the price of captive birds go down. In the 80s Blue and Gold in the US sold for as much as $2,500 and Greys for as much as $1,500. Blue and Gold can be purchased for as little as $900 and Greys below $500 in the US today. The drop in price is not really the best thing to have happened to these captive bred birds, but that is another conversation.

    ABA (behavior modification) is a science designed to change the behavior of the individual. However, there are many times that it works in groups as well as individuals. One individual within the group at a time. It just depends on the skill of the person making the changes. It is harder to use the methods in a group setting, but it can work. In a group there are bootleg reinforcer present that can perpetuate unwanted behaviors and antecedent conditions are harder to change. Distance antecedents make it even more time consuming to make changes. However, shaping, DRO and Premack’s Principle are techniques that come to mind that can be used to modify the behavior of the trappers.

    Using aversives often backfires. Penalize someone and you may get an unexpected consequence that is far worse than the behavior you’re trying to change. For example, trappers who are forced to stop trapping may decide to go on killing sprees. Control over consequences is a major reinforcer. Take their control (ability to make their own decisions) away from them and they will try to take control in another manner. Aversives normally just interrupt behavior temporarily; they don’t decrease the rate of future behaviors. To stop behavior aversives must be extremely severe and as I said the results may be and often are far worse then the behavior your trying to change.

    This is an interesting discussion and I hope that there are people who see it, that can think of ways to make workable changes for the benefit of these birds.

  17. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-01 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Oops I meant DRA. However, DRO would work too. I think DRI would would be harder to implement.

  18. Posted 2013-10-01 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    @Christiana – from what i’ve been told, the use of greys for rituals (and food) is not over-blown. those people who are in the country see it. the reason we don’t see more of it outside the country is because our methods of intercepting illegal trade of birds is focused on *export* activity…however, the main customer for rituals, food, etc. is internal to the countries and continent.

  19. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-01 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    When people become so apathetic that they continue to work at a job they hate, that is called learned helplessness and is understood in ABA.

  20. Posted 2013-10-01 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi Flychomperfly,
    You are right that there is just so much that can be learned from outside of Africa, and that is the reason why we don’t only rely on the export activities to gain a better understanding of the issues of the Grey trade.
    We work closely with several local groups, who provide us with reliable information both from the field and the local markets.
    Until there will be evidence showing that the use of Grey parts has increased where the trade of live birds has been banned or that it represents a significant threat, it should only be considered as a marginal issue and unrelated to trade restrictions.

  21. Posted 2013-10-01 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    @kashmir – re: ABA – aversives can backfire, but it will take centuries to change a whole population if there isn’t a holistic approach that is coordinated with their government and the destination countries.

    plus, aversives work very effectively every day on us–we don’t touch a hot potato because we don’t want to get burned–not because we are distracted to eat something else. aversives can surely backfire…yet, whatever is done to offer a positive alternative, can surely trigger unexpected ramifications. there have been tons of ‘positive’ goodwill ‘solutions’ that totally backfired as well. for every action is a re-action–and there’s lots of variables.

    that is why i was hoping for encouraging the trappers to handle their “products” more gently with the incentive of a better yield–in order to at least reduce suffering and death. but now ,i see that isn’t feasible–given a perception of unlimited resources.

    the problem is these trappers don’t have inherent empathy, which is why they have no problem with abusing and killing the parrots as part of their trade. unfortunately, it’s usually not possible to instill empathy. they can be made more aware of the effect of their actions (via training, etc.), but they cannot acquire empathy–i recently read an article about that after one of the mass-murder events. that is the part i find disturbing.

    the answer may possibly center on one aspect in the South American success…

    First…even if tourism is not an option in that area, there can be a shift in perception. I believe one very strong impetus for the SA success was that in the places it worked well, the program tended to be community-driven. it was the local community that gave the new “guides” (former trappers) a respected status in the community. it didn’t need a country-wide effort–the local community took a lot of pride in their program. the former trapper was elevated within the community. once becoming a role-model for doing something, it’s a lot more likely the trappers will embrace it and lead others down that same path. it’s an image and marketing thing.

    if it isn’t tourism, there needs to be some other focus. plus, since the political situation in Africa is more volatile than SA, i don’t know whether it is possible to even address the local community.

    humans don’t have very good track records for doing things because they’re ‘right’ or because they’re ‘good for us’ — we know this. we tend to do things because they’re ‘cool’ and will impress our friends. so, i’m serious…this might be helped by a corporate marketing campaign. LOL

  22. Posted 2013-10-01 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    @Kashmir – no…’learned helplessness’ is the result of indoctrination — the people who don’t quit their jobs or improve their lives are often *comfortable* where they are. they don’t feel that action is futile–they’re not helpless. they have carved out routines and some have become a “big fish in a small sea,” and get satisfaction (reinforcement in ABA terms) from that. similarly, there are the people who thrive on sympathy and keep themselves “low” to be able to garner that sympathy. there are also those people who do negative things to themselves because they are driven due to a psychological need–based on ungrounded fears, superstitions, etc. then, there are the risk-takers…who will test limits and try things no matter what the consequences–just because they can. those are deeper psychological elements that come into play on these complex problems. the trappers have several motivations for why they do it–and not all of those motivations are easily replaced with an alternative.

    there has to be something that motivates the trappers to want to do something else. otherwise, cutting off the supply via laws or force may be the only means.

    normally, empathy and ethics are powerful. but lacking either, there needs to be another focus. status is a great motivator, money is a great motivator. the solution will most likely have to involve one of those.

  23. Posted 2013-10-01 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    @Christiana – i see…i understand. surely, the current trade for pets far surpasses other trades at this time. however my point was/is that upon taking away the pet trade business for these trappers…they just find other ‘markets’ for their ‘skills.’ that is why i feel the solution may need to include the trappers.

    and, as i said…i do agree with Kashmir about the effect the import ban has had on the usa. that…and the push by the breeders to buy ‘hand-fed’ for ‘best’ quality pets. i have seen many, many posts by people who now ask why anyone would even ‘want’ a wild-caught. THAT is the mentality the whole world needs to have.

  24. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-01 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    flychomperfly You’re kind of spreading yourself thin and not focusing on all the points being made. What I said was that there are many methods that could work. Including changing antecedents, and then I mentions several techniques that could be used on the trappers. This is an approach that address the problem from the both ends and the middle.

    Let me make this clear aversives work, they can just create problems that are worse than the one your trying to fix. Avoiding hot object is not an acceptable comparison to changing a life style. However, even that can have dire results depending on the nature of the hot object and who made it hot. Is it so aversive that no one wants to do something about it and allows it to cause a fire and burn down a village. The person who made the object hot could become so strongly paired with the hot object that in some primitive society he might be sacrificed. Remember the story about the Greeks (or was it the Romans?) killing the messenger. Punishment is very complicated.

    You mentioned people who *hated* their jobs and kept working. That is an indication of learned helplessness.The following is a definition of learned helplessness.

    ” A retardation in the acquisition of escape or avoidance responding produced by a history in which responding during the relevant aversive stimuli has had no consequences.”

    The example you presented is of people who find their work very reinforcing and still continue to work. Obviously that is not an indication of learned helplessness. That is an example of positive reinforcement.

    You provide plenty of examples of reinforcers for changing behavior, prestige, being cool, etc. When non aversive methods fail, it is due to the lack of skill on the part of the person or people, implementing them. People tend to use stimuli that they find reinforcing or punishing on others. They do not observe the individual’s reaction to the stimulus and determine what that individual finds reinforcing or punishing. They do not observe what successfully increased or decreased the behavior in the past. Which tells you what will or will not work in the future. We cannot use our values to change the behavior of others. We have to determine what function the behavior severs for them and what desirable behavior can serve the same function for them. Empathy, ethics, morality, even brain function is not an issue. They only cloud the issue. The function of the behavior is the key to changing behavior.

  25. Posted 2013-10-02 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    @Kashmir – actually, i was very focused on specific points. I think our disconnect is that you may be trying to group everything into one answer–positive reinforcement. unfortunately, it doesn’t always work for humans. I have watched behaviorists stymied by those people who like to manipulate their environment and by people who prefer to create havoc as their “primary reinforcer.” It is also very difficult to change ‘antecedents’ when it is an internal psychological state that is the ‘antecedent.’

    Having spent many years in corporate settings, where hidden agendas and self-interest dominates over incentives or cooperation, i have seen that there is much more to a complex problem like this one. and, if the parrot trapping wasn’t such a difficult problem, we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to dissect it.

    You had mentioned earlier that it is difficult to apply ABA to a group. Obviously Washington, DC cannot be used as a role model for this, yes? (that’s a joke)

    my main point regarding attempting to change the trappers’ behavior–that it is not going to work as a simple ‘replace their reinforcer’ on those who are already entrenched in their ‘career’ of trapping. i was only cautioning that they are probably psychologically invested in it, in many ways.

    I will try to explain more…let’s look at that definition…
    ” A retardation in the acquisition of escape or avoidance responding produced by a history in which responding during the relevant aversive stimuli has had no consequences.”

    yes…specifically there is a ‘history’ — that is exactly where the distinction is…it’s based on ‘history’ of failed attempts–aka the person is *programmed* to assume no change in outcome, no matter what the action. thus, there would need to be a *history* of attempts and failures for it to be ‘learned helplessness.’

    that is *not* what i am talking about when people hate their jobs–but refuse to try to better themselves. they never did try to leave their positions–they never even tried. as i mentioned, it is often due to psychological blocks–self-imposed barriers–where the mind isn’t open for suggestion. nothing offered will be *capable* of being ‘more reinforcing’ than what they already have–due to their desire to hang on to what they have–in spite of how much they dislike it. they will *rationalize* any offers or possible solutions to not be worthy of consideration–even if it is more than worthy.

    I have worked with people like this to know they will not only reject offers, but will fight it unless it is forced on them. the example of how so many breeders fought the WBCA may be an illustration of this…they were not going to be receptive unless it was forced onto them–which it was.

    I would surely love to go offer the trappers a legitimate day-job and end the suffering without having to force them into doing something despicable. However, based on what i know about how people cling to jobs and ‘skills,’ it often needs more than simply a new reinforcer–there needs to be either one-on-one help, or a perception change. I am trying to help search for a non-forceful means of eliciting that mental transition. thus…the ‘marketing’ concept. A marketing message works one-on-one to change perception via a medium. It’s only a thought…but it is based on the criteria above.

    finally…i don’t know how you ended up in ancient Rome… lol I am talking about everyday aversives that guide us on how to interact with our environment. a hot potato is a common item in our contemporary world that we learned to not pick up (the hard way). we don’t like aversives, but we learn from aversives because our world is full of them.

    I can offer the same kind of argument for introducing a positive… how about all those life-saving drugs that later are pulled off the market due to lethal side-effects? then there’s the improved park lighting for people’s safety that then messes with the wildlife and blinds drivers on the roads–causing accidents. and of course…there’s the old saying… “No good deed goes unpunished” — meaning the best of intentions frequently have unexpected aversive-type ramifications.

    The bottom line is that this problem is complex and needs a solution. people have been trying to solve this for decades now, so we have to get creative–whether it’s aversives or otherwise. We need to try to see it from the trapper perspective so we have to know what we are up against. I am trying to contribute constructively by having us all think along those lines and consider that the trappers may fight to keep those *particular* ‘jobs.’

    Again…i agreed with your assessment of what we have learned from the results of the ban on usa imports. I am especially supportive of your assessment that there would prob need to be a well-entrenched breeding program within the destination country in order for a ban to work. And, i completely concur how the low prices for pets bred in captivity can be a negative as well for the poor birds.

    Discussion is helpful–we all learn.

  26. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-02 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    flychomperfly, You do not understand ABA. Forgive me, I do not mean to be impolite. I can tell by your improper use of the language that you have many misconceptions about ABA. It is not all about positive reinforcement, although that is a big part of it and it is used on people all the time with great success. An example that is easy to see is slot machines. Slot machines clicker train people to give up their money. As I stated when attempts at using ABA fail, the teachers skills are not up for the job. The approximations they are trying to reinforce are too big or too small. They may be reinforcing the wrong behavior without knowing it. The reinforcer they are using is not reinforcing at all.

    DRI,DRO,DRA are all forms of differential reinforcement. Differential reinforcement increases (reinforces) a desired behavior while at the same time deceases (punishes) an unwanted behavior, without the use of aversives. Yet, punishment is used. Whenever a behavior deceases it is punished.

    Antecedents are the environmental conditions that cause behavior to occur. Distant antecedents include and are not limited to, history, health, gender and age. They are the things inside the mind and body.

    Wreaking havoc in its self is not a primary reinforcer, the outcome of behaviors that may create havoc (havoc is subjective) may be a powerful secondary or primary reinforcer depending on what they do. A primary reinforcer is necessary for the survival of the species. Food, water, and sex, for example, are primary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are any reinforcing event that only temporarily loses its reinforcing effectiveness through satiation. However, primary and secondary does not determine the strength of the reinforcer. People who understand ABA do not commonly use words like havoc to describe behavior. Behavior is described in observable terms that are not subjective. In his case I probably understand what you mean by havoc, but I may be mistaken.

    You are using adages and examples that do not apply to the discussion and you obviously did not understand why I used an adage. I was working under the assumption that you had an understanding of ABA. That was my mistake and I should have been clearer. Stimuli become paired with each other. These pairing can be very strong. In fact they can be so strong that they illicit a physical reaction within the body that is not controlled by the individual having the reaction. A commonly known example is Pavlov’s dogs salivating when they hear a ringing bell. The same type of conditioning that Pavlov used on the dogs has been used on humans to reduce tumors. Aversives can also be paired with a neutral or pleasurable stimulus making that stimulus aversive.

    I agree that the same situation would not apply in Africa that applies in South America, so using the same solution may not work. Using your descriptions and what we know, a possible alternative behavior to replace trapping the Greys could be to turn the trappers into photographers. We know that making money is reinforcing for them. You tell us that they like to hunt and go into the forest and find it reinforcing. I assume that there is also some comradely involved. Give them some cheap inexpensive cameras and someone to teach them how to take pictures. Once they understand the workings of the camera give them a nicer camera. Teach them how to use Photoshop to improve the photographs. Set up an online account with a studio that will post, sell and ship their photos to buyer. Ask various bird organizations, and conservation groups to include links on their sites. When a photograph is sold, the online site should show how many of that photograph has been sold and deposit money into the photographers account. Seeing the numbers go up should be reinforcing and will show the photograph what qualities in his work people like. If the photos sell for $25 each and the photographer gets half of that, selling two pictures will equal the money from one bird. Only the photograph can be sold over and over making him more money than trapping that bird.

    They may get additional work and money from magazines and making a calendar. They will have to preserve the birds and the land in order to make money. They still get to use the skills they have and the things they like to do. Seeing skills improve is also reinforcing and inspires a desire to improve even more. They will eventually take great pride in their work.

    This is just one possibility I came up with. It may or may not work. I am sure that there are other possibilities that the people closer to the situation can come up with that are better than mine. They know the trappers, I do not. They are better equipped to know what is and is not reinforcing for them, which will determine if an alternative behavior would work.

  27. Posted 2013-10-02 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    @ Kashmir – Wow…did you have a bad day? I don’t understand why you are making this such a big deal. I was trying to be kind and contribute to solving a problem.

    I do understand ABA, and i don’t think a ‘lesson’ in ABA is appropriate. You took my words out of context–maybe you read too quickly? I never said that ‘havoc’ was a behavior term…and how did you manage to miss my quotation marks around “primary reinforcer”? I wasn’t saying it was truly a primary.

    my example was that the people who like to create havoc are rewarded by this result–much more so than other reinforcers. The havoc (once created) becomes the ultimate pay-out to them–much in the same way that a cockatoo adores pandemonium. people who like to create havoc will take any subject/incentive that is presented–including something that would ‘normally’ be attractive to them–and react to it unpredictably in order to generate havoc. I used that (along with other examples) to exemplify how psychological barriers and internal motivation might factor in. obviously, my attempt failed; I apologize–i didn’t want to create any problem.

    but now we can get back in sync–as you have brought up the distant antecedents. you see, you hadn’t taken them into account when you said in your early comments…
    “As with all unwanted behaviors, change the antecedent conditions and you change the behavior. Get rid of the demand and you’ll stop the poaching.”

    that was the statement (antecedent) that triggered my comments about ABA. By saying how getting rid of demand would stop poaching, you were saying that the motivation for poaching was “demand.” you were saying that the antecedent was going to come externally–from the *environment.*

    That was why i brought up internal triggers in the first place. Actually, if we want to be technical…the key to behavior is the hormones and neurotransmitters that trigger pleasure and pain centers in the brain. That is where the true behavior occurs, and why it can be much deeper than environment or anything the environment offers.

    Again, i apologize–i should have included the quote initially so it would have been more clear why i was addressing psychological barriers and internal motivations. Had i done so, you could have understood my reference and rationale right away. I’m sorry.

    Kashmir- I respect you and all you have contributed to aviculture. Please try to see that i was addressing your points and just trying to explain what i saw from my perspective. Let’s just focus (no pun intended) on the main subject: how to re-direct the trappers to another rewarding activity…

    I think your photographer idea is wonderful! You are, of course, right…without knowing more about what motivates/reinforces the trappers, you cannot know if it will work. but on the surface, it sounds really plausible. and who knows…they may even start to appreciate and value these creatures as they study them photographically!! an added bonus from your concept! 🙂

  28. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-02 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    flychomperfly I am the one that must apologize to you. I was trying to be polite, but apparently I failed. I think we were discussing too many subjects and they were getting confusing. If the responses could be typed under each line of paragraph that the reference was made that would help for better communications. I did not mean to come across hurtful or insulting and you were very gracious in your reply. So, I am sorry if I came across as if I got up on the wrong side of the bed.

    I was hoping that my photography idea would inspire some creative concepts. If it did one of them might just work!

  29. Posted 2013-10-02 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    @Kashmir – you are right…i am trying to work on a couple of other projects, so i was typing a lot of content quickly and wasn’t careful with references. my bad. Thank you for accepting apology…obviously i accept yours. 🙂 In the future, i will certainly take your advice and display the related paragraph/phrase when making comments.

    And yes, i very much hope your photography idea will work…or that it will inspire some concept that can mitigate or end (wishful thinking) the horrible practice of trapping!! I like the photo idea because it adds value to having the bird *alive* — similar to South America, where the (living) wildlife was central to their new roles as tour guides/protectors.

    I am very grateful for the work all you wonderful people are doing to stop the pain and suffering of those poor birds. I cannot help crying whenever i see the images.

    wishing you all the very best on this crucial endeavor!

  30. Posted 2013-10-03 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    @Kashmir – p.s.

    re: your photography idea…

    I was thinking about it and realized… i would easily pay “4 birds worth” to get a *video* of greys doing natural activity in their natural habitat–including food sources.

    That is a standing order…if a trapper can be re-trained and deliver, i am a waiting customer. You can talk to everyone here and see if something like that is even feasible.

    Don’t worry…i know it won’t happen anytime soon…i’m patient. :p

  31. John Hart
    Posted 2013-10-03 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    thank you all for these exchanges…I am flagging this commentary to our group that met in Monrovia.
    I am in Opala now but leaving for our field base in Yawende in an hour…THis is the jump off for Aikongo clearing.

  32. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-03 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    John, if you decide that you want to teach the trappers to become photographs. Give them the cheap cameras and ask them to take pictures of *anything* they want in the environment. Allow them the choice to photograph whatever they would like. Their family, their friends, flowers, the streets, stores, anything at all can be the subject of their photography.

    You can pick the the pictures you like to show the rest of the world the area and the conditions. Offer to pay them some reasonable fee for the pictures you use, but not too much money.

    Once they are paid, they will most likely begin bringing you more and more pictures on their own. Buy some of them too.

    Then, tell them what you need are pictures of the Greys. Pay them more for the pictures of the Greys then any of the other pictures. The quality of the pictures should also be a factor in how much they get for their work.

    Be specific about the type of photographs of the Greys that you want. You don’t want them to capture the bird and set up the photo. You can tell them you would like photographs of bird flying, birds playing or birds feeding each other and so on. Once the live birds have value to them then you won’t have to give detailed instructions.

    When you get a few good pictures of the Greys that is the time to offer them a better camera and more instruction. Then set up the website.

    They have to want to do this, being given choices and being asked will increase the odds that it will become something they want to do. If you tell them we decided that you should become photographers, they will resist the idea.

    You may be able to find the best people to make videos, by listening to their comments. If the say that the birds move too much, then that person may have a knack for video. You can start them with a cheap video camera and let them prove they have a flare for it.

  33. Jill Mortimer
    Posted 2013-10-28 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Reading all these comments…………there is so much abuse, one doesn’t know how to cope with it. I have seen so many pet shops that are crowded with pathetic looking African Greys and have always tried to put my point across. The shop owners say “there is the demand and therefore we will continue”. As usual money is at the root of everything. Most AGs in cages that I have seen, are not able to open their wings – and just sit all day – in spite of this, many owners say “Oh I LOVE my parrot, and he can walk around in the evening when I get home”. Why do they not understand that birds should be flying free?
    Firstly all pet shops should be banned from keeping ANY live animal/bird. No trade in animals at all. That would stop a lot of sadness, but when they are sold on the black market, I don’t know how we get around that.

  34. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-10-28 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    All cages should be large enough that birds can spread their wings, turn around stand up without bumping their head. If they are not turn in the pet shop to your local humane investigator, most police departments have one.

    There are people all over the world who are changing the way they keep parrots. They still cage them when they are not home. But, they provide enrichment so that the birds have activities to enjoy and many people now freefly their parrots. They train their birds to recall and go out with their parrots, allow the birds to fly and then they go home —- together.

  35. Maureen O'Kicki
    Posted 2013-11-04 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    If given a choice, would an African Grey want to fly, flock and forage in the wild or be alone in a cage waiting for “outside” time and “enrichment” activities? It is distressing that people are discussing trading in sentient beings as though African Greys are widgets. It should be illegal to keep any bird as a pet – it is inhumane. To justify keeping birds as pets by citing that birds have been kept as pets for thousands of years is a weak argument since there are numerous repugnant human actvities that have existed for eons, e.g. slavery, so having a long human history hardly makes the behavior acceptable.

  36. Kashmir Csaky
    Posted 2013-11-04 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Comparing pets to slavery is a weak argument. Pets are loved, catered to and pampered. They are not whipped into submission. Obviously you have read very few of the posts. Freeflying birds do not wait for out time. They are out in their homes with plenty of enrichment, interaction with each other and other family members. People who love animals and have pet see them as non human family members, not decoration or servants. Keep in mind it is the birds’ choice to come back, they can fly off any time they want. If they were mistreated or unhappy they would fly away. Food is not a motivator for these birds. I have friends that fly their birds near large fields of sunflower. They return for the love and companionship of their humans. That is what is reinforcing for them.

  37. barbara goldfuss
    Posted 2013-11-17 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I just read most of your articles, but I was sooo emotionaly upset I could not finish them all.I was in tears to see and read what’s being done to all these beautiful, intelligent birds.I have a beautiful baby timneh and I cannot even imagine anything like that happening to him. I would love to know what is being done to protect these wonderful grey birds.I was told that these birds were banned from importation since 1992.

  38. Posted 2013-11-17 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Hi Barbara,
    The US and Europe no longer allow imports of wild-caught parrots.
    Currently, the main importers of wild Greys are in South East Asia, in the Gulf Region, and in Eastern Europe.
    The World Parrot Trust has been working for the conservation of Grey parrots, in fact by the end of the month we will launch a campaign for African parrots. If you would like to be updated please follow us on or our Facebook page or on

  39. Posted 2014-01-02 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    We were commenting about the issue of what drives people to poach. In case you haven’t seen it, there is some fairly recent research confirming that the major conditions are poverty and a weak government. While the reasons seemed obvious, it’s important that we know there is a statistical link..

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] See “Watching Congo’s Grey Parrots Perish” by Terese Hart ( for more information… […]

  2. […] The Lukuru Foundation, operating out of their field sites in central DRC, joined the project as BirdLife’s collaborator on the ground in that country. Lukuru’s investigations point to a very large and almost entirely unregulated trade in parrots from Orientale Province. Read more on Lukuru’s work here. […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *