African Grey Parrots _ a history of loss

African grey on top of the release cage at the Center for Parrot Conservation in Dingi, Maniema.

Grey Parrots belong in Maniema.
There is a river called Kasuku (parrot in Swahili).
There is a Kasuku quarter in the provincial capital, Kindu.
Kasukus have power beyond other birds.

Chief Pierre Lukusu of the Matapa chiefdom has parrot tail feathers in his cap of office.

“In our Kusu dialect we call the parrots, KOSO, that means Talker. A Talker has power. People listen.”

Chief Pierre, who is now 65, told Salumu that there weren’t any parrot traffickers in Maniema Province in the 1970s and 80s.  Even with the arrival of Indian merchants, there was only a small local demand.  The merchants used parrots to guard the shop.  If a client arrived after the shopkeeper stepped behind for a cup of tea, the Parrot would announce loudly : “Client anafika. Patron atarudia sasa” “A client has come; the boss will return now. ”

parrots at guest house
Parrots kept at an Indian shop and guest house in Kindu.

During the 1970s Chief Pierre worked for the Kindu railroad.  He told Salumu that one Greek merchant, Mr Salvambas, would occasionally send parrots by railroad to Lubumbashi.  It was the only town that sometimes sent a request to Kindu coming from the Indians and other foreigners working in the mining sector.  The only direct way to send parrots from Kindu was by railroad.

Recently captured parrots in cage at capture site.

Putting the parrots on the train for Lubumbashi was not simple. To have a spirit bird on the train was considered an invitation to disaster by the railway crew. But the money was good;  Parrots were bought in Maniema for 1 Zaire each (2 dollars at the time) and sold in Lubumbashi for 50 Zaires each. 
Commonly 20 were put on the train at one time.  And frequently half or more would be dead on arrival, but still the profit was good.

These birds died while being held before transport at a village near a major capture site_the first stage where mortality occurs.

Salumu went to the Environment Coordination in Kindu to see what more he could learn about the history of parrot export from Maniema.  The interim coordinator confirmed that during Mobutu Sese Seko’s era, up through the early 1990s, there was little parrot commerce. The reason: strong, enforced national restrictions. Permits were needed to obtain and to keep parrots; the Coordination issued most permits for domestic not commercial use. 

A parrot capture permit from 2002.
A 2007 permit to Byart to hold parrots in Kindu before shipping them.
A 2005 permit to export grey parrots from Kindu.

International export of parrots out of Kinshasa, the environmental coordinator said, only started in the 90s, when Mobutu’s regime began to fall apart.

Shipping crates with grey parrots at the airport in 2016.

Import records from South Africa support this.   Through the 70s and 80s grey parrots came from West Africa; it was a different species, Psittacus timneh, not our Psittacus erithacus.   Then in 1992 and 1993 the numbers went up from Zaire (pre-war name of Congo).  They shot up over 1000 annually sent from Zaire to South Africa. 1

In 2016, parrots for export at a holding cage in Kindu.

During most of Mobutu’s era it was Congo’s own laws that put a clamp on the parrot trade, these laws were never reinstated after the long civil war that overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko and replaced him with Vieux Laurent Kabila.

HOW BIG IS AFRICAN GREY TRADE IN THIS CENTURY?

Here is an example from one importing country:  Singapore officially reported imports of 41,737 grey parrots between 2005 and 2014.  Half were wild caught and, of those, over 90% originated in DR Congo.2

The graph below takes records from importers in many countries to show the origin of  African Greys on the international market between 2007 to 2016.3

The graph shows records of the country of origin for wild grey parrots received by various importing countries.

HOW BIG IS MANIEMA’S AFRICAN GREY TRADE?

There are many ways parrots leave Maniema for Kinshasa : boat to Kisangani, motorbike to Lodja, train to Kalemie  or directly through the airport in Kindu.

Records were kept at the Kisangani airport of the origin of parrots sent to Kinshasa. All Maniema parrots recorded came on boat or barge down the Congo River to Kisangani. These are only one part of Maniema’s parrot export.

Between 2017 and July 2022, 68,542 African Grey parrots were shipped by plane from Kisangani to Kinshasa. Maniema province was the source of 53,113 of these birds.  Map by John Hart.

International pressure through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) became more insistent: A ban on all trade in African grey parrots originating in DR Congo was put in place in 2016 and renewed in 2018.   In 2017 the African Grey parrot was put on CITES appendix I, basically forbidding all commercial trade of wild caught parrots 3.  Officially DRC seems to be following the CITES recommendations4: permit delivery for parrot trade ceased.  Salumu learned from Maniema’s Environment Coordination that the national environmental authority informed provincial offices that, as of 2017, that CITES forbade permits. Maniema’s Environmental Coordination no longer issues them.

What is the impact in Maniema?  Salumu spoke with one of the biggest traffickers of grey parrots in Maniema, Theo, who works for the company ‘Byart Birds’.  Theo has been operating since 2002.

Leon’s question was “how does the international ban on parrot trade affect your work.”  The answer:  “Not at all.  Byart tells me,  ‘Send them’ so I send them. Demand is high.”

Apparently, no permits, does not mean no trade.

Dead parrots found at a Byart collection facility during a 2016 raid – this is mortality at the second transport stage and there are many more stages.

Our big advantage in Maniema is that the province put its own regulations in place.  No other province has done so. Maniema understood that the CITES ban on parrot commerce from DR Congo needed matching, unambiguous in-country regulation.

In 2016 the governor also stopped captures altogether. The provincial decision was only pertinent until national legislation was put in place. This was expected to follow the CITES ban.  We are still waiting for national legislation; Maniema’s provincial ban on parrot trade is still in effect.

The governor announced that all parrot captures must cease in Maniema

Despite this, many parrot operators are capturing and shipping out parrots from Maniema.  They are relying on payoffs, on clandestine transactions and multiple transport options.  They are relying on the fact that political turmoil, MaiMai activities, kidnappings and continuous crisis keep Maniema’s underpaid law-enforcement otherwise occupied.

a flat bed of open slat parrot boxes
Crates ready for shipment at Kindu airport.

We, at Congo’s conservation institute, ICCN, believe this can be changed.  Even now there are professionally dedicated wildlife agents scattered through Maniema’s countryside that confiscate parrots at the point of capture.  We are starting at the very bottom of the parrot trade chain.

Parrots in trees next to a major path near one of Maniema’s larger capture areas : Bikenge.

Once parrots are confiscated, then what?  At the point of capture, the climber clips the parrots’ wings or “braids” flight feathers so none will escape.  It takes months, possibly a year for new feathers to grow in. 

parrot with glue on wings
Damaged feathers from a glue stick method of capture.  For other methods of capture, birds are ‘grounded’ by clipping or twisting the flight feathers.

Together with World Parrot Trust, and with advice from the Lwiro sanctuary in the east, we set up a site for rehabilitation and release 55 km north of Kindu at Dingi.

Here is a short video of progress.  At the time of writing more than 70 parrots have flown back into the wild, but more confiscated African Greys are coming in.

We will write more about African grey parrots on this blog and our progress to help them.

LEON SALUMU is the point person for ICCN Maniema.

1 Mulliken, T.A.  1995. Trade Review: South Africa’s trade in African Grey Parrots. 43 pages. TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa.

2  Poole,C.M. & C.R.Shepherd. 2016.  Fauna and Flora International. Review Article. 7 pages.

3  UNODC. 2018. West and Central Africa Wildlife Crime Assessment. For CITES. COP18 Doc 34, Annex4.

4 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wide Fauna and Flora (CITES)  Notification to the Parties, 1 November 2018.  No 2018/081.  Concerning: Application of Article XIII in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reissue of a recommendation to suspend trade in African grey parrots (Psittacus Erithacus).

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Alempijevic
    Posted 2023-06-11 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    Great to see this project developing.

  2. Gertrude Rooshan
    Posted 2024-02-13 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the information on the Congo African Grey parrots. Their plight is horrific and tragic. Where is the real problem? The corrupt government, poverty of the people, lack of oversight of the situation, lack of enforcement of the law? What can really stop the illegal trade of the greys?

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