5 Oct 2016

CITES round-up: the world speaks up for the African Grey

Grey Parrot © Ken Schwarz
Grey Parrot © Ken Schwarz
By Alex Dale

From 24 September to 5 October 2016, government representatives from around the world descended upon Johannesburg, South Africa, for a vital wildlife conference that will help secure the future of hundreds of species threatened by the demands of international trade.

The 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) was the latest meeting between the 183 countries (or ‘Parties’) across the globe that are voluntarily bound by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES is an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure that the international trade of plants and animals, for any use, won’t endanger the long-term survival of the species. BirdLife International recognises the important role CITES plays in combating the threat posed by the wild bird trade and our Partners around the world lobby for better domestic protection of birds and implementation of CITES. You can read more about the work BirdLife does with CITES here.

CoP17 was the first such meeting since 2013, and it was described as a ‘make or break’ conference for several globally threatened species in need of greater protection. Below are some of the headlines from the summit.


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Wild-caught trade of African Grey Parrots banned

Grey Parrots © Reto Kuster

You’re likely familiar with the African Grey Parrot; you might even have held, or at least held a conversation with one. Sociable, intelligent and a brilliant mimic of the human voice, its gregarious nature has made it a popular pet bird.

Unfortunately, it has also made it one of the world’s most trafficked birds, with between two and three million specimens plucked from the forests of West and Central Africa over the last 40 years. It is estimated that between 50-90% of captured birds don’t survive the journey.

However, at CoP17, the Parties voted to support the motion to increase the Grey Parrot’s level of protection from Appendix II to Appendix I – the highest level available. It means international trade of wild-caught Grey Parrots is banned, although it does not affect the trade in captive-bred individuals. Pet owners are not affected, although if they wish to emigrate with their bird, they will need to apply for a ‘pet passport’.

The motion was supported by the European Union, North America and a number of West African states who have lost much of their populations of Grey Parrots Most notable amongst these is Nigeria, who has banned the trade or transport of Grey Parrots in their territory for a number of years now.

As the official authority for birds for the IUCN Red List, BirdLife played a key behind-the-scenes role in this success by providing technical input to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, enabling them to adopt a clear position in support of the uplisting.

African Grey Parrot is considered by CITES as one species, but by BirdLife as two: Timneh Parrot Psittacus timneh from central Côte d’Ivoire westwards and Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus from eastern Côte d’Ivoire east across Central Africa. Both species are covered by the CITES decision, and both are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List - although both currently under consideration for uplisting to Endangered.


Tougher protection from poachers for bird dubbed ‘ivory on wings’

Helmeted Hornbill © Michaela Koschova


The hornbill family is distinguished by the striking “casques” on the upper mandible of their bill, the exact purpose of which is unknown but is believed to play a role in sexual selection. In almost all these species, the casque is hollow, but in the case of the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil, the casque is comprised of solid keratin and this has put it in the crosshairs of ivory poachers.

The Helmeted Hornbill’s so-called ‘red ivory’ (it gains its red colour when the bird rubs its bill against its oily preen gland) is highly prized in countries such as China and Laos. ‘Red ivory’, which has been used as decoration since the days of the Ming dynasty, is softer and easier to carve into intricate designs than its elephantine equivalent. This has seen demand raise in line with the recent resurgence of rhino horn and elephant ivory in the past decade, with with record seizures of casques in the past three years. This pressure is causing a sharp decline in species number and is pushing the species to the brink of extinction. In 2015, BirdLife uplisted the species from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The Helmeted Hornbill was already listed in CITES Appendix I – there is no legal trade of ‘red ivory’ – but an amended version of a resolution proposed by Indonesia and supported by BirdLife was passed at Congress that will improve legal protection of the bird, raise local awareness and implement more stringent law enforcement to crack down on illegal trade.

Helmeted Hornbills are also threatened by habitat loss, so supporting and enhancing in situ conservation are equally critical in  conserving the species. In this respect, BirdLife Partners Malaysian Nature Society and Burung Indonesia are actively working on conservation of this species at two "Forests of Hope" sites: Belum-Temengor forest complex in Peninsular Malaysia and Hutan Harapan in Sumatra (Indonesia), respectively.


BirdLife calls on world to take action on vultures

© Leejiah Dorward

To say CITES is important for Africa’s vultures is an understatement. This international arena was the perfect opportunity for BirdLife to profile the plight of these crucial species. With a special event held in collaboration with TRAFFIC, CMS (Convention on Migratory Species) and GIZ (German Corporation for International Cooperation), BirdLife rallied support for the proposal of uplisting African vulture species to Appendix I in 2019.

BirdLife’s followers will be well-aware of the catastrophic declines facing Africa’s vultures – seven out of 11 of which are on the edge of extinction – and the last year has seen BirdLife make this known internationally. CITES is all about trade, and in fact 29% of thus far recorded African vulture deaths is a result of direct persecution for their body parts. Often involving the use of poison, the resultant vulture brains, heads, feet are used in traditional medicine (also known as wudu, juju or fetish) wherein they are believed to bring good fortune or cure a range of ailments, particularly in West and southern Africa.

All international trade in vultures and their parts is illegal unless special permits are issued by national governments, yet anecdotal evidence suggests there is an international trade in vultures and their parts from southern Africa to West Africa and within West Africa. Nigerian markets seem to be a hub of this trade, and annual offtake was recently estimated to include a sizeable proportion of the regional populations of the four Critically Endangered African vulture species.

The other side to the story is that the fallout of the ivory trade is catastrophic for vultures. Seen by mammal conservationists as ‘the sentinels of the skies’, circling vultures alert rangers to poached carcasses. However, in retaliation, poachers now are lacing carcasses with poison specifically to prevent vultures highlighting their illegal activities. The horrific sight of a de-tusked elephant carcass is the kind of thing CITES was set up to prevent, and with one poisoned elephant body capable of killing up to 500 vultures at a time, the case for the vultures' uplisting is compelling.


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