New research paves way for protection of African Grey parrots in West Africa’s Lower Guinean forests

Grey parrots are highly gregrious joining flocks to feed and roost © Martin Rowan

Popular as pets around the world, the lives of African Grey parrots have long been entwined with those of people. However, the parrots are now facing population collapse driven by capture for the pet trade and habitat loss. Fortunately, new research has highlighted opportunities to boost conservation efforts for these iconic birds and their forest habitat.

African Grey parrots are instantly recognisable. Their subtly scalloped grey feathers are electrified by a striking crimson tail and their hooked bill, shaped to efficiently crack seeds, is unmistakably ‘parrot’. Grey parrots are highly gregarious and take several years to reach maturity - characteristics which in combination make them vulnerable to overexploitation. According to official CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) figures, over 1.2 million wild live Grey parrots have entered international trade over the last four decades. In 2016, they were categorised as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“African Grey parrots were once widespread in the lower Guinean Forests of West Africa including many sites in Nigeria and had cultural as well as economic significance for many of communities” explains Ifeanyi Ezenwa, field programme manager for the World Parrot Trust and lecturer at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. Today, Grey parrot populations are fragmented but their status in many sites, including several Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) is poorly known. “The sight of large roosting flocks is now sadly a rare occurrence,” says Ezenwa. “We knew that trapping has driven declines, but we didn’t have an understanding of which sites are most important, the trade routes involved or what is really driving trapping for the trade.”, adds Ezenwa. Such information is however vital for developing locally-appropriate actions to safeguard remaining wild populations.

Surveys for grey parrots identify key sites for the species © GFWA RIT

Since 2018 a project, coordinated by the World Parrot Trust with multiple local partners and supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), has conducted field surveys in over 20 sites in southern Nigeria. The sites include several recognised KBAs and National Parks as well as areas outside of formally protected areas and some commercial plantations. Transect surveys to generate direct data on abundance have been used alongside interviews with local communities to understand perceptions of population trends and the socio-economic dimensions of trapping and trade. This approach was carefully designed to engage communities in a conversation about the future of Grey parrots and establish a network of community champions. By partnering with the Nigerian Bird Atlas project and the AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, it has also been possible to generate additional records to build a complete picture of the Grey parrot status across the country.

The project’s preliminary findings paint a mixed picture of the Grey parrots’ situation. Many communities have reported notable declines in recent years, as well as ongoing trapping activity, often by itinerant trappers, sometimes from neighbouring countries. However, there are several sites where populations seem to be resilient and trapping no longer occurs, in some instances following sensitisation efforts by conservation groups. More importantly, multiple opportunities have been identified to support communities to protect key resources including nesting and roosting sites.

Feathers and other body arts are used for belief based use in some areas © Martin Rowan

Another component of the project involved surveying markets across the country for sales of live parrots and parrot parts for belief-based use. Trade in both aspects was found to be widespread and in many instances, there was a lack of awareness that this practice was harmful to wild populations or illegal under national laws. “This highlights an opportunity to build awareness among traders and consumers” says Ezenwa who also emphasised this point in an article in the journal Oryx. In a number of instances, links to international trade were identified, with parrots often being sourced from Cameroon and exported to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

“Now we have to build on these findings, to develop meaningful actions to safeguard the species in the Lower Guinean Forests” says Dr. Rowan Martin, Director of the World Parrot Trust’s Africa Conservation Programme. “It’s not just trade that is a threat, but the expansion of agriculture into the species’ last strongholds. Nigeria has been a leader in securing vital international protections for Grey parrots and is leading again with these initiatives”, he adds. In addition, a workshop, bringing together the multiple partners in the project and stakeholders in Grey parrot conservation will be held when travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted.