Article written by Nathaniel Annorbah email: email@example.com
Is the Grey Parrot doomed for extinction in Ghana?
The Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus and its recently separated sister species Timneh Parrot P. timneh―both listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List―do not have the usual very colourful and attractive plumage colours as found in many other parrots, with the exception of the bright red tail (dark maroon coloured tail in Timneh). However, they have great popularity, which can be attributed to their remarkable abilities to copy the human voice and indeed to interact meaningfully with their owners. Unfortunately, this popularity has been more or less a “curse” for the species, and places them among the most heavily traded of all parrots. The impact of the excessive trade in the species is further confounded by habitat loss and degradation.
The Grey Parrot has a huge range of nearly three million square kilometres (sq. km) over much of West and Central Africa, inhabiting the Guinean forests of the region. In Ghana, the species’ range covers some 75,000 sq. km.
In close collaboration with our colleague at BirdLife International, our recent study here at Manchester Metropolitan University, shows that Ghana’s Grey Parrot population has declined drastically (90-99%) over the last two decades, and the future looks very uncertain for the species if the situation is not urgently addressed. We reviewed the species’ historical abundance across Ghana, and undertook targeted searches during 3- to 5-day visits to 42 different 100 sq. km study plots across the country's forest zone. We also surveyed 42 roost areas, including repeated counts at 22 parrot roosts first performed two decades ago. Finally, we assessed around 900 people's perceptions of the population decline and its causes.
We did not find any roosts in current use, and only 18 individual Grey Parrots were recorded in three roost areas that each harboured up to 1,200 birds two decades ago. Encounter rates averaged around 15 times lower than those recorded in the early 1990s. The findings of our study, which was funded by Loro Parque Fundación, pointed to the excessive capture of Grey Parrots for the pet trade as well as habitat loss and modification―mainly the felling of large trees with cavities where parrots nest―to be the major causes of the catastrophic population decline recorded in Ghana. Over 67,000 Grey Parrots were officially exported from Ghana between 1976 and 1990; this figure does not include numbers for the rampant illegal trade and does not account for the 50% average mortalityfrom capture to market. To compound the problem, Ghana lost about a third of its forest coverbetween 1990 and 2010, with an associated decline in quality of the remaining habitats. The large-scale commercial trade in the West African country seems to have gradually collapsed in the mid- tolate 1990s as it became unprofitable owing to increasing difficulty in finding large numbers of birds.
With the exception of a few places, there is no evidence that, population declines are less severeanywhere else within the West African range of Grey Parrot, or across the entire range of theTimneh Parrot. The current situation means that no legal trade should be allowed from West Africa, and raises major concerns over continued trade in much of mainland Central Africa. The IUCN Red List classification of both Grey Parrot and especially the much smaller-ranged Timneh Parrot clearly requires re-evaluating.
There is an enormous lack of knowledge about various aspects of the ecology of Grey and Timneh parrots in the wild. These knowledge gaps persist regardless of the advances made in behavioural studies (ethology) on these species as well as the increasing evidence of their current and worsening threat status and their causal factors. Scientific research is therefore needed urgently in the range states to inform conservation action as follows: 1. Estimation of population sizes and structure, 2.Monitoring to decipher population trends in areas with baseline data, and 3. Studies on reproductive ecology. Such studies will also provide much needed insight into how trade and habitat loss and/or degradation contribute to population declines over time.
Annorbah, N. N. D., Collar, N. J., and Marsden, S. J. (2016). Trade and habitat change virtually eliminate the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus from Ghana. Ibis 158: 82–91.
THE RELATIVE ETHICS OF KEEPING BIRDS, PARTICULARLY PARROTS IN CAGES IN
COMPARISON TO OTHER FORMS OF ANIMAL HUSBANDRY
I hope to examine the following issues and see where they stand in terms of ethical concerns
• Keeping birds in cages as pets
• Keeping chickens in a cage
• Keeping dogs and cats indoors or on a leash
• Keeping fish in an aquarium
• Keeping horses, cattle and other draught or meat producing animals in an enclosures singly
or in groups
From a very broad standpoint, they are all very similar. However if we dwell a bit deeper and look at some of the finer nuances involved in all these issues; I think you can notice some very subtle and stark differences.
Let me elucidate my thoughts and opinion on each of the above issues. First Keeping birds in cages: The term birds covers more than 10000 types of animals with varying physical and psychological characteristics. Similarly the term cage can also mean anything from a 1 foot diameter rounded cage to a 10 feet long one; generally the larger ones tend to be called aviaries. So the ethical aspect of keeping birds in cage, in relative terms, is dependent on the type of bird and the size of the cage. In my opinion, keeping a small flock of zebra finches and even breeding them is relatively much more ethical than keeping an African Grey Parrot or Umbrella Cockatoo alone in a 3 feet long cage.
Of course if someone adopts an absolutist rather than a relativist approach one would say that all types of caging birds is bad or good depending on whether you are pro pet keeping or anti- pet keeping. But an absolutist position, based purely on a personal conviction rather than a reasoned argument cannot allow a room for dialogue. This is because policy decisions either at a micro level of say a village or at a global level is seldom based on personal convictions. My argument therefore is that some bird species, even if they are captive bred are highly unsuited to being in captivity. In fact probably the converse is true- when you take the whole class of Aves: Of the 10000 odd species, only few are adapted well to a life of confinement. When you take the wild bird trade into the equation, the ethical situation is even starker considering that the wild bird trade has contributed to the decline of so many species Here too, parrots are exceptionally vulnerable; the proportion of threatened parrots is much higher than other families of birds which are traded like Fringillid or Estrildid finches and Mynas.
Keeping chickens in a cage
When we compare the factory farming of battery egg chickens, to the caging of birds, they definitely pose a very similar ethical problem. What the chicken is being subjected to is one of the most unethical acts of humanity. I would say that keeping a well maintained aviary of Estrildid waxbills, even for commerce, is far more ethical and worthwhile pursuit than the conventional farming of chickens. However keeping chickens in a cage and keeping parrots in a cage, especially the larger ones is not a fair comparison when it comes to ethics. This as most parrots are much more complex birds in terms of cognitive ability and it is extremely tough for the average person to provide an enriched environment for parrots than it is to do for a chicken. So, yes, when taking sheer numbers, the number of chickens physically abused by humanity is far worse than the number of parrots. But, keeping an individual chicken as a pet in a cage or a few chickens in a barnyard for eggs, is far better proposition than keeping a parrot in a cage because the cognitive development of the latter is possibly much superior. And keeping a chicken as a pet will not result in the tragedy of depressed and/or insane birds which indulge in selfmutilation as shown in many animal welfare websites and documentaries like notably “Parrot Confidential”  and “Parrots: Look who is talking!”  Chickens would perhaps make much better and more eco-friendly pets than cats and dogs.
To dwell a little bit deeper in this issue - the only parrot species which is perhaps comparable to chicken is the budgerigar. They are also mass bred in factory-like conditions across the world in dark rodent infested, improperly ventilated rooms. In terms of physical abuse this probably comes very close to what chickens endure.
Keeping dogs and cats on a leash
Dogs and cats have lived around people for millennia and a leash does not restrict freedom in the same way that a cage does. But, this is actually not a fair comparison. In any case more people should be discouraged from keeping these mammalian carnivores as pets. Especially in the case of cats, as the recent draft threat abatement plan for feral cats background documents says: “Cats, that is Felis catus, are an important domestic companion animal as well as being a significant threat to native fauna. It is important for public debate that it is recognised that all cats are the same species and the categorisation of domestic, stray and feral are labels of convenience.” So I would argue that the keeping of some medium sized parrots – say Color mutation Rose- ringed parakeets may actually be a better option than keeping a cat as a pet. These birds are not prone to problems like the larger cockatoos and macaws and they are also not extremely inexpensive like budgies or cockatiels and are less likely to be disposed because of the image they have unfortunately developed as ‘cheap starter birds’. Also since they have a slightly longer maturity cycle than the budgerigar the breeder has to put in more investment to get their returns in terms of time space and effort, which theoretically would involve better welfare standards.
Keeping fish in an aquarium
‘Fish’ is a generic term which covers huge paraphyletic taxa with 30,000+ species. So, here too, there are finer nuances to consider. If we broadly divide the commonly kept aquarium fish into two categories- the marine and freshwater- the former has posed more ethical challenges because of the use of cyanide in capturing fishes. Even in the case of freshwater fish, over exploitation for the aquarium trade has resulted in endangering a few species –notably the Denison barb Sahyadria denisonii from Western Ghats in Kerala India, which became endangered within a few years of being awarded the third prize in the new aquarium species category in Aquarama 2007, a global Pet Aquarium fish show. The more serious issue from the aquarium hobby which partly applies to some species of parrots (notably Rose-ringed and Monk Parakeets) is the spread of feral populations in the wild. Consequently, while there are similar ethical issues between the keeping of parrots and keeping of fish, there are some fundamental differences too. Firstly, fish are not as cognitively endowed as parrots are and keeping a fish in a reasonably sized planted aquarium cannot be compared to keeping a parrot in a cage This is so because the cage is not an attempted replication of the organism’s natural habitat whereas a well-designed aquarium could be a replication of the habitat of many fishes, particularly smaller freshwater pond and lake fish species. Second, most commonly kept fresh water aquarium fish have a potential lifespan of about 3 to 10 years. This is a span that an average pet keeping person can commit to without undue stress. And even if the person is not able to commit the time required, s/he could give away the fish to another knowledgeable aquarist with little hassles. With parrots, the potential lifespan is much higher with even the small budgie capable of living 12+ years and transitions are seldom smooth – definitely for the bird and often not for the human caretaker too.
Keeping horses, cattle and other draught or meat producing animals in an enclosure singly or in groups
Again this may not be a worthy comparison, even though I agree that there are serious ethical violations in the farming of draught and meat animals. But, barring the pig, none of the draught animals or food animals matches the cognitive ability of parrot family birds, specially not the large cockatoos. However, from an ecological perspective, one can possibly compare the two. A flock of cockatiels in an aviary is probably going to have a lower ecological footprint than a herd of same number of cows. In a hypothetical scenario, if there was a 100 square kilometer patch of forest habitat in a country which harbors native parrots –say about 4 species. If this patch of land has a few villages in the near vicinity, where the locals sometimes “harvest” the nestlings and keep them as pets, but by and large keep the forest patch intact for their subsistence needs like firewood, construction material, etc., it would be better to maintain the status quo than to clear that patch of forest and convert it into a ranch of draught, dairy and meat animals. This is especially true if we are dealing with the smaller non charismatic species like Parrotlets which have a higher ability to withstand harvest, especially when done at a subsistence level by an insular native community. In fact, a good read on this issue is the book Birds and People by Mark Cocker who devotes a separate chapter to Parrots in Amerindian Culture. But this is entirely different context from mass producing African Grey Parrots in a crowded urban aviary to sell the young ones as human bonded pets to the highest bidder. And then, uploading the videos on YouTube. This creates a huge demand and hence pressure on this species which has been the major cause of decline. Also especially for the African Grey and perhaps for many more species- the argument that all parrots available in the market are captive bred in the developed Western world does not hold water. Because even if the West has regulated their market very well and has stopped all smuggling, it does not necessarily stop the threat to the species in concern. People keeping African Grey Parrots, especially in the West and uploading videos of birds with spectacular mimicry talent does not help the cause of saving the species in the wild. This is because it creates what I call a Ripple effect. While the West may have sealed its borders to smuggling, the demand for this species is worldwide and while the law is very good on paper in countries like India, the law enforcement would be heavily burdened to maintain the integrity of the law. Hence a lot of smuggling of Grey Parrots can and does happen with destinations like nIndia and countries of the Middle- East being the most popular destinations. My friend, Subin who was working in Saudi Arabia in 2015 sent me pictures of African Grey Parrots in the bird markets there. He said he had seen hundreds of African Grey Parrots there and it is highly probable that they were all wild caught. The suffering and sometimes death of these countless birds which has been captured by camera show that at least some of the moral responsibility of this tragedy rests on the shoulders of those who upload those “cute” parrot videos on you tube. There is also the interesting argument put forth by some enthusiasts that keeping parrots in cages is justified because a large portion of humanity cannot afford to travel to see magnificent parrots like macaws, cockatoos, etc. This argument is fallacious because seeing a particular species of wild animal, purely out of fascination is not a “Necessity” or a “Right” for human beings. Taking my own example, it has been a big dream for me to see the Hyacinth Macaw and the 3 sympatric species of large Ara macaws-i.e. Blue-and-Yellow, Scarlet and Red-and-Green- on a clay lick. But, as of now, it is not something I can afford. So, while I would definitely make a trip when circumstances are favorable, buying a captive bred Scarlet Macaw to keep in my drawing room would definitely not be the alternative solution to quench my desire. Nor is foregoing the desire. The solution is to tone down your expectation according to yourcircumstance. For example, I went to the Western Ghats and saw the endemic Malabar Parakeet-which was also an awesome experience in its own way. If for example aspiring eco-tourists from the USA cannot go to New Guinea to see the Palm Cockatoos, then they should instead settle for going to Mexico to see the Military Macaw.
On the conservation of cages
By Dr. Carlos B. de Araújo
In 1975 Brazil joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). At the time it was very common to see captive birds in Brazil, but somehow things changed and Brazil became an international environmental leader. As said by the German-Brazilian Ornithologist Helmut Sick in the 80’s “For several years now, a strong sense of responsibility has made Brazilian authorities feel that the maximum must be done for the conservation of nature”. There was also a big cultural change over this period, and keeping birds in cages was not as acceptable as it was before, immediately reducing the pressure on wild populations. With less people willing to raise captive birds, the number of animals captured in the wild also reduced. However, the straightforward relation between market size and wildlife harvesting has not lead to the prohibition of all bird confinement in Brazil, but why? There are actually a couple of arguments for maintaining birds in confinement, and in this essay I intend to show how misleading these arguments may be.
For sure, there are many excellent examples on how captive stocks may be used for wild population numbers and genetic reinforcement. But if a direct link to conservation management programs is not made, bird confinement is of little help. This point will be made clearer after the species concepts and the objectives of conservation are better explored. As defined by Ernst Mayr: species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups. A group of interbreeding animals may indeed be kept isolated from others in captivity, making the comparison with Noah’s ark inevitable. However, an ecosystem is far from being a random subset of species, making unlikely to a random subset of species being capable to reestablish an original ecosystem. The amount of carbon cycle depends, for example, on the amount of plants fixing it so that differences in producer-consumer ratio within an ecosystem would indubitably alter carbon balance. The interplay between biological processes such as predation, competition, pollination, seed dispersal, herbivory (among others) is actually what governs ecosystem dynamics, and these ecological interactions are key to attaining a balanced ecological environment such as proposed by the conservation agenda.
The Brazilian constitution mentions in Article 225 that “Everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment of common use”. Brazil constitutionally focuses its conservation efforts within the environment, so that an environmental definition of species would work best. Such definition should go beyond the biological concept while incorporating ecological interactions. As outlined by Van Valen a species may be ecologically defined as how it uses its resources and how this use has evolved throughout time. Looking through ecological species concept, captive birds represent little more than a sample of its genes. This is especially true for those species such as parrots, in which behavior and ecological interactions are largely defined by learning, not genetically. Thus, arguing that pet populations insures conservation not only is a fallacy, but demonstrates profound unawareness of what are the objectives of conservation in the first place, and how these objectives should be attained.
Another classic argument for maintaining a captive stock is that it could supply individuals for the “unavoidable” pet market, reducing pressure on the natural environment. First, I must point out that the “unavoidable” argument has been historically used to justify barbarities such as slavery, gender inequality, and race discrimination. Second, we must all accept that culture does change, else we would still be living in caves and hunting for a living. That said, I believe pet market is actually causing an enormous environmental damage. IBAMA (Brazilian Environmental Agency) recently found a relationship between favorite pet species and the amount of individuals seized from illegal traffic, which makes a lot a sense. First, any individual decision to buy a pet depends on the observation of a pet elsewhere, in a friend’s house for example. One can only want what one has seen!
Second, wildlife markets are composed of sellers, who advertise how nice and joyful it is to own a pet. However, a seller will never tell a buyer how damaging the pet market can be. We should learn and follow past successes and work towards the reduction of captive populations (and market), not for their intensification. Pet market reduction leads to a straightforward reduction of harvesting pressures on wildlife populations. Why would someone harvest individuals in the wild, if no one is willing to raise and buy them? Finally pet owners must understand that even if they have legally acquired their pet (which is never a 100% certainty), it could encourage others to buy animals in the black-market.
There are many birds being openly sold abroad, such as in Las Ramblas, (Barcelona). But how adequate is for a Spanish (or any other foreigner) to be selling Brazilian biodiversity on the street? Is biodiversity a world heritage? As a humanist myself I think so. Then again, I must also agree with Senator Cristovam Buarque that if biodiversity is indeed a world heritage so is petroleum, gold, IPhones, and the responsibility to end hunger. Far beyond ownership, Brazil has a great responsibility over the conservation of this biodiversity, and I don’t really think it is prudent to have someone profiting over Brazilian biodiversity while creating environmental pressures on native populations. Still, while acknowledging that international market seems to absorb 30% of wildlife trafficking we may not treat traffic as a Brazilian problem. Furthermore, we must not forget it was wildlife trade that endangered many, many bird species in the first place. We also must not forget the perversity of its logic: traffic hits where it hurts. The rarer the species (the most threatened), the higher its value in the black market, and the stronger the trafficking pressures. Spix’s Macaws, for example, were extinct in the wild due to the same cage culture that now puts itself as their saviors. As already recognized by Helmut Sick in the 80’s “Hyacinth macaws has been exported ‘legally’ in great numbers to United States from Paraguay where it dos not occur.” Legal wildlife trade has being used by illegal dealers many times, and it still does, up to this day.
It seems very difficult to explain what are the gains for Brazil (and why not the world) to maintain and defend the cage culture. When this practice is abolished from the world we will come closer to truly guaranteeing wildlife conservation. To conserve cages is ultimately to put in risk many bird species.