The Democratic Republic of Congo is the largest exporter of African grey parrots. It is likely also the country with the largest remaining wild populations.
Currently, under CITES provisions, African greys are an Appendix Two species, which limits legal DRC exports to 5,000 individuals per year. Based on recent research, we know that this quota is massively exceeded, and the expansion of trapping operations in Maniema and Orientale provinces is driving parrot declines. With little local incentive for sustainable exploitation, parrot numbers will in all likelihood continue to drop until current trapping epicentres are seriously depleted. So how do we halt the precipitous decline?
Firstly, the international demand for pet birds must be staunched. It is the driving force for captures. Up-listing African grey parrots to CITES Appendix One would help; all exports would be illegal. An Appendix One listing requires cooperation from multiple organisations and countries. Even if a proposal is submitted at the CITES Convention of the Parties in 2016, a new Appendix One listing on its own would not eliminate parrot trapping activities on the ground.
Secondly, we must have cooperation from the local provincial administrations to both enforce existing government regulations and even create stricter capture and trade controls. Currently, African grey parrots are not on the radar of local administrations and there is almost no application of provincial regulations. A functional provincial system will be essential to enforce both local and international parrot capture and trade restrictions.
Although projects collaborate closely with provincial environmental ministries to enforce a number of important laws concerning bushmeat exploitation, parrot trade and parrot monitoring are new. I took an appointed ministry official along on a research trip to an important African grey nesting site at Lac Ndjale, about 60km south of Kindu. At the last minute, a minor official turned up called Lambert. Our five-day trip confirmed Lac Ndjale to be an extremely important nesting site for parrots and it is also the largest trapping operation known; locals report over 3,000 nestlings are collected each year during the prime trapping season from January to March.
It was soon obvious that Lambert could communicate little about existing African grey parrot regulations; he did not even know that that the legal trapping season only runs from February through July. However, Lambert isn’t the only one, provincial authorities have an urgent need for parrot information and a priority setting session.
Training is not all that is needed. In order to understand the impact of the trade and to know what is being lost, we must learn as much as possible about parrot populations in and around the Lomami National Park. Apart from at nesting sites like Lac Ndjale, African greys congregate in forest clearings. These congregations, or gatherings, undoubtedly play an important role in their social behaviour, yet the dynamics of these gatherings remain mostly unknown.
What makes a clearing “good” for parrots? Why do some clearings have parrots visiting every day, while other clearings seem to be visited seasonally, and some clearings have no parrots? Where do parrots go after they disperse from the clearings? Critically, these clearing agglomerations make parrots vulnerable to capture as the protection offered by the Lomami Park is only effective if the parrots remain inside the park. Most of the clearings around Lomami Park have had some level of African grey trapping. The Aikongo clearing is one of the most important parrot sites known to us and parrots visit the clearing daily. As of May 2015, there was no sign that parrots had been trapped there.
However, my team arrived at Aikongo in late June to find a large holding cage that had been newly built. Our guide, Zacharie, told us that two trappers from the village Elengalale, about 25km away, had spent about a week trapping at Aikongo, and only left because they heard that my team was coming soon.
Unconfirmed reports suggest they captured about 40 parrots during that week, and the effect on the Aikongo congregation was noticeable: the highest AGP count during this trip was 79 individuals, compared to over 120 counted at the same site in 2013.
If the trappers returned to Aikongo after my team left, which is very likely, the Aikongo parrots will already be significantly depleted and possibly approaching complete extirpation. These key aggregations must receive a higher level of protection through monitoring and law enforcement if we are to save them.
A field report at the end of June from Matthieu Mirambo shows how rapidly African grey parrot trapping is expanding around the park. His dugout on the Lomami stopped at a fishing camp known as Parc aux Hippos, on the edge of the park. They found a trapper who, in just a single day, had collected 25 parrots using three living decoys. He had absolutely no permits and the clearing had not been trapped in years. The trapper admitted that he moved north because the Bamanga clearing was trapped out and the Tshopo clearing had fewer and fewer parrots to capture. There is, therefore, urgency to increase protection on the ground and for the international community to close down legal African grey exports.
Rea more about the grey parrot:Shades of Grey
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