African Greys

How politics killed the parrot

One African grey parrot preening another
Image Source: Pixabay

Here at The Nature Nook, we don’t shy away from uncomfortable truths or harsh realities concerning the natural world. But today’s article, about the tragic story of the Congo African grey parrot, is a particularly harrowing read that I don’t recommend to anyone who is sensitive to descriptions of animals in distress.

The Congo African grey is an understated beauty sporting ash-grey plumage, which partially conceals the flash of red in its short tail (it is not to be confused with the smaller, darker Timneh grey parrot). This species is found, as its name would suggest, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), along with Kenya, Tanzania and parts of Angola. Already globally threatened, it is more important than ever to understand how the political environment in the DRC is exacerbating the numerous and varied problems facing this gorgeous parrot. One of the most pervasive threats is poaching for the pet trade, which, in the past 40 years alone, has resulted in almost 3 million birds being snatched from their homes.

The DRC (highlighted above in the map of Africa) has been known by many names throughout its history. Originally it was called Congo Free State, then Belgian Congo, then Congo-Léopoldville, then the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then the Republic of Zaire, and finally back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It should not be confused with the Republic of the Congo, which is a neighbouring country to the west.
Image Source: TUBS

Conflict in the Congo

The DRC has a history riddled with colonial rule, oppression, and civil war. Sadly, the turbulence within this divided nation is far from over. It is estimated that since 1998, conflict, famine and disease have claimed the lives of around 5.4 million people. Though it is debatable as to how many of these deaths can be directly attributed to the war itself, this figure has caused many to cite the Second Congolese Civil War as the deadliest conflict since World War II. And yet the loss of life does not start or end with the troops and citizens of the DRC and its surrounding nations. War anywhere in the world is horrific, but in a nation with species as diverse as those in the DRC, the ecological effects can be profound. Many animals great and small, from the lesser-known okapi to the iconic gorilla, have suffered the devastating consequences of human politics. 

The DRC has been victim to multifaceted attacks of circumstances. While many ex-colonies struggled to unite after colonial rulers withdrew or were overthrown, the DRC has still had a journey more fraught than most. The tactic of divide and conquer is a militaristic method as old as time, and one that the DRC’s colonial rulers were not ignorant of. Politically dividing nations keeps them unstable and thus easy to control. It follows, therefore, that the first thing that must be done upon the defeat of a colonial oppressor is to mend the rifts carved in society. This, however, is far easier said than done. In the DRC, it presented an unstable climate ripe for international exploitation, which attracted many unsavoury organisations after the precious resource buried in the DRC’s very soil: coltan, a black metallic ore from which the mineral tantalum is extracted.

Tantalum, which is extracted from the ore coltan
Tantalum, which is extracted from coltan, is used to make tantalum capacitors – a necessary component of phones, computers, games consoles, x-ray machines and many other technologies used in modern society. The DRC contains approximately 80% of the world’s coltan.
Image Source: Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements

The conflict within the DRC is one that is far too complicated to even begin to explain in an article such as this, but I hope that the brief overview I have given will provide context as to why the plight of wildlife within the country’s borders has reached such an egregious level. Of course, war of any kind will always have an associated death toll. Landmines, after all, don’t discriminate between species, and little can survive in the devastation of a battlefield. The violence has pushed animals from their homes, scared birds from their nests, decimated habitats, and forced locals to exploit their own environment. But the extent of the damage goes even deeper. 

To see the damage done to the wildlife in this region, let’s look at the mountain gorilla. These huge apes seek refuge and valuable feeding ground in the lush forests of the DRC, but these once-safe green spaces are being carved into. Huge illegal mining operations to excavate the valuable coltan have pockmarked the animals’ homes, with explosives making light work of what precious little habitat remains. Vast areas of forest have already been cleared, going right through mountain gorilla territory, in order to create pathways for transporting coltan from the DRC to neighbouring Rwanda, where it can be laundered into international markets.

The brutal illegal mines that run on slave labour do nothing to protect the wildlife caught up in their endless pursuit of profit, but even the legal operations cause immeasurable damage to the natural world. There is simply no way to carve such enormous caverns into the soil without disrupting the species that call it home, turning peaceful habitats into busy workplaces. Miners also bring fresh diseases into untouched areas of forest, affecting the gorillas further. And to cap off the brutality of the quarries themselves, thousands of starving miners must be kept fit to work, which means food … lots of it. So what do they eat?

The gorillas.

Bushmeat is the cheapest and most reliable source of food that can be acquired without drawing attention to the illicit activities hidden in the depth of the forest. Because of this, gorillas are often shot and killed to be eaten. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), just over 1,000 mountain gorillas now live in the wild, a staggeringly low population. Yet that is still an increase (due to extensive conservation efforts and ecotourism) from the 650 individuals recorded when comprehensive monitoring of this species began in the 1950s. 

A mountain gorilla in the rain
The mountain gorilla is a subspecies of eastern gorilla that is found only in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Image Source: Emmanuelkwizera

While the gorilla is the perfect face for the plight of wildlife in the DRC, I have chosen to focus today on the Congo African grey parrot. This is because, even today, few people are aware of the extent of the perils that this species faces. The African grey is one of the most fascinating animals on this Earth. One famous individual known as Alex (short for Avian Learning Experiment) was the first non-human animal believed to have asked an existential question – he reportedly asked ‘What colour?’ in reference to his own reflection, a command that he was taught to ask of objects that his handler presented him with. Though the extent of Alex’s real understanding is still unknown, the fact remains that his talents at object identification and verbalisation demonstrate the mind-blowing intelligence of these parrots.

This intelligence is perhaps what makes their struggle all the more heartbreaking. The desolation of any animal species is nothing short of a tragedy, but the concept of harming an animal capable of such emotional depth presents an even more alarming sense of injustice. The physical and emotional torment faced by the Congo African grey is mirrored by the also extremely intelligent mountain gorillas, making the entire situation within the DRC one that represents a real depth of human and animal suffering – one that simply must be addressed as a matter of urgency. 

Parrots in Peril

African grey parrots unfortunate enough to nest in areas of forest obliterated by the coltan trade find themselves displaced and homeless, but this troubling issue is overshadowed by the horrors of the illegal pet trade. This is primarily an issue for the smaller, easier-to-smuggle parrots, but it would be ignorant to assert that the pet trade does not affect gorilla populations as well. Despite a gorilla’s immense size, the corruption within the DRC allows smugglers to get away with trading such large mammals. The pet trade flourishes for the very same reasons coltan mining has been allowed to wreak such immeasurable havoc upon the once-diverse fauna of the DRC – necessity.

With politicians distracted from conservation efforts and strapped for access to resources, international trafficking organisations are free to take full advantage of a starving population and a nation rich in resources. But it would be unfair to imply that the politicians of the DRC are powerless. Indeed, accusations of corruption in the nation are rife and wide-spreading. Nearly every prominent figure within the relevant governing bodies has been accused of turning a deliberate blind eye to the continuous persecution of the natural world within their jurisdictions. This willful ignorance on the part of those meant to defend the DRC’s wildlife is almost certainly one bought with the use of blood money. Large criminal syndicates responsible for illegal mining or animal trafficking have the funds to pay off corrupt officials or organisations.

Many charities have sought a solution by training rangers to physically protect the habitats of African grey parrots. A growing awareness of groups that are operating in the area, raiding parrot nests and taking large numbers of chicks for the pet trade, has aroused a move to defend these birds. However, simply victimising the perpetrators of animal trapping and trafficking may not be fair. More often than not, those who orchestrate the trapping operations, the individuals who risk their lives to abduct these parrots, are people with no other choice available to them. They are simply people who have been preyed upon by those with more money and power.

Towards the beginning of the Second Congolese Civil War, the growing need for coltan in the international community gave rise to children dropping out of schools to instead hunt for this precious ore, which they could then sell, leaving them able to support their families from very young ages. However, the knock-on effect has been an entire generation of uneducated workers ripe for exploitation from the powerful criminal organisations operating within the region. With no other options to feed themselves and their families, many people are forced to perform the dirty work for those who stand to make the real profit from these poaching operations.

There are huge financial gains to be made from the illegal pet trade. This is because parrots are relatively prolific breeders. Each year, parrots will have clutches of one to three eggs. However, being such social birds, the parrots will stay in large, often multigenerational flocks. This allows poachers to pursue two lucrative avenues. The first is to trap huge numbers of chicks. That process starts with the trapper waiting for the parents to leave the nest, then climbing the tree to abduct the chicks within. The second is to set out glue-based traps. Though this method will largely capture adult birds that will never fully adjust to the life of being a pet, they are still profitable for the pet trade as they are capable of being bred from to produce offspring that can be hand-reared and sold on. The birds will have their feathers chopped to prevent escape and then packed into crates.

A close-up of an African grey parrot's head
The trapping of wild African grey parrots inadvertently kills many of the birds that are caught. The stress of the shipping process will likely further halve the number of birds still alive upon arrival at their destination.
Image Source: Tambako The Jaguar

Congo African greys are afforded the highest level of protection under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), meaning any international trade of the animals is completely prohibited. However, high-level criminals are able to use a number of methods to smuggle the birds across the border.  The level of corruption within the DRC means officials can often be paid to sign off on shipments, turn a blind eye to their contents, issue faulty permits, or even allow unregistered flights to take off from international airports. It seems that the most common method used is that of acquiring a permit meant for a separate species and then simply transporting the birds via a commercial flight, banking on flight attendants being unable to differentiate between types of parrot. The adult birds are most often sent to South Africa, where they can then be laundered into legal bird breeding farms. 

This illegitimate business is so successful because the risk versus reward is heavily weighted in their favour. Even at the point where illegal shipments might arouse suspicion, many authorities have a vested interest in turning a blind eye. Parrots, especially African greys, are loud, destructive and messy. Often, any governmental body that seizes a shipment of parrots will then be responsible for it to a degree. With the birds’ origins unknown, release is not as simple as merely opening the box. Introducing new parrots to existing flocks can spread disease and disrupt breeding, making it imperative that the correct release location is chosen. Moreover, re-release permits must be acquired that involve rigorous health checks and monitoring of the birds. This may leave organisations with huge numbers of unruly birds on their hands that they struggle to get rid of. Therefore, it is easier to simply pretend you never saw them in the first place and allow them to move on.

With nearly all risk mitigated, the traffickers are free to take the profit. A single African grey parrot can sell for around $1,000 USD, a price tag that justifies the high mortality rate associated with shipping the birds. An even larger profit stands to be made if the poacher is lucky enough to stumble upon a rare colour mutation whereby the glorious red of the tail feathers has spread to the rest of the bird. Some chicks are hatched, even in the wild, with more red feathers than expected, and, if bred, these individuals can sometimes produce entirely red offspring – rare specimens that fetch obscene prices. 

A pet Africa grey parrot with its cage in the background
 Prized for their intelligence and ability to mimic human speech, African grey parrots are popular avian pets.
Image Source: Acabashi

Protecting Parrots

The gruesome reality in the DRC combines a humanitarian crisis and a heartbreaking threat to some of the most spectacular species on this Earth. But it is not completely without hope. Environmental agencies have already made progress in providing greater career opportunities in the DRC, to the mutual benefit of wildlife and local communities. Poachers know the areas and tactics of animal trappers better than anyone else, and when provided with the opportunity for legitimate work, many are all too happy to get involved. This means there is a wealth of strong, experienced and hardworking individuals willing and able to be recruited as rangers to protect the wildlife they once attacked.

This has been immensely successful in the case of the mountain gorillas. Rangers work closely with these apes, monitoring them day and night to protect them from poachers. With such an intimate knowledge of the gorillas, both individually and as a species, some rangers have been able to lead hugely successful wildlife spotting trips. Tourists from all over the world pay large sums to see wild gorillas on tours guided by these rangers. The money from this tourism is able to directly fund the rangers’ work and other conservation efforts in the area. Local communities that once hunted the gorilla for bushmeat now recognise them as the greatest source of income to their area and take great pride in learning about them.

Though it is not yet happening on the same scale, a similar tactic is being applied to parrots all over the world. There have been major successes with macaws in Bolivia, aided by the World Parrot Trust, and we can only hope that in the future a similar recovery will be seen in the numbers of African grey parrots in the wild. 

The Timneh grey parrot was formerly classified as a subspecies of the African grey parrot, but it is now recognised as a full species. Whereas African grey parrots have crimson tails, the Timneh grey parrot has a tail that is a dull, dark maroon colour.
Image Source: Peter Fuchs

The role that the international community has played can also be tackled. Raising awareness of where our beloved parrots may have come from can promote better shopping habits and a more responsible consumer market. If the demand for African greys is diminished enough, the monetary gain will no longer justify the risk of poaching, and criminal organisations will be forced to turn their attention away from our precious wildlife. In addition, the commercial airlines flying cargo from the DRC are being increasingly pressured to provide the relevant training to their staff to recognise illegal shipments and stop them before they can cross the border, whereupon they become much harder to track down. And on top of this, charitable organisations are building facilities to take on seized African grey parrots, reducing the burden on legal authorities.

All in all, we are a long way from a perfect situation, but glimmers of hope reinforce the importance of raising awareness for the African grey, and how politics pushed it to the brink.

If you’d like to do more than just raising awareness, donating to the World Parrot Trust or the WWF will go a long way to supporting these phenomenal creatures. If you have more money and time to dedicate to this cause, eco-tourism in the area is doing massive amounts of good for the mountain gorilla. Gorilla trekking through the lush forests of the Congo basin makes for a unique and exciting holiday, while your money and time support the efforts of the rangers. While you’re in the area, ensure you go and buy arts and crafts made by local people, as well as supporting local eateries and travel services. The more your tourism supports the economy, the better local people and communities will be able to protect the natural world around them.

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