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World Parrot Day: The impact of the illegal trade in parrots and what the public can do

Habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade and climate change are all significant threats to Africa’s wild parrot populations. On World Parrot Day 2024 Wild Africa, together with the Nigerian Tribune, a leading newspaper in Nigeria, hosted an X Space event that highlighted the ecological importance of parrots and focused on the challenge posed by the illegal pet trade. Drawing on a wide range of expertise from Ifeanyi Ezenwa of the World Parrot Trust, Dr Stella Egbe of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), and Abim Isafiade of the Special Wildlife Office within Nigeria Customs Service, the event unpacked the nuances of the problems parrots face – and what the public can do to help. 

Listen to the full event recording

Ifeanyi Ezenwa kicked off the discussion, speaking to parrots’ roles in forests. Parrots disperse seeds by eating different types of fruits and moving through the forest, supporting biodiversity. By consuming and dropping food, they make that food available to other animals and contribute to nutrient recycling. All of this helps keep forests healthy—and healthy forests store more carbon, which in turn supports human lives by helping us mitigate climate change. 

In West Africa, there are 10 species of parrots that occur in the wild, from the Senegal parrot to the red-fronted parrot. Of these, the African grey is considered the most trafficked species, with the illegal wildlife trade devastating populations across its range. In places like Kenya and Ghana, their numbers have decreased by 99%, and upwards of 50% in other countries, over the last 50 years.

The African Grey parrot is extremely intelligent and capable of communicating by mimicking many sounds as well as human speech in context. A 2019 Harvard study showed that in many tests, African Greys displayed cognitive abilities that surpassed five-year-old children. These unique capabilities, along with their magnificent colouring, have put the parrots at the top of the animal trafficking list, with buyers desiring them as pets. African Greys evolved their exceptional intelligence to succeed in the wild – not to be pets. Their lifespan can often be shorter in captivity where their physical and psychological needs are not met. 

The African Grey Parrot has exceptional intelligence that allows them to mimic human speech

“One of the key factors, [driving the decline in African greys] outside of habitat disturbance, is the trapping of individual parrots for the pet trade, and for the use of their body parts”, explained Ifeanyi. “In the course of my research, I have come to understand that the body parts of the parrot are believed to have medicinal value although this has not been ascertained scientifically. The red tail feather is also culturally valuable and used in cultural attire.”

Ifeanyi went on to call the public to action saying, “It’s key to raise awareness that this act is illegal and if you see this act of illegal trade of wildlife going on, it’s your responsibility to report it to the nearest police station.”

Ifeanyi’s organisation, the World Parrot Trust, is taking a multi-pronged approach to addressing the challenges facing African grey parrots, from working with stakeholders in the agricultural sector to ensure their plantations can provide suitable habitats for parrots, to working with government and NGOs to see that parrots confiscated from wildlife trade are rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

African Greys evolved to succeed in the wild - not to be pets

Abim Isafiade from Nigeria Customs Service was the event’s second speaker and shared her years of experience in intercepting the trade of African grey parrots.

She explained, “It was in 2018 that I first became very aware of the movement of parrots out of the country. And of course, it was African grey parrots. We’re in 2024 now and the trade is still ongoing, the illegality is still ongoing. But the good thing is that we are more aware now about the roots, the forms, and the trends of the trade.”

She called for the public to find legal income opportunities that don’t erode Nigeria’s rich natural heritage and to use their networks to spread the message of conservation far and wide. “We have this opportunity to share this word to everyone, in every space, on every social media channel that I think would go a long way to support the work that law enforcement is doing, and particularly what Customs is doing.”

Since 2018, Nigeria Customs Service have continued to intercept the illegal trade in parrots

Grounding the conversation in the work of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, Dr Stella spoke about the need for a varied approach to protecting parrots and one that includes the protection of habitats. “One of the major things we’re doing is to conserve areas that are unique because we know that parrots inhabit threatened ecosystems, like Omo Forest Reserve in Ogun State. We must protect suitable habitats so that this species can thrive.”

She called for a large-scale awareness drive emphasising, “We must continue to raise awareness so that people understand that the wellbeing of biodiversity within our space is a reflection of our own wellbeing.”

In closing, all speakers stressed the need to work together, with Abim encouraging, “There has to be this collaboration. Each of us has a role to play in conserving our parrots, both for ourselves and our children.”

This work is no one’s alone, it takes everyone’s dedication to the cause to make a difference and create change. Abim explains, “We should not wait for World Parrot Day to talk about saving the parrots. We should do this in our daily business, our daily talks. Tell people, that goes a long way to sensitise the public.”