Conservation of Birds in the Wild
Trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a global business, worth $10-20 billion annually. The losers in this commodity exchange are the animals. Birds are among the most popular animals sought after for the exotic pet trade. Almost a third of the world's 330 parrot species is threatened with extinction due to the combined pressures of habitat loss and collecting for the pet trade (Collar et al. 1994). The trade in wild parrots seems to be driven by market demand coupled with the large profits to the pet industry and the rural poverty in many countries with wild-parrot populations (Wright et al. 2000).
Wild parrots may be caught in several different ways. Adult or juvenile parrots may be captured by large nets sprung when parrot flocks congregate on the ground near a water or food source (World Parrot Trust 2002) or be snared in trees with fishing line traps (Riupassa pers. com. 2001) while others may be netted at nest cavity entrances (Bucher et al. 1992). Neonatal birds ("chicks") are taken directly from nests either by scaling the trees and reaching into the nest cavity or felling the tree and cutting into the nest cavity to remove the chicks (Bucher et al. 1992).
While it is estimated that the number of birds taken from the wild to be sold as "pets" is in the millions (Beissinger 2001), it is difficult determine the exact numbers of birds who fall victim to the wild bird trade for several reasons:
The internal trade in wild-caught birds may be as large or larger than the export trade and there exist no published systematic surveys of the number of captive birds in any exporting country (Beissinger 2001).
Export trade numbers typically underestimate the number of birds extracted from the wild for the pet trade because mortality that takes place during capture, confinement, and transportation prior to export is excluded (Beissinger 2001). It has been estimated that 60% of wild-caught birds die before reaching international markets (Indigo and Ramos 1991). Nicaraguan researchers estimate that to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market (Michels 2002).
Export statistics track only the legal trade, therefore do not take into account the number of birds smuggled and traded illegally (Beissinger 2001). Because the chances of getting caught are so slim and the financial gains are so huge, exotic animal traffickers and breeders gladly take the risks associated with breaking the law - especially since the penalties, if exacted, are little more than a monetary fine or, in extreme cases, a short jail stay. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the illegal trade in wildlife is second only to that of drugs in the United States.
Perhaps the single most effective tool against organized poaching, wildlife smuggling, and over-utilization of wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES was first signed into law in 1973 to protect certain species of wild fauna and flora against over-exploitation through commercial trade. The United States adopted the treaty in 1975 and the Endangered Species Act (16 USC § 1538 et seq.) is its enabling legislation. CITES is the only treaty that attempts to regulate wildlife trade and almost every nation is a party. Under CITES, the trade in live or dead wildlife and their body parts is restricted or even prohibited for species listed in CITES' three appendices, which are based on the level of endangerment of species. Trade in species threatened with extinction is prohibited under Appendix I and restricted under the other two Appendices. Specifically, CITES prohibits the import of Appendix I species for "commercial purposes" unless the animal was specifically bred in captivity for that purpose.
The Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) of 1992 provides further protections to wild birds traditionally imported as companion animals for Americans. The Act requires documentation by the importer on the source of the bird, a complete description, and the reasons for import. Also, the importer is permitted to import only two exotic birds as companion animals per year. The law makes exceptions for birds imported as part of approved breeding consortiums. The Department of the Interior administers the Act through the Fish and Wildlife Service. It has been revealed that the WBCA cut poaching rates from almost 50% to 20%, refuting the claims of some aviculturists that limiting legal trade intensifies illegal trade and poaching (Wright et al. 2001).
While the concept of a legal trade in parrots managed under a "sustainable harvest" regime has been suggested as a potential conservation approach (Snyder et al. 2000, Beissinger 2001) and is in fact specifically listed as an exception under the WBCA, to date no successful sustainable harvest project has been demonstrated (Snyder et al. 2000). However, in 2003 Argentina submitted a sustainable harvest proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in hopes of exporting wild-caught blue-front amazons harvested through the program. The decision on the permit is still pending and has been opposed by 93 scientists with expertise in parrot biology, and by numerous animal welfare organizations.
All in all, sustainable harvest seems to holds little promise as an effective conservation tool. There is a documented relationship between legal and illegal international trade with the legal trade providing a smoke screen behind which poachers operate (Wright et al. 2001) and currently there is no marking system that could reliably distinguish legally collected birds from illegally collected birds (Beissinger 2001). In the absence of reliable marking systems and tight controls, attempts at implementing sustainable harvest programs could actually increase conservation problems rather than solve them (Beissinger 2001).
Despite the protections afforded by CITES and the WBCA, the international and domestic bird trade continues to be a major threat for many species (Collar and Juniper 1992). Enforcement of international and local laws continues to be a major conservation challenge especially in areas where illegal activities remain socially acceptable at the local level (Snyder et al. 2000).
The Role of Captive Breeding
While many breeders and collectors of exotic species claim that keeping or breeding species in captivity protects species in the wild, this claim is unsupported by fact. The role of private breeders and collectors has largely been one of a willingness to collect rare specimens, breed them outside official conservation plans, and then trade, sell, or display the offspring for self aggrandizement and/or profit.
In theory captive breeding might have the potential to reduce pressures on wild populations by reducing the profitability of wild capture (Snyder et al. 2000), but in reality the cost of wild-capture tends to be much cheaper than captive breeding (Snyder et al. 2000). Indeed, demand and subsequent collection of wild parrots for the global pet trade continues to threaten wild parrots (Wright et al. 2001) despite the ability to produce captive-bred birds. The yellow-headed Amazon parrot for example, has suffered the greatest decline of any bird in the Americas - more than 90% since the 1970s, with the majority of the decline (68%) in the last ten years (Michels 2002). This decline has continued despite the wide availability of captive-reared yellow-headed Amazons for pet purposes. It also unclear whether the availability of inexpensive captive-bred birds would result in less birds being captured for the trade or would merely result in a greater number of individuals acquiring birds as pets with no real reduction in the total number of wild-caught birds entering the pet trade.
One of the most common assertions made by private aviculturists is that captive breeding contributes to conservation of the species. In reality, breeding birds in captivity contributes little or nothing to conservation efforts because most captive breeding is done outside official species survival plans or other directed conservation efforts (Snyder et al. 2000, Gilardi 2001, Wright et al. 2001). Even if color mutations and other qualities are not specifically selected for, the moment the first generation is produced (F1 generation) a breeder has been involved, to one degree or another, in a process whereby "natural selection" no longer applies, thus the birds are diverging from whatever they were (are) in the wild. Invariably, selection factors begin to shift from factors that enable a bird to survive in the wild to factors that enable a bird to survive in captivity. Ultimately the release of captive-bred birds may reduce the fitness of wild populations (Ford 2002).
Official captive propagation and reintroduction programs are usually undertaken as a last resort at a cost of millions of dollars spread over many decades of effort. Most serious captive breeding of endangered wildlife species, to be successful, must be done away from any direct human contact. Predator avoidance, foraging, and social interaction skills must be acquired, usually at a young age, to ensure a good chance of survival in the wild. Captive breeding for conservation purposes involves setting of target populations, definition of genetic and demographic objectives, allocation of habitat, and coordination with field conservation projects. The vast majority of parrots bred in captivity including those bred in zoos are not involved in these types of programs.
The Value of Captive Parrots as "Ambassadors"
It has been suggested that captive birds may support conservation efforts by serving as "ambassadors" thus generating funds for conservation efforts. However, behavioral research demonstrating an association between viewing animals in a captive setting and either knowledge about the animal or intention to take action to conserve the animal in the wild is lacking. Croke (1997) notes that zoo visitors spend on average three minutes or less viewing each exhibit and typically do not read informational signs. McGovern (2003) notes that while zoos around the world receive close to 10 billion dollars annually in revenue, less than one tenth of 1 percent goes to conservation efforts. It is unclear what factors inspire the public to support conservation efforts or what impact such support has on the conservation of the species in the wild. For example, despite a long history of public display in zoos and traveling shows, tiger populations in the wild continue to dwindle, and animals such as blue, right, and humpbacked whales have received a high level of public support for conservation efforts despite the fact that these species have never been held in captivity for public display.
Moreover, any legal trade in exotic species whether wild-caught or captive-bred usually leads to an increase in popularity and demand for the animals as "pets," a demand for which there are always groups of people eager to supply the pet market and make a fast buck, usually at the animal's expense. As evidence of this, the American Federation of Aviculture, a group representing the interests of exotic bird breeders, opposed the renewal of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1995 (Wright et al. 2001) and in 2002 opposed a bill to add birds to the list of animals covered under Animal Welfare Act. These actions demonstrate the pet industry's history of putting its personal interests above the welfare of animals.
Real conservation efforts focus on protecting wild species in their natural habitat. Experts say that import restrictions are perhaps the single most effective measure for improving the plight of endangered parrots, in addition to reducing or eliminating the demand for birds as "pets" (Wright et al. 2001). Replacing the demand for birds as "pets" with a demand for preserving birds in the wild will reduce inherent welfare problems associated with captivity while increasing the support of conservation efforts such as ecotourism that helps local people and protects wildlife by allowing people to see that birds are indeed more beautiful in the wild.
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