Sometimes the sounds of a vocalist warming up drift through the lush aviaries of Umgeni River Bird Park. The prima donna in question? A parrot named Molly. The blue-fronted amazon learned to sing scales from a former owner. Many of the parrots at this zoo and breeding center in Durban, South Africa, are rescues, given up by people unprepared for the challenges of owning a large, needy bird. Not only are parrots loud and destructive; some are as smart as a three-year-old child, and some can live 80 years.
Even so, the draw to keep parrots—what conservation ecologist Stuart Marsden calls the “humans of the bird world”—can be irresistible. Highly social and intelligent, the birds create meaningful, powerful bonds with their owners. Combine that with their ability to mimic human voices, and it’s no coincidence that parrots are arguably the most popular pet birds on Earth.
In some cases, however, their popularity is hurting them. Despite robust breeding programs worldwide, many parrots are still plucked illegally from the wild. One reason: Organized-crime rackets that have made billions of dollars trafficking animals such as elephants and rhinos have added parrots to their repertoire. Australian palm cockatoos have been known to fetch up to $30,000 a bird on the black market. The illegal parrot trade is rampant in Latin America and the Caribbean, where laws against it can be lax or difficult to enforce.