Flocks of chattering African gray parrots, more than a thousand flashes of red and white on gray at a time, were a common sight in the deep forests of Ghana in the 1990s. But a 2016 study published in the journal Ibis reveals that these birds, in high demand around the world as pets, and once abundant in forests all over West and central Africa, have almost disappeared from Ghana.
According to the study, the pet trade and forest loss—particularly the felling of large trees where the parrots breed—are major factors contributing to the decline.
Uncannily good at mimicking human speech, the African gray (and the similar but lesser-known Timneh parrot) is a prized companion in homes around the world. Research has shown that grays can be as smart as a five-year-old human child, capable of developing a limited vocabulary and even forming simple sentences.
Google the phrase “African gray talking,” and you’ll find hundreds of videos—including Einstein the talking parrot’s TED presentation—showing the birds whistling and mimicking words and phrases.
The gray parrot has a wide historic range across West and central Africa—1.1 million square miles (nearly three million square kilometers)—from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in West Africa, through Nigeria and Cameroon and the Congo forests, to Uganda and western Kenya. Ghana accounts for more than 30,000 square miles (75,000 square kilometers) of that range, but losses of grays there have been some of the most devastating.
“Gray parrot populations in Ghana have declined catastrophically, and the species is now very rare across the country,” said Nigel Collar, of BirdLife International, a global partnership dedicated to conserving birds and their habitats. Collar was one of the authors of the paper, which notes that since 1992 Ghana has lost 90 to 99 percent of its African grays.
“Dedicated searching, including visits to roosts, which had as many as 1,200 individuals 20 years ago, yielded just a handful of gray parrot sightings,” said Nathaniel Annorbah, a Ghanaian graduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University, in England, who was the study’s lead author.
The 'African Silence'
“I’m not surprised that African grays are disappearing from Ghana,” said Steve Boyes, an African parrot specialist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. "We’re also seeing local extinctions happening in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and throughout their range. We’re calling it the ‘African Silence.’”
The African gray parrot is the single most heavily traded wild bird as recorded by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates wildlife trade globally.
There have been 800,000 recorded legal imports of the parrots from range countries since 1980. But this figure doesn’t account for the total number of parrots taken from forests. Wild gray parrots are particularly susceptible to death in captivity, and it's been estimated that 45 to 65 percent of grays perish before reaching export markets. And, according to BirdLife International, if you factor in domestic and international trades that go unreported, the number of birds snatched from central and West Africa in the past 20 years is probably more than one million.
In 1992, the United States banned the import of wild African gray parrots. The European Union followed in 2007. But a thriving captive-bred trade persists and is likely contributing to declines in the wild.
“What many people will not know,” said Rowan Martin, director of the World Parrot Trust, a conservation organization based in the U.S., “is that the captive breeding industry in some parts of the world—especially South Africa and the Middle East—relies heavily on wild birds as breeding stocks.”
“It’s cheaper for aviculturists to purchase wild-caught birds and breed from them rather than from their own stock, because captive birds may take several years before they reach maturity,” Martin said.
This loophole can be exploited by traders in countries with weak regulations, such as South Africa, Bahrain, Pakistan, and Mozambique. South Africa, for instance, is the leading exporter of captive-bred African grays—more than 40,000 a year. The country is also the leading importer, so there’s a reasonable likelihood that a captive-bred gray from South Africa had wild parents.
Well-meaning pet owners may therefore inadvertently support the trade in wild-caught parrots by buying chicks bred from wild hens.
A CITES proposal is now circulating among African gray parrot range states calling for a total ban on all trade of wild-caught parrots.
Most countries have already implemented bans, but Cameroon still has a CITES export quota of 1,600 parrots. The final proposal will be voted on at the next CITES Conference of the Parties, in Johannesburg, South Africa, later this year. [Update: The proposal passed 95 to 35 at the CITES conference in October 2016 and went into effect in January 2017. The international commercial trade in African grays is now banned.]
“If no country is permitted to trade wild birds of this species, it will be the most important action that can be implemented to help save the species in the wild,” Martin said. “Illegal trade will persist, but it’s likely that the scale will be much reduced.”
Eliminating demand for wild birds in consumer countries is part of the solution, particularly in emerging markets like Singapore, Bahrain, and Pakistan, where some local people believe in parrots’ spiritual powers and use their heads and feathers as fetish and ritual objects.
Should You Buy an African Gray?
“If someone is thinking of buying an African gray parrot,” said Boyes, “they should be 100 percent sure of where it came from. Make sure that the parrot was captive-bred and hand-raised. Ask for paperwork.”
In addition, he said, people need to be aware that these birds can live for up to 65 years and that in the wild they’re very social, flying in large flocks and covering several miles a day. They’re highly interactive, forming close bonds with each other and within their social groups.
“We call them singles clubs,” said Boyes, “where they’re meeting other birds and finding a partner that they’ll keep for the rest of their life.”
They use all the tools of communication—the ability to mimic sounds and make unique calls—which are essential for life in the wild.
“That’s a very special thing for us to protect and appreciate,” he said. “If they get caught in a trap, and put in captivity, they become heartbroken. That’s what happens to these birds when they lose their freedom.”