By Charles Bergman
On President Barack Obama’s trip to Africa this summer, he made history with a major speech on wildlife trafficking. The illegal trade in wildlife is one of the top threats to wildlife worldwide, and it is on the rise globally. The presidential spotlight on the issue is invaluable.
As Obama was making his speech in Tanzania, I was also in Africa, working on a historic project in the fight against wildlife trafficking. With Jane Goodall, I was part of a four-person team from the World Parrot Trust. We were in Uganda to release a group of African Grey parrots that had been confiscated as they were being smuggled into Bulgaria. It was the first time that parrots smuggled out of Africa were returned to the continent and released back into the wild.
“It’s a story of how bad the trade has become,” Goodall said over dinner the night before the release. “And it’s a story of hope.”
African Grey parrots are among the most heavily traded of all animals. Their popularity is fueled by recent research on their astonishing intelligence. In some ways, their cognitive abilities rival those of a 3-year-old child. Alex, the “genius” African Grey parrot studied by Irene Pepperberg, had a vocabulary of more than 100 words and a sassy tongue—a smart Alex.
They may be the smartest birds in the world.
According to Rowan Martin, the energetic ornithologist who managed our release of the parrots, about 2 million African Grey parrots have been captured from the wild for the global pet trade since 1975.
This figure is staggering. Most of the parrots were captured as part of a thriving legal trade in wild-caught parrots. It seems counterintuitive: Obama and many conservationists focus on the illegal trade, with its shadow world of poachers and smugglers, but the real problem may be the legal trade itself.
On July 10, Goodall and Martin pulled on a long rope, and a window slowly jerked open on the makeshift aviary where the confiscated parrots were housed. The parrots didn’t rush to freedom as you might expect. More....