Almost exactly a year ago, on the 24th December 2010 at 3pm, the ground staff from 1time Airlines and BidAir Cargo at the King Shaka International Airport (Durban, South Africa) discovered almost 700 dead African grey parrots crammed into 15 crates in the cargo hold of the MD-80 they were offloading. The staff on hand reported that there was a strong “chemical” smell in the hold, no sounds were coming from the crates, and the hold itself was extremely hot. Too hot, in fact, for them to enter. Amazingly enough a small puppy survived the ordeal unscathed. Why was this tragic incident hidden from the media for almost three weeks? Why did the details change so frequently? Had these parrots been poisoned? Did they actually die? Why did the State Veterinarian on hand allow so many wild parrots to be flown at one time? Read here about the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of these parrots, what may have killed them, and what is being done to avoid this ever happening again…
Why so long to report this incident? Making up for lost time.
Everyone involved in this tragedy decided to keep it a secret until the 10th January 2011 when the World Parrot Trust Africa was informed by a contact in the avicultural industry. The resultant press release sparked an avalanche of newspaper articles, street boards, headlines, petitions, blogs, memorial videos, radio interviews, Facebook posts, and new activist groups. By mid-January, we had started an investigation into the trade in wild-caught African grey parrots in South Africa, as well as the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident. Our aim was to do everything possible to ensure that this never happens again. We did this by investigating all possible contributing causes, while looking at the sustainability and ethics of continued trade in wild-caught African grey parrots from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and elsewhere. African grey parrots are a globally important species that is now among the most populous pets on earth with multiple color morphs, including “Red” grey parrots that are valued at between $150-200,000 per parrot. A tropical African forest without grey parrots cavorting in the high canopy is like an ocean without waves…
By early February we were presenting our findings on the “unsustainable and unethical trade in wild-caught African grey parrots from the DRC” to the Scientific Authority in Pretoria (South Africa). This meeting resulted in a temporary moratorium on the issuance of any further CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) import permits for African grey parrots from the DRC into South Africa. This was a huge step forward that made all further imports illegal and made a strong statement that the DRC government needs to urgently undertake a non-detrimental findings workshop on current harvesting quotas. As a result of the moratorium and our work with BidAir Cargo on networking with local carriers to ensure that no more large shipments of parrots make it onto flights, we have now started to see confiscations at South African border posts with Namibia and Mozambique. On the 31st March 2011 at midnight three Mozambican nationals were caught by military police on a routine border patrol. They were carrying four travel crates containing 50-60 wild-caught African grey parrots, one of which was opened during the struggle and released on the border. The next blog will discuss the circumstances surrounding the 6-month ordeal of the surviving 161 grey parrots from this confiscation.
Over the months following the death of 687 grey parrots on a commercial flight we were able to keep the issue of South Africa’s role in the international trade in wild-caught African grey parrots in the media on a weekly basis. Grey parrots are now less common in pet stores in South Africa and most people are asking whether the parents of the grey parrot they are buying are captive-bred. Parrot owners previously only asked if the parrot they were buying was captive-bred to make sure they do not buy an ill-tempered wild-caught parrot. Changing people’s perceptions is key to overcoming this trade…
BidAir Cargo have taken the death of these parrots under their watch as a huge wake-up call and see this as an opportunity to become the best animal handlers in the air cargo industry. They have already invested in animal handling specialists, new animal housing ans quarantine facilities, new air-conditioned vehicles to transport the animals to the runway, and a more comprehensive 72-hour permit screening system. Their work with the NSPCA with has been exemplary and resulted in many birds, mammals and reptiles being saved from a similar fate. The World Parrot Trust Africa is very supportive of these develops and will continue to contribute to ongoing policy discussions. The Managing Director of BidAir Cargo, Gary Marshall, has been a driving force in this process and has contracted professional workshop facilitators in his quest to advance their policies and facilities, thus ensuring that never happens again.
Wild-caught bird trade and “African Grey Mafia”
The trade in wild-caught African grey parrots in South Africa alone is now estimated to be worth in excess of US$50 million. Profits from this trade are often re-invested into the importation of other endangered, wild-caught parrots such as Scarlet macaws (through the Philippines) and cockatoos (through New Zealand). There are now massive private collections of exotic parrots and monkeys here in South Africa being used as breeding stock for the export market. South Africa has become a hub for the international trade in wildlife. In 2007, Phillipus Fourie was busted by customs officials at Auckland International Airport with 44 endangered cockatoo eggs hidden in special compartments sewn into a vest. In 2008, another young South African accused of attempting to smuggle hundreds of rare chameleons, snakes, lizards and frogs out of Madagascar inside his jacket and luggage was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. South Africans are very quick to point fingers at the Far East when looking for someone to blame for the almost 450 rhinos that were poached this year for their horns, but seem happy to ignore our central role in the international trade in wild-caught birds, mammals and reptiles. The South African government can say that they adhere to CITES and IATA (International Air Transport Association) regulations because they do. The problem is that staff members on the ground are ill prepared to deal with thousands of exotic and indigenous species moving though our airports and border posts. The only solution for the wild-caught bird trade in Africa or anywhere else is to halt all further trade, as there are few circumstances where trade in wild specimens is permissible. The days of being blindly pro-trade are over.
By 2011 when we started our investigation, the wild-caught bird trade and avicultural industry was so established in South Africa that grey parrot importers, traders and breeders already had established connections with CITES South Africa, the State Attorney’s Office, Department of Environmental Affairs, and State Veterinarian’s office. Now we are not, at all, saying that this is a case of bribery and corruption in the South African government, but rather that few people involved in issuing permits, transporting large numbers of wild-caught animals, checking shipments at customs, or enforcing international trade laws and agreements has been adequately educated as to the threat posed by the wild-caught bird trade to species survival. Most officials involved in the wildlife trade need additional training on bird identification, access to reference materials, and exposure to international quarantine, animal handling, and customs officials. Tax evasion or drug trafficking are easy to understand and then combat, but to understand, care about and combat the demise of a parrot, monkey or chameleon that you will never see in real life is very difficult. The entire way in which the trade in wild-caught birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, fish and invertebrates is regulated in South Africa needs to be upgraded and brought inline with standards and practices of countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, and European Union. We need to support the development of our local avicultural industry so that it can sustainably supply the demands of the international pet bird trade, while creating new jobs for South Africans. Bird breeders are using wild-caught breeding stock simply because it is much cheaper than raising the parrots yourself for 10 years and much more productive than allowing the parents to raise the offspring themselves for up to 2 years. This is a clear case of exploitation for financial benefit… greed.
Investigations into what is called the “African Grey Mafia” were inconclusive, but did reveal several syndicates that have profited hugely from the trade in wild-caught grey parrots and their offspring over the last 7-10 years. Huge amounts of foreign exchange are involved and unscrupulous South African traders are treating wild grey parrots like commodities. We have also heard about large shipments of Northern crowned cranes, parakeets and even South American monkeys that have died on commercial flights or on the runway in South Africa. African grey “bird mills” have sprung up all over South Africa over the last 10 years, all of which use wild-caught parrots as breeding stock to produce thousands upon thousands of pre-weaned chicks for export to emerging markets in the Far East (most often via Singapore, Taipei, Bahrain or Sri Lanka). In 2009, South Africa exported over 25,000 captive-bred African grey parrots, yet we still exceeded the export quota for the DRC with the over 5,400 wild-caught African grey parrots that were imported into South Africa. See Table 1 below.
The ignored mystery
Like the “canary in the coal mine”, all parrots are very sensitive to poisonous gases. Even slightly burning the teflon coat on your frying pan can kill a parrot in the room next door. Stressing out dehydrated and overheated parrots will make them pant and increase susceptibility to toxic gases, dehydration and suffocation. The State Veterinarian on hand in Durban on Christmas Eve told us that on the 11thJanuary all 749 grey parrots on this 1time flight had died of what appeared to be “carbon monoxide-poisoning”. The vet reported that their lungs were collapsed and grey, blood was hemorrhaging from their eyes, and all were in painfully contorted positions at the bottom of the crate. The State Veterinarian’s description of their condition was alarming to say the least and focused our resolve to push the authorities to undertake an in-depth investigation. Alarmingly, all subsequent reports and statements contradict the observations of the veterinarian on the scene and do not support carbon monoxide-poisoning as the primary cause of death.
Over two months later, the Acting Director of the Directorate of Veterinary Quarantine and Public Health in South Africa said, in the official report, that 71 African grey parrots had survived the flight, but that 13 more had unfortunately died in quarantine. Therefore, there must have been at least 58 surviving parrots out the 758 loaded in Johannesburg, which contradicts the statements made by Dr. Naidoo and Toucana Private Quarantine. On 12th January 2011, junior staff at Toucana told an investigator that 69 African grey parrots arrived at the quarantine on Christmas Eve. A statement that was later denied by quarantine management. To my knowledge no one has been able to find out what happened to the 58 or 69 African grey parrots that survived the flight or why their existence was hidden from the media. The fact that the authorities did not determine conclusively what killed the parrots and then incinerated the carcasses was negligent. Inconsistencies in reporting the number of parrots that died and the various stories put forward by officials indicates the activity of organized groups with vested interests within and outside of government that fabricate stories to support their operations. This is a much bigger problem that is almost impossible to solve…
In the official report, the Acting Director puts forward that the parrots died of hypothermia and suffocation. This is plausible with ten times the number of parrots stipulated by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) regulations crammed into each of the 15 crates. All eye witness reports place the State Veterinarian, the owner, the Kempton Park Quarantine Master, and BidAir Cargo at the loading of these grey parrots at OR Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg, South Africa). How could these officials, cargo handlers, and the owner allow this to happen to this valuable shipment? The travel crates even had square perches that were impossible to sit on, thus forcing the parrots to huddle on top of each other at the bottom of the crate, thus causing further overcrowding and distress. All who submitted to questioning about the incident said that they transport large numbers of parrots all the time and never have problems. All respondents confirmed that the parrots appeared to be in good condition before loading onto the 1time Airlines flight. The CEO of 1time, Rodney James, stated shortly after the accident that the parrots could not have suffocated or been exposed to carbon monoxide, as the air in “Cargo 1″ is the same air that is circulated in the passenger cabin. MD-80s are, however, known to have weak ventilation on the runway and can get hot and stuffy. The evidence, therefore, suggests that too many crates stuffed with too many wild, stressed out parrots where most likely packed incorrectly into the cargo hold of an MD-80, thus causing the death of over 90% of the parrots due to suffocation and hypothermia brought on by stress and low temperatures.
Please see all the links provided at the end of the blog to see all the details in the full-length newspaper articles and blogs… Decide for yourself what is happening here.
Unanswered questions include: What was the chemical smell? Why was the temperature so high that staff could not enter the hold? Why did they have symptoms of poisoning? Why did the State Veterinarian’s office change their story repeatedly? Why did the Quarantine Master and State Veterinarian in attendance allow 10 times too many parrots to be loaded into each crate? Why were the carcasses not handed over for further investigation and instead burnt? Inconsistencies in reports of the number of parrots that survived this ordeal support the assertion by several sources that a syndicate makes valuable birds “disappear” on flights to Durban, declaring them dead and then selling them into the open market. The World Parrot Trust Africa is playing no role in the investigation of criminal activity and has handed all information over to law enforcement officials. A lot needs to be done to bring the trade in exotic species in South Africa under control. The current status quo cannot continue. This change needs to be initiated from within the South African avicultural industry, which is more than ready to take over the responsibility of supplying the international pet bird trade without wild-caught birds. National government needs to support policies that better regulate the trade in exotic species in South Africa and supports the growth of the local avicultural industry that needs to urgently transform and feed into rural development plans.
There is no doubt that we were misled repeatedly by people involved in the trade in wild-caught African grey parrots. We were told stories of threats and physical attacks, huge amounts of money being exchanged, tax evasion, smuggling and other criminal activity linked to this trade. Breeders that use wild-caught African grey parrots as breeding stock would feed information on traders that sell adult, wild-caught African grey parrots directly to emerging markets. The avicultural industry and government regulation of the trade in exotic, wild-caught birds in South Africa must urgently be revamped. Here in South Africa we have the some of the strictest laws in the world to protect our indigenous species, but have no laws to protect exotic species from being laundered through breeding facilities in South Africa for re-export to emerging markets. As exemplified by the declaration of the Kruger National Park as the second national park in the world in 1898, our leadership in the inauguration of the “peace parks” in Africa, and the initiation of successful conservation projects such as “Save the Rhino”, South Africa is a pioneer in world conservation and once again needs to be a guiding light and example to other African countries by halting all further trade in wild-caught birds.
At the most basic level, these African grey parrots died as a result of the unsustainable and unethical trade in this species. Many thousands of grey parrots have probably died on commercial flights over the last 25 years of trade and more will die. Pre-weaned chicks being exported from South Africa in their thousands have highly reduced survival chances. As it stands right now, grey parrots are being exploited and local extinctions have already occurred in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. It is unclear whether the 687 wild-caught grey parrots that died on Christmas Eve died of poisoning, suffocation and/or hypothermia? Poor pre-trip preparation (e.g. hydration), poor handling by the carrier (e.g. too long on runway), incorrect packing (i.e. 10x too many in each crate), incorrect loading by carrier (i.e. not enough ventilation) and/or unsuitable aircraft design for live birds in the cargo hold may have been contributing factors to the untimely demise of these wild-caught African grey parrots. Healthy parrots simply do not just die on a 1-hour flight…
The World Parrot Trust Africa is committed to ending the trade in wild-caught birds in Africa before it is too late. Africa is holding onto its biodiversity by an ever weakening grip and strong policy changes and absolute laws will be required to save some of the continent’s most enigmatic species like the African grey parrot, white and black rhino, lion and many others. Please help us to this by sharing this blog and engaging people that you know on this subject. As we go into the New Year we need to remember the parrots that died on Christmas Eve a year ago and do as much as possible to avoid this happening again.
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Please also have a look through the links below and formulate your own opinions to share in the comments section below the blog: