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Wildlife-Trafficking Bust Highlights Problems in Caged Bird Trade

Text and paintings by Abby McBride
parakeet painting by Abby McBride
Thalo, McBride’s pet Green-cheeked Parakeet. Painting by Abby McBride.

Environmental crime officials cracked down on wildlife trafficking between Latin America and Europe this summer, seizing more than 8,700 contraband animals in an Interpol bust dubbed Operation Cage. Authorities arrested nearly 4,000 people during raids on coastal ports, airports, post offices, markets, pet stores, and taxidermists in 32 countries. The sting focused on South and Central American birds, but it also uncovered illegally traded mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects—along with guns, ammunition, trapping equipment, and animal products such as elephant ivory.

“The trade of wild-caught birds has a long history,” said Cornell Lab biologist Eduardo Iñigo-Elias, who has studied parrot conservation and bird trafficking for the past 29 years. “It’s so difficult to trace because it’s a network—a very dynamic trade.” Iñigo-Elias works with government agencies, research institutes, and conservation organizations to combat wild bird capture. I listened with special interest because I have an exotic pet of my own: a Green-cheeked Parakeet, whose great-grandparents probably roamed the cloud forests of Bolivia, Brazil, or Argentina.

In many countries, including the United States, the only birds that can be legally sold in pet stores are ones that were hatched and raised in captivity. And it’s illegal to sell wild-caught birds from country to country, thanks to international regulations such as CITES and rules implemented after an outbreak of avian influenza in 2007. But illicit trade continues all over the world, and some bird species—like the Palm Cockatoo of Australia, a big black parrot with red cheeks and an extravagant crest—go for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.

Palm Cockatoo by Abby McBride.

“It’s like drugs—there is a demand,” Iñigo-Elias said. “People want to have these animals.” Traffickers go to great lengths to conceal and transport the coveted birds, and are sometimes caught with eggs or small birds crammed into medicine tubes and hidden within their clothing.The most at-risk birds are those with colorful plumage or musical songs. Parrots are at the top of the list—part of the reason why a third of all parrot species are threatened in the wild.

Tragically, as a declining bird species gains legal protection, it becomes more valuable in under-the-table transactions. The traffickers themselves have little incentive to worry about whether a bird will go extinct. “Unfortunately, many of them are also involved in smuggling drugs, guns, and ammunitions in the black market,” Iñigo-Elias said. “The birds are just another commodity for them.”

With each covert project like Operation Cage, environmental authorities are able to identify and keep an eye on more and more members of the illicit network. But it’s difficult to enforce regulations against wildlife trafficking. Airports and other international hubs lack sufficient resources to properly monitor cargoes. And even when traffickers are caught in the act, the penalties are tame: a few weeks or months of jail time or fines of $5,000 to $10,000, according to Iñigo-Elias.

It’s uncertain how much wildlife trafficking goes on across the United States, but one problematic area is the state of Florida. An enforcement operation in 2006 caught smugglers importing birds into Florida from Cuba and other Caribbean islands. People are willing to pay $15,000 for a Cuban Bullfinch in Miami, Iñigo-Elias said, because the finch’s song reminds them of Cuba.

Wild bird trapping—a cultural tradition across the Caribbean—has become a problem in Florida. Iñigo-Elias has spent years combating the trade of Painted Buntings, which are captured both on their Florida breeding grounds and on their wintering grounds in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America. Trappers take only the showy adult males, skewing the sex and age ratios in the population as well as reducing overall numbers. In part because of trapping and habitat degradation, the Painted Bunting population in Florida declined by 3.9 percent per year between 1966 and 2000, compared to nearly level populations in the rest of the U.S.

Painted Bunting by Abby McBride.

Buntings are nabbed as they arrive in Florida in the spring, with sophisticated wooden traps that are identical to ones traditionally built in Cuba. After essentially smuggling themselves into the country, the Painted Buntings are sold at flea markets for $50 to $100. Trappers make most of their profits by pitting the birds against each other in clandestine singing competitions, another Caribbean tradition. “It’s like dog fights or horse racing—there’s a lot of money there,” Iñigo-Elias said.

It’s not just illegal activity that threatens wild bird populations. Although the caged bird trade is much better regulated than it was 30 years ago, there is plenty of room for improvement, Iñigo-Elias said. In some countries people can legally capture native birds, as long as the wild-caught birds stay within the country. In Mexico, for instance, dozens of native species are authorized for wild capture—including Cedar Waxings and Scott’s Orioles. “Thanks to our efforts with partners such as CONABIO, Painted Bunting and Indigo Bunting are no longer authorized in Mexico’s bird trade,” Iñigo-Elias said. [See the current official list (in Spanish).]

On a global scale, the fate of declining species is usually decided by economic and political factors rather than environmental ones. Countries sometimes look for ways to circumvent the international regulations on wild-caught birds, even when the species involved are clearly dropping in numbers. The European Union, for instance, is fighting to allow import of African Grey Parrots, Iñigo-Elias said, though the practice is unsustainable.

Besides cutting into wild populations, wildlife trafficking stresses individual birds, which may succumb to sickness or pass infections to other animals in holding areas. This happened in 1971, when Yellow-headed Parrots infected with Newcastle virus were smuggled from Mexico to the United States, infecting some 12 million chickens and costing the poultry industry millions of dollars.

Iñigo-Elias encourages people to steer clear of the risks linked with the pet trade by enjoying wildlife in nondestructive ways, through activities like birding. Carefully managed ecotourism can be a lucrative industry that’s animal-friendly at the same time. Watching wild birds in their natural habitat is a special thrill, even though it’s not the same as cuddling with a pet.

If you do want to buy a pet bird, Iñigo-Elias said, it’s important to understand the long-term commitment you’re getting yourself into, with the help of resources like the World Parrot Trust’s Guide to Parrot Keeping [PDF]. Parrots in particular are intelligent, social animals that need lots of attention. And they have long lives: once you buy one, it may be with you for several decades.

It’s also important to buy a legal, captive-raised bird rather than one that was taken from the wild. I was ignorant of shady dealings in the caged bird industry when, as a teenager, I bought a parakeet from the pet store down the street. The three-month old bird was a little green bundle of personality with a long, maroon tail and a smoky head, which he liked to have scratched through the bars of his cage. Enthralled, I never thought to ask for the documentation proving he was captive-bred. I simply brought him home with me—naming him Thalo after one of my watercolor paints, which matched his brilliant blue primary feathers.

I should have checked the metal band on his leg to make sure it was smooth and seamless on all sides—showing that a breeder slipped it over his foot when he was a small nestling. If there’s a seam, the bird could have been banded as a wild-caught adult. After talking with Iñigo-Elias the other day, I double-checked Thalo’s band, and I’m relieved to report that it’s seamless and legitimate.

My captive-bred parakeet is now 12 years old and just as mischievous as ever, and I’m still glad I bought him. But as I’ve spent more and more time watching wild birds in their natural habitats, I’ve come to value those experiences just as much as keeping a pet. If I ever get an urge to buy another caged bird, I’ll be a lot more conscious of its wild relatives—and the sinister side of the pet trade.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library