Last year researchers working in Ghana made a startling discovery: the illegal pet trade and rampant deforestation had all but wiped out the African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus and P. timneh) in that country. Many populations had fallen to as low at 1 percent of their historic levels. Other sites were completely devoid of the once common birds.

Could the same thing happen in other countries? Conservationists working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have issued a warning that thousands of these valuable parrots—which can ultimately sell for up to $2,000 or more apiece—are being stolen from the wild in that country every month. They are shipped and stored in tiny, dirty cages and smuggled by air to buyers around the world. Many parrots do not survive their perilous illegal journeys.

How is it possible to capture so many of these birds before they fly away? It turns out the birds’ own behavior works against them. “Parrots are hyper social,” explains primatologist and filmmaker Cintia Garai, who has spent the past few years in the DRC. “They roost communally and come down in flocks to clearings.” Trappers, she says, find these aggregations and can capture dozens of parrots at a time.

“Trappers also climb trees and use decoy parrots,” she adds. “They tie them on branches on the trees and use glue to capture the birds that come to socialize with this bird.”

Although at least one province in the DRC has banned parrot captures and trade, it still continues in many areas, including at least one airport that helps to smuggle the birds to middle-men in other countries before they get further shipped to willing buyers. “We have been able to determine in some cases that the parrots go to a small number of identified exporting agents,” Garai says. “As for foreign destinations, we can’t ourselves track these, but colleagues in World Parrot Trust have indicated that DRC parrots go to South Africa and several Middle Eastern destinations, among others.”

All of this trade came to Garai’s attention while she was working on bonobo conservation with the TL2 Project (named after the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers) of the Lukuru Foundation. “I am still a bonobo conservationist, but the parrot crisis was too big and right in front of us,” she says. “I became involved in the African grey parrot situation as it became more and more pressing, with more and more confiscations in the region, and I could see birds suffering and dying. We could not ignore this.” Garai even produced a short documentary about the crisis, which you can see below:

Protecting the birds, Garai says, is just one step in protecting everything that lives in the same region. “I learned during the years that if I want to do something for the bonobos, I need to focus on their environment, the forest and its other creatures, and the work has to be started and conducted together with the people living in the area,” she says. “This is something I am learning from John and Terese Hart,” the leaders of the TL2 Project. “Conservation is about changing the attitude and the behavior of local communities toward the wildlife and the forest.”

Although the United States and other countries have proposed banning all African grey parrot commerce under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—a vote is expected later this month—Garai expressed worry about the fate of the birds within the DRC, saying the country “views its parrots as a potentially exploitable resource. They have shown almost no capacity or political will to manage this exploitation.”

Beyond the commerce itself, there is also little funding or expertise available to help rehabilitate any birds that have been rescued from the trade. “Taking care of the confiscated parrots requires experts such as veterinarians and experienced caretakers specialized in rehabilitation, a network for transportation of the confiscated birds in the least stressful way to a suitable place, and last but not least, financial resources,” Garai says. “None of these is available in the region at the moment.” She said she hopes her film will inspire other organizations to take the necessary steps to help protect these birds, something that neither the TL2 Project nor the DRC’s government agency, the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute, has the ability to accomplish on their own.

African grey parrots can persist in DRC and other countries given the chance. Unlike Ghana, which lost most of its parrot habitat to agriculture, Garai says the birds’ range in the Congo hasn’t faced the same extent of deforestation. “The range is still very large,” she says. Whether there will continue to be enough birds left to fill that range will remain an open question.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Also by John R. Platt