Parrot Smuggling

It was the rare happy ending. In December 2004 in an agreement negotiated for months between the U.S. and Mexico, U.S. Fish & Wildlife escorted 90 red-headed and lilac-crowned Amazon parrots to Tijuana.

They were met by an official of the Mexican government who picked them up to return them to the wild in the Mexican tropics. These parrots were illegally captured in the wild and smuggled into the U.S. in paper bags and black metal boxes found in a pickup truck. They spent months in captivity while the two countries negotiated their fate.

It is not typical for wild parrots smuggled into the U.S. to be repatriated. Most will never fly free in the jungle or rain forest again. Usually they are auctioned off by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or adopted by zoos. Or they may be sent to shelters or the few sanctuaries if there is room available. That is, if the smugglers are even caught. It is estimated only a small number of parrots smuggled into the U.S. are found.

In fact, most do not even make it alive. One Mexican official estimated only one in six parrots, 16.6%, survives the trip across the U.S./Mexican border. It has been estimated 60% of all wild birds worldwide die upon capture or while they are being sneaked onto the market. One recent report estimated of all wild animals caught and illegally traded around the world, 75% die during the trip. One group of researchers in Nicaragua has found smugglers there plan for the deaths of parrots by capturing four times as many as make it to market.

Many of these parrots die just from the shock of capture and confinement. These intelligent, lively birds are captured and smuggled in horrific conditions. The parrots have been found secreted in everything from toothpaste tubes, stockings, hair rollers, and toilet paper tubes to thermoses, glove compartments, hubcaps, false compartments in dog crates, and tire wells. The birds are drugged or given alcohol such as tequila to keep them quiet during the trip. Or their beaks may be taped shut. Sometimes their feathers are pulled out to keep them from flying. Some have been found with holes poked in their eyes to keep them from singing in reaction to light. No food or water is provided to them during the journey. They often can barely breathe. The baby parrots have pinfeathers which hold blood; they are handled so roughly during the trip, they often bleed to death. And, more recently, smugglers have been found sneaking parrot eggs out of nests in the wild. Apparently, the eggs do not present the problems for smugglers as live, noisy animals.

A Black Market in Parrots

It is believed parrot smuggling worldwide is actually on the rise. In an October, 2005 U.N. report it was noted of the millions of wild birds captured each year, a significant portion are illegally caught and traded. The trade in wild animals worldwide as a whole is valued at $25 billion annually. In Italy alone it is a $500 million a year industry. It is estimated one third of the worldwide total is attributable to illegal trading. One U.N. report observed the illegal trade of wild caught animals including parrots is second only to drugs and arms trafficking. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated parrots and macaws "are a prime target for this black market".

The Mexican government has reported a substantial increase in confiscation of animals captured for smuggling to other countries. The Italian police have over a four year period confiscated growing numbers of animals smuggled from Africa, Eastern Europe and South America. A January, 2006 report revealed hundreds of thousands of animals are captured each year in Indonesia for illegal trade. The most popular species sought by smugglers are native parrots, the Papuan black capped lorys, yellow or sulphur crested cockatoos, and electus.

In Spain it is reported that collectors will pay anywhere from $500 to $1,000,000 for a large macaw. A pink macaw taken from Brazil will sell for as much as $2,000 in Italy. In the case of a smuggler captured in 2004 with 125 live birds including 48 lilac-crowned Amazon parrots, he claimed he paid $3,000 for the birds. In southern California the birds had a retail value of $39,600, about $316 each. Blue-fronted Amazon parrots sell wholesale in the U.S. for about $350 and retail for $650 or more. One U.N. official has said of the illegal wild animal trade, "We have many examples where the products are smuggled are worth — weight for weight — more than cocaine, heroin, gold or diamonds."

The demand driving this lucrative black market in parrots are collectors and breeders but primarily average citizens who want them as pets. And the desire to keep parrots as pets is killing them off. A study released by the Worldwatch Institute, Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds, concluded "almost a third of the world’s 330 parrot species are threatened with extinction due to pressures from collecting for the pet trade, combined with habitat loss." (Parrots are actually part of the Psittacine Order with 330 species worldwide, also including parakeets, macaws, cockatoos, rosellas, amazons, conures, and lorikeets; they all possess a downward-curving upper beak, and many have brightly colored feathers.)

A 2001 study in the journal Conservation Biology entitled "Nest Poaching in Neotropical Parrots" concluded that, "Poaching of parrots from the wild is an economic activity driven by a combination of the market demand for parrots as pets, the large profits to the pet industry, and the rural poverty in many countries with wild-parrot populations." A January, 2006 report revealed in Indonesia, "Despite a current ban on importation of birds, demands from international enthusiasts for illegal exotic birds or wild specimens continue. Many Indonesian wild animals are facing extinction. The primary cause is habitat loss due to deforestation for global hardwood demands, land clearing for agro business and mining, but hundreds of thousands animals are also trapped each year to supply illegal exotic pet markets or for human consumptions." In a 2006 U.N. report it was revealed trapping parrots for pets is a threat to one third of all parrots worldwide.

(The U.S.’s only native parrot, the Carolina parakeet, became extinct more than a century ago. They were hunted to extinction largely for their feathers which were used in women’s hats.)

Howard Youth, author of "Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds" was quoted in a 2006 U.N. report as saying "we are witnessing the worst wave of species extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared from Earth 65 million years ago." He is referring not only to parrots but also to the one in eight species of all birds in danger of disappearing in the next twenty years.

Laws to Stop Smuggling

There are legal protections in place. All but two parrot species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This global agreement, which involves some 169 member nations, regulates international trade in species listed on any of its three appendices. Forty-five parrot species are listed on CITES Appendix I, the Convention’s highest level of protection. All commercial trade is prohibited because these birds face an immediate threat of extinction. All other parrots except two species are listed on CITES Appendix II. These species cannot enter trade without export permits from their country of origin.

Recently, the Mexican lilac-crowned parrot and the yellow-crested cockatoo from Indonesia were moved to Appendix I because their numbers have been so decimated, in large part, by illegal trade.

Also, in 1992 the U.S. passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§4901-4916. The Act was passed, in part, to implement CITES protections. The importation of all birds listed in CITES Appendix I is banned. In fact, the Act and subsequent regulations ban imports of birds listed in any CITES Appendix as well as some others. 58 FR 60534; 50 C.F.R. 15.2- 15.53. There are exceptions for certain captive bred species, particular birds from countries with approved conservation programs, those from or for approved captive-breeding facilities and some others which require a permit for importation.

Many of the birds protected by CITES and the Wild Bird Conservation Act have also been declared endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 USCS §§ 1531-1543, meaning they cannot be imported or sold interstate without a specific permit from U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

It is not clear what effect these protections have had on smuggling. But since the Act there has been a drastic reduction of legal importation of wild parrots into the U.S. It is debated as to whether this is really attributable to the law or instead, the decimation of bird habitat.

In any event, according to a 2003 UN report the European Union is now the world’s biggest market for wild-caught parrots. Most of these parrots come from Mexico and Central and South America. The British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds believes that hundreds of thousands of birds are smuggled illegally into Britain every year. One third of the 35,000 wild animals including parrots brought to Italy every year are smuggled into the country.

The most highly prized by consumers and so smugglers are those given the most legal protection, for example, the parrots on CITES Appendix I.

The U.N. has recently called for stepped up enforcement against all illegal wildlife trade.
Few resources are allocated to enforcing these laws, however. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is woefully under-funded and understaffed. The penalties for smuggling are simply not significant particularly when compared to the profits. In the U.S. civil fines range from $500 to $25,000 depending on the violation. Criminal penalties include fines and jail time from 6 months to 2 years, again, depending upon the violation. The government may be able to charge under other statutes, but all in all, there is little deterrence for smugglers. The penalties vary in other countries, but in none are they significant: six months to six years in prison in Mexico, five years in Spain, or two years in Italy. In Brazil, for example, a violator may pay a bond of $100 and then do community service.

Curiously, the fear of bird flu may lead to stepped up enforcement against illegal smuggling of wild caught birds. During the Convention on Biological Diversity held in March, 2006 in Curitiba, Brazil the UN called for increased monitoring of the wildlife trade because of the spread of bird flu. And, in October, 2005 the European Union banned all imports of captive exotic birds because a parrot died of the bid flu, H5N1 strain.


There is some good news. A conservation strategy, ecotourism, shows promise as a way to reduce public demand for parrots as pets. Ecotourism is basically travel to natural areas that conserve the environment. It allows people to see for themselves birds including parrots are far better off living free in the wild. Ecotourism can demonstrate the importance of conservation and habitat preservation. It can show people the many problems of keeping birds in captivity. And it supports local economies, reducing pressures to trade, legally or illegally, in the wild animals of the area. The people who take pride in their indigenous wildlife are far less likely to tolerate smuggling of precious parrots and other animals. Indeed, ecotourism is already a $3.5 trillion industry and growing.

Also, some countries have tried making local parrots and other wildlife "stars" or "celebrities". On the island of St. Lucia a move was made to save the wild parrot, the jacquot. The parrot was billed as a star in the local media. After much hype, the islanders began to see the importance of the jacquot and got behind efforts to save large areas of the rainforest, its habitat. Parrot hunting was banned, and people turned in their jacquots to be freed in the wild. The jacquot population has soared!