South Africa was the world’s leading exporter of South American parrots between 2000 and 2013 after Amazon countries “abandoned the possibility of legally and competitively producing and exporting their wildlife,” finds a new study into bird trade in Latin America.
The findings are published in Bird’s-eye view: Lessons from 50 years of bird trade regulation & conservation in Amazon countries, which provides a comprehensive overview of bird trade in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Suriname, including regulations and the bird trade’s impact as a conservation tool on species and habitats. The study was funded by WWF US.
The trade of birds and their products from the region has a long history: since the mid-19th Century, many tonnes of feathers and bird skins – mainly hummingbirds and tanagers, were exported to fashion markets in Europe and North America. This demand led to the killing of millions of birds over many decades.
For example, in a brief period before World War I, one London merchant imported 400,000 hummingbirds and 360,000 other birds from Brazil, while in 1932, some 25,000 hummingbirds were hunted in Pará State and sent to Italy to adorn chocolate boxes. Hundreds of thousands of live birds were later exported as pets from across South America after the mid-1950s when commercial airline connections, mainly through Miami, became routinely available.
After decades of intensive exploitation and massive declines in many bird populations, in 1967, Brazil became the first country in South America legally to ban the commercial sale of wild animals, replacing demand through captive breeding programmes as an economic alternative with low conservation impacts on wild populations. With Brazil’s national wildlife trade ban installed, illegal wildlife trade was simultaneously initiated in South America.
In subsequent decades, hundreds of thousands of birds were captured to supply international trade, many of them laundered through those countries where exports were still legal (i.e. Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay). In the 1980s, up to 10,000 Hyacinth Macaws Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus were captured, many ending up in captive breeding facilities where production costs were lower than in Brazil. Wild populations were seriously depleted, although there have been important recoveries in Brazil thanks to sustained conservation efforts. While range countries struggle to prevent the extinction of this emblematic species, the Philippines has become the world’s main legal exporter of Hyacinth Macaws.
“Brazil has produced the opposite situation of a market monopoly: it has unintentionally placed the right to benefit commercially from the trade in its native species in the hands of any other country that chooses to profit from them,” writes the report’s author, Bernardo Ortiz-von Halle.
The situation in Brazil – a complete trade ban, was broadly mirrored in Ecuador and Colombia without the parallel development of captive breeding options. Now an important economic incentive for conservation of birds in all three countries is increasingly through the promotion of birdwatching tourism.
Peru is also actively promoting itself as a birdwatching destination, but alongside Guyana and Suriname, the country also allows exports of wild-caught birds, from some 101 species: all are relatively common species.
Between 2000 and 2013 Peru commercially exported 37,233 birds listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a fifth of such species exported from Amazon countries, the majority of them two species of parrots (Cordilleran Parakeet Psittacara (Aratinga) frontatus and Mitred Parakeet Psittacara mitratus). The report also recognises the current importance of seabird guano as a strategic renewable resource that favours the effective protection of the islands where seabirds nest in coastal Peru.
Between 2000 and 2016, Guyana exported 145,000 birds belonging to 24 CITES Appendix II-listed species, the most exported species being Orange-winged Amazon Amazona amazonica, the same as the most exported CITES-listed species from Suriname, which exported 74,890 parrots between 2000 and 2013. In Guyana, it is estimated that some 20,000 people, some 5% of the country’s rural population, benefit from this economic activity. Although harvest quotas in both countries exist, they have been established without the proper scientific backup to assure the sustainable management of the harvested populations.
Although bans have resulted in a disappearance of birds for sale on the streets of many countries in South America, much of the trade has gone underground. Peru, both as recipient and source of wild bird species from and to its neighbors, is the biggest regional challenge, although Brazil continues to have a serious problem with internal trade of songbirds, despite stringent law enforcement efforts. An average of 30,000-35,000 birds are confiscated each year, a number that has not significantly varied in the last 15 years.
Many of these birds are destined for “songbird competitions”, where spectators bet money on the outcomes of how many songs or phrases a bird will sing in a set time period. The activity is also popular and legal in Guyana and Suriname, and with expatriate communities living in the USA, Canada and Europe: regular seizures of songbirds, particularly seedeaters, take place in these countries as a result.
Overall, the study finds that international illegal trade in live South American birds has been reduced to its lowest level in decades, although this is “mainly because the bird species most highly sought-after by collectors already exist in most consumer countries.”
Also, the substantial reduction in most South American urban markets that were formerly major illegal bird trade hubs is a major conservation achievement in recent decades, with millions of birds saved as these local markets collapsed, a situation that bird markets in several Southeast Asian cities are currently far from achieving.
“Habitat loss remains the greatest threat to wild bird populations in Amazon countries, while the banning of most bird trade in the region has had some unexpected consequences such as effectively exporting the region’s biodiversity resources and the removal of economic incentives to conserve habitats and species,” said Ortiz von-Halle. “The complexities of bird trade have been underestimated: to secure a future for the region’s increasingly threatened birds we need integrated strategies that seek urgently to halt or reverse habitat destruction and improve enforcement, complemented with economic incentives for local income generation through tourism and sustainable use of the natural resources. This offers the best pathway forwards for South America’s remarkable birdlife.”