By Sharon Atieno

Despite being enlisted as endangered by the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN), the African Grey parrots remain threatened in West Africa, a study reveals.

More than 1.2 million wild-sourced African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) have reportedly been traded internationally since the 1970s, the majority of which were taken from the wild with serious implications for conservation, animal welfare, and biosecurity. While international trade has mostly been for the pet trade, in some West African countries, Grey parrots are also consumed for belief-based use.

Voodoo is widely practiced in the region, thus there is a thriving demand for animal derivatives, which can have devastating impacts on wildlife. The Trade in African Grey Parrots for belief-based use: Insights from West Africa’s largest traditional medicine market study finds that in the last ten years (2008-2018) around 900 Grey parrots were sold in Togo, at the “Marché des Fétiches”.

The traders source the Grey parrot derivatives mainly from Togo and Benin; other source countries include Nigeria and Central Africa. Such exploitation is threatening remaining populations with countries like Ghana, experiencing 90% -99% decline of the species.

Dead parrot at a voodoo market
Credits : World Animal Protection

The study reveals that Grey parrots and their derivatives (heads and feathers) were being sold at the fetish markets for both medicinal and spiritual purposes. The parrot heads were the most frequently traded with majority being sold for improving memory.

For spiritual use, Grey parrot feathers were the most common transaction, largely purchased for “attracting clients”, “love”, and to “help with divorce”. Parrot heads and whole parrots had also been traded for spiritual use over the past 10 years (2008–2018), the most cited purpose being for “protection from witchcraft” and for “good luck”, respectively.

All transactions over the past 10 years had involved regular customers, indicating local demand for this trade, rather than purchases by tourists, despite the market operating as a tourist attraction since 2013, the study finds.

It adds that many of the parrots whose derivatives were on sale at the market would have suffered to some degree, either during capture, transportation or slaughter. While hunting and trapping methods may vary from country to country, inhumane capturing techniques have been reported in Cameroon, involving the use of glue to bind the feet and feathers of birds during capture, the study notes.

Furthermore, other studies by researchers such as McGowan estimate that around 40% of Grey parrots trapped in Nigeria die before leaving their hunter. An additional 25% will die before reaching a market, often because young birds are removed from their nest too early. In Cameroon, studies find that there is high mortality of captured Grey parrots during transportation as a result of physiological stress, and lack of food and water.

Dead parrots paraded at a voodoo market Credits: World Animal Protection

Wildlife Animal Protection (WAP) has expressed concern over a possible risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases due to the cruel manner with which these birds are handled at these markets.

“These highly intelligent, sociable birds that fly many miles each day and can sometimes live so long that they outlive their owners, are cruelly trapped, brutally handled, and slaughtered for their derivatives for unproven traditional medicines,” Edith Kabesiime, Wildlife Campaign Manager, World Animal Protection Africa said in a statement.

“What’s worse, is that untreated bird carcasses such as these, pose a serious health risk, as birds can carry numerous diseases. We must remember the lessons of the past and consider that COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu, and many other zoonotic diseases all originated from animal exploitation, so this is a risky business.”

Currently, avian influenza or bird flu is sweeping across India, which has caused severe economic ramifications with thousands of poultry birds being culled, and the situation is being closely monitored for its impact on human health which is a real concern, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).