The link between the ‘world’s smartest bird’ and global organised crime
2 Dec 2022|

‘You be good. I love you,’ were reportedly the last words of a famous African grey parrot called Alex which was studied by a US scientist 20 years ago.

Parrots, including cockatoos, are known for their ability to mimic human speech—at least when kept in captivity. But it is the African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) that stands out by the number of words it can say. In fact, it’s said to be as smart as a five-year-old child. As a result, it is often dubbed ‘the smartest bird in the world’. Some people (including me) felt really sad at Alex’s death in 2007. How can you not fall for a creature that can communicate such seemingly human emotions? But many biologists believe that it is fear and stress and the necessity to communicate when in captivity that’s behind why these social birds learn how to talk to people. Because of this intelligence, some animal welfare groups believe they should not be kept as pets, even if traded legally.

It is this talking ability that has made the African grey a prized commodity for smuggling from the wild. Found in rainforests of central Africa, the African greys live in a band stretching from Ivory Coast to Kenya. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of its last natural habitats and is an attractive location for poachers who catch young African greys to sell, usually as pets. However, they are also sold on the traditional-medicine market because their heads and feathers are thought to be lucky charms in some countries. They are sold dead and alive at a fetish market in Lome in the West African nation of Togo that’s known as the world’s largest voodoo market.

In a very rare success story for those working to stamp out their illegal trade, a Congolese trafficker was arrested in Uganda in April with 122 parrots and later sentenced to seven years in prison. Such a sentence is rare; environmental crimes have not been taken nearly as seriously as other organised crimes around the world.

The illegal trade in these parrots has been notoriously difficult to trace because much of it occurs online, including on the dark web, and payments are often made in cash. As a result, this amazing bird is seriously endangered. The international non-profit organisation World Animal Protection estimates that 20% of the African grey parrots remaining in the wild are taken for the pet trade each year. Conservationists call the steep decline in their numbers over the past 10 years ‘shocking’. And it’s the combined effect of trafficking and habitat destruction through deforestation that is threatening the bird’s survival. According to Reuters, the African grey joined the highly endangered pangolin as one of the world’s most poached animals in 2016.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare says that the internet has made it easier for buyers and sellers to communicate and set up trade routes for trafficking in general. Although it’s illegal under international law to sell wild-caught African greys because they’re listed as endangered and on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘red list’, smugglers often label the birds on social media as other types of parrots that look similar to the African grey but have fewer restrictions on their trade.

However, the African grey’s talent for mimicry is working in its favour—at least in a small number of cases, thanks to it becoming a social media star—by helping investigators pinpoint who is behind some of these environmental crimes. In some cases, the locations of the buyers have been traced through the videos they post on platforms like TikTok to show off their newly purchased bird’s speaking ability.

The Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime recently set up a project bringing together technology experts and conservationists that found, in one search, more than 4,500 classified advertisements for African grey parrots and around 5,000 other endangered plants and animals being offered for sale on various platforms, including TikTok. The illegal trading of the bird starts in Africa but is linked to both Asia and Australia. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime says that the ongoing unrest in western and central Africa is behind the recent increase in illegal bird smuggling and other environmental crimes. The unrest is fuelled by food and civil insecurity and the smuggling by lax border security.

Trafficking in birds and other endangered animals is not just bad for the animals and those who care about nature. It is also linked to other crimes such as money laundering and the selling of illicit drugs. There is a convergence of wildlife crimes and other serious crimes, according to criminology professor Daan van Uhm from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. His research has revealed that illegal wildlife products are smuggled along with live animals and illicit drugs using the same trade routes. Sometimes they are smuggled in the same shipments, sometimes separately but often along the same routes and by the same organised crime gangs. He has also found that the ‘legal’ wildlife trade is being used as a cover for both the illegal animal trade and the illegal drug trade.

One worrying development in Australia concerning the illegal trade in parrots and smuggling was the previous government’s proposal to lift a ban on the importation of exotic parrot species. Although a new government is in office, the idea has yet to be fully quashed and pressure remains from pet groups, pet traders and some zoos to unwind the ban. Legal imports could pave the way for the illicit trade in birds.

Stronger laws and better surveillance are needed to try to give these endangered birds a future. For their illegal trade is a window into other organised crimes that should be worrying international criminal investigators. The plight of one talkative parrot, the African grey, is linked to a wide-ranging global network of wildlife and drug trafficking that Australia should take seriously.