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Protecting Mexico’s Feathered Treasures

Authorities found more than 25 white-fronted parrots squeezed into this cardboard box during a seizure in Chiapas State, Mexico. The vast majority of trafficked parrots die in transit from suffocation, dehydration, stress, and other causes. (Credit: PROFEPA)A trade ban offers hope for a country's native parrots

The international pet trade is likely second only to habitat reduction as the biggest threat facing parrots in the wild. With 22 native parrot species, Mexico is at the forefront of the battle to save its iconic birds from becoming commodities of the pet trade. Early signs suggest it is winning the war.

In October 2008, the Mexican government passed a law banning the trapping and trade of the country’s wild parrots (Global Legal Information Network 2008). The law came on the heels of a groundbreaking study, The Illegal Parrot Trade in Mexico: A Comprehensive Assessment, released the previous year by Defenders of Wildlife and Teyeliz, a Mexican non-governmental organization. The report documented, for the first time, the specifics of the illegal parrot trade in Mexico, including the volume of illegal trapping, how and where it was carried out, how trapping affected particular species, and how the illegal trade related to the legal trade.

In addition to reporting on common knowledge — that illegal trapping was rampant in Mexico, for example — the study unearthed some surprising facts, notably that domestic demand, not the international market, was driving illegal trade. The report revealed that of the roughly 75,000 Mexican parrots caught illegally each year that did not die in transit, 96 percent remained in the country (Defenders of Wildlife and Teyeliz 2007).

This new knowledge that the parrots’ most common destination was Mexico meant that unilateral action by that nation could address both sides of the illegal trade equation: supply and demand. Likewise, the comprehensive study eliminated the major obstacle to action — lack of information. In filling this gap, the report spurred action by demonstrating the direness of the situation and pointing the way forward on a long road to recovery.

A Troubled Foundation

Smugglers had attempted to conceal these lilac-crowned parrots under the bottom of a car seat. Law enforcement officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the live birds when they stopped the drivers at a border crossing south of San Diego. (Credit: USFWS)Parrots are an integral part of Mexican culture, and have been for centuries. Historically, these colorful birds served as pets and food, while their feathers adorned clothing and were paid in tribute to Aztec conquerors by vanquished tribes. Mexico’s parrot trade expanded following Spanish colonization and reached its peak in the 1980s, when up to 150,000 birds were smuggled each year into the United States alone. That number likely underestimates the actual number taken from the wild, because typically between 75 and 90 percent of smuggled birds perish during capture and transport due to stress, disease, rough handling, crushing, asphyxiation, or dehydration (Cantú et al. 2007).

The high extraction levels of parrots from the wild primarily for use as pets, combined with habitat loss, continue to threaten parrot populations in Mexico and worldwide. In Mexico, 21 of the country’s 22 species are in some category of risk: 11 are officially endangered, six are threatened, and four are under special protection. Globally, the situation is similar, with over one-quarter of the world’s 330 parrot species considered endangered or vulnerable by IUCN’s Redlist (IUCN Red List, Pericos Mexicano).

The loss of parrots can impact ecosystems, where they play an important role as seed predators. Rather than eating a fruit and dropping its intact seed far from the parent tree, parrots typically destroy seeds when they eat a fruit. This limits the number of competing seeds, and leaves more resources for successful germination of remaining ones.

Tackling a Rampant Trade

Prior to the 2008 trade ban, Mexico launched a number of efforts to protect the country’s parrots, but with little success. One of the earliest efforts was in 1982, when Mexico prohibited commercial exportation of its wildlife. In 2000, after the creation of the General Wildlife Law (H. Congreso de la Union, 1996, 2000), wildlife export was restarted with some restrictions on the quantity and the number of parrot species that could be export- ed. Despite these efforts, illegal trade in Mexico endured, with between 65,000 and 78,500 wild parrots illegally trapped every year. Populations of many target species, such as the red-crowned parrot (Amazona viridigenalis), dropped precipitously while others, like the orange-chinned parakeet (Brotogeris jugularis), were extirpated from portions of Mexico.

Typically, trappers catch wild parrots using mist nets similar to those used by ornithologists, except larger and set higher. The net is placed beside a small, solitary tree and a live parrot is tied to one of the branches by its leg. When a flock of parrots flies above, the trappers shake the branch so that the tied parrot screams. When the flock flies down into the tree to investigate, the trapper throws a small branch to the top of the tree to scare the parrots. As they fly downward to escape, the parrots are then trapped in the net. Trappers then take the birds home and wait for a middleman (the “hoarder”) to collect them and ship them to a regional distribution center or city, where local distributors sell (or give them on consignment) to local vendors such as street salesmen, flea markets, stores, or other established markets.

Despite authorities being aware of the ongoing illegal parrot trade, nobody was willing to address it, says Juan Carlos Cantú, co-founder of Teyeliz A.C. and Director of Programs for Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico Office. “What they said was that we know illegal trade is going on, but we don’t know the volume, we don’t know who’s doing it, we don’t know which species are being affected, and we don’t know in which regions. We just don’t know anything because it is illegal. And since it is illegal, we cannot study it or control it.”

It was that eyes-wide-shut approach that prompted Cantú and his colleagues to produce the Defenders of Wildlife-Teyeliz study. That, combined with the subsequent 2008 ban on trapping and trade of Mexico’s wild parrots and an aggressive education campaign launched the following year, led to the success of Mexico’s ultimate effort to crack down on illegal trade.

The main objective of Mexico’s nationwide education campaign—led by Mexico’s environmental enforcement agency Procuraduria Federal de Protección al Ambiente (PROFEPA), Defenders of Wildlife, and Teyeliz—was to inform people about the new law, the threats facing parrots, and how individuals could help. The main message was simple and to the point: “Don’t buy wild parrots” (Pericos Mexicanos). “If we can decrease demand, the [illegal supply] is going to decrease as well,” Cantú says. In that way we’re going to be able to get the ban to really work.”

The group created a variety of materials, such as posters, comic books, teacher’s kits, and stickers, and distributed them around the country. They also established a web page with information on Mexico’s 22 native parrot species, explained the threat from illegal trade, detailed the regulations, outlined the do’s and don’ts of parrot buying, and explained to citizens how to report illegal parrot trade to PROFEPA. Numerous organizations be- came part of this campaign, including the Mexico City Zoo, federal agencies like the Environment Ministry and the Commission of Natural Protected Areas, local governments such as the Mexico City government, and universities such as Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and Universidad de Guadalajara.

The effort is working. In 2010, Mexican authorities seized 566 parrots from illegal traders, down nearly a third from 2009 and the lowest number in eight years. Two main factors contributed to this decline in illegal trading. First, more people were report- ing illegal parrot sales. Before the ban, PROFEPA received an average of about 20 reports a year. After the ban, the number jumped eightfold, to an average of more than 150 reports a year. In 2009, PROFEPA received 185 complaints, followed by 166 in 2010 (Cantú and Sánchez 2011).

Second, fewer parrots were being sold illegall at markets and other sites. While PROFEPA has responded to an increasing number of reports, the number of illegal birds found at each location has decreased. Before the ban, authorities seized an average of 52 parrots per complaint. After the ban, that figure fell to 4.5 parrots per complaint.

This dramatic drop points to a decline in illegal trapping, and informal discussions with trappers support that conclusion. In an interview with Defenders of Wildlife, the head of the animal trapper union in Nayarit, western Mexico, report- ed that the majority of its members do not trap parrots any more. Most had either quit trapping entirely and gone on to other jobs, switched to trapping other bird species, or started breeding smaller exotic bird species such as cockatiels. Given that Nayarit was one of the most important states for parrot trapping, it is likely that other states have followed suit and left the business. And although illegal trade continues—with seizures representing about 2 percent of the number of parrots being traded illegally—the fact that enforcement authorities are investigating an increasing number of reports while finding and confiscating fewer illegal parrots signals a real decline in the illegal trade.

Spillover Effects

The success of Mexico’s parrot trade ban has had remarkable spillover effects. Neighboring countries such as Guatemala — where the parrot trade has been illegal for a long time — no longer have access to an easy legal market where they can “launder” their smuggled parrots.

Further, as Mexico’s wildlife investigators respond to in- creased reports of illegal parrot sales, they also find and stop illegal trade in other wildlife such as lizards, snakes, turtles, and monkeys. In a July 12, 2010 interview on the radio show Supervivencia, the head of PRO- FEPA, Patricio Patrón Laviada, said, “Seizures of wild parrots have decreased thanks to the ban of October of 2008. … The campaign to inform the public not to buy parrots has been very successful, and we have even seen a decrease in seizures of other wildlife as a consequence of the campaign.”

Mexico’s experience with the illegal parrot trade could serve as a model for other nations around the world in several respects. For one, Mexico instituted a complete ban, prohibiting both imports and exports of Mexican parrots as well as their captive breeding. It also eliminated loopholes and thereby reduced the chance for administrative error. That made enforcement easier. At the same time, a national campaign educated people about the law. That effort in turn rallied public support and turned regular citizens into wildlife enforcement “deputies” who could help police the country. The result is that, over the past four years, the situation has gone from bleak to hopeful. The beneficiaries are not only Mexico’s parrots, but its human and other wild neighbors.

Author Bio

Laurel A. Neme, Ph.D., is author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species.

Mexican Parrot Species Affected by Illegal Trade

  • Military Macaw (Ara militaris)
  • Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao)
  • Thick-billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha) (Endemic)
  • Green Parakeet (Aratinga holochlora) (Endemic)
  • Pacific Parakeet (Aratinga strenua)
  • Aztec or Olive-throated Parakeet (Aratinga nana)
  • Orange-fronted Parakeet (Aratinga canicularis)
  • Barred Parakeet (Bolborhynchus lineola)
  • Mexican Parrotlet (Forpus cyanopygius) (Endemic)
  • Orange-chinned Parakeet (Brotogeris jugularis)
  • White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis)
  • Yucatan Parrot or Yellow-lored Amazon (Amazona xantholora)
  • White-fronted Amazon (Amazona albifrons)
  • Red-crowned Parrot or Red-crowned Amazon (Amazona viridigenalis) (Endemic)
  • Lilac-crowned Amazon (Amazona finschi) (Endemic)
  • Red-lored Amazon (Amazona autumnalis)
  • Yellow-headed Parrot or Yellow-headed Amazon (Amazona oratrix)
  • Yellow-naped parrot or Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata)
  • Mealy Parrot or Mealy Amazon (Amazona farinosa)

Mexican Parrot Species Unaffected by Illegal Trade

  • Socorro parakeet (Aratinga brevipes). Endemic, found on Revillagigedo Islands, far from trade routes
  • Brown-hooded parrot (Pionopsitta haematotis). Very Rare, making it almost unknown to trappers and the public
  • Maroon fronted parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi). Endemic, localized population and nests in inaccessible cliffs

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