Edith Kabesiime, a wildlife campaign manager with World Animal Protection Africa (WAP) has spent the better part of the last four years searching online on WhatsApp, Weibo, Facebook, and Instagram for posts linked to the illegal international trade on exotic pets, but with a focus on the African Grey parrots.
Working with a team in countries around the world, WAP hopes to disrupt and ultimately end cruelty suffered by wildlife in the exotic pet trade which is pushing some species into extinction.
The bigger picture for WAP is to discourage the use of wildlife as pets, for entertainment and medicine. WAP is also involved in marine environmental cleanup, to get rid of plastics.
“Wild animals should be left in the wilderness, which is their natural homes,” said Kabesiime.
Kabesiime and her team pay special interest in social media posts related to parrots sourced from the wild to gather insights into the scope, scale, trade routes, modes of transportation and extent of compliance with International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) or national laws.
The team uses the snowball data collection method, starting with users of a single social media platform known to be involved in illegal wildlife trade.
They then track and follow responses to such users's posts by other users and even cross-cutting platforms and networks.
By following texts, photos, video sources destinations, volumes, ages, prices, cargo tracking codes that reveal transit points, dates and airlines involved and names of exporters from public shipment database records, Kabesiime's team then analyse the data to assess legal compliance.
So far, out of 259 posts followed, 190 featured trade that was in breach of laws and non-compliance with CITES
“Our research shows that there is a lot of illegal trade and DR Congo is the biggest source of wild parrots and that practice spreads into West Africa and in Uganda’s forests. In Uganda, the birds are traded internally,” said Tennyson Williams, director for Africa WAP.
Uganda is not allowed to export parrots beyond its borders under CITES regulations, but another study by WEMNET shows that parrots that have been confiscated from traffickers and rehabilitated at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre are not released to the wild but sold to pet owners.
CITES permits limited trade in parrots in given countries and DRC is the largest exporter of parrots with a quota of 5,000 annually.
In 2010 the country unsuccessfully asked CITES to double its quota, and in 2016 it was placed under suspension for its inability to enforce good trading practices.
The 2016 CITES also stopped South Africa from trading in parrots without its approval and certification.
South Africa is a natural habitat for parrots yet the country is the largest captive breeder of the species. In Uganda, only one company, Hasena Investments (U) Ltd, breeds parrots.
In 2017, CITES moved DRC’s parrots to Appendix I, meaning that the species is highly endangered and deserving of the highest level of protection and no trade at all. Unscrupulous exporters have however been using forged CITES certificates.
The African Grey Parrots are native to the rainforests of East, Central and West Africa.
They are the most preferred species in Europe, America, Asia and Middle East due to their long lifespan, extreme intelligence and sociability.
They can perform cognitive tasks like those by four years old humans. Parrots are closer to chimpanzees and dolphins in performing cognitive tasks.
The African grey parrots are considered one of most illegally trafficked birds, with an estimated two to three million birds estimated to have been poached from African forest in the past 40 years.
Generally up to 21 per cent of the wild population is harvested for trade every year.