Deceased? Not if scheme to halt trade succeeds

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Talent can be fatal. There's hardly any bird that can imitate the human voice like the African grey parrot - Pretty Polly is only the start of it - which as a result is one of the world's favourite pets, and particularly popular in Britain.

But now its very popularity is becoming a mortal danger, as trade in the birds is driving them to extinction in an increasing part of their range. Tomorrow, conservationists will make a bid to have the massive international traffic in grey parrots temporarily banned, or at least slowed down, to give the species a chance to recover from the depredations of collectors, traders and bird fanciers, while conservation measures are put in place.

At a committee meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Lima, Peru, officials from BirdLife International, the global alliance of bird conservation groups, will ask for a full moratorium on the trade in African greys, or at least a trade suspension or reduction, in some of the leading exporting countries, including Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

Although there are still substantial numbers of the birds in the wild across tropical Africa - estimates of the numbers range between 680,000 and 13 million individuals - the population as a whole has been shrinking dramatically, and in some of the 23 African countries where it is traditionally found it has virtually disappeared. BirdLife is proposing that it be added to the official list of endangered species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Behind the decline lies the enormous trade in African greys. Between 1994 and 2003 more than 359,000 wild-caught birds were traded, according to Cites' records. Major exporting countries are led by Cameroon, with 44 per cent of the reported trade, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with 33 per cent, while the major importers are the countries of the European Union, including Britain.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the EU is responsible for 93 per cent of the trade in wild birds listed with Cites.

The African grey parrot's popularity as a pet is not hard to understand. People have enjoyed its ability to mimic the human voice for centuries. Henry VIII famously owned an African grey that would summon boatmen from across the water at Hampton Court Palace, while Queen Victoria continued the tradition with her African grey, Coco, that was taught "God Save the Queen".

More recently, and rather more prosaically, Ziggy, an African grey parrot, alerted his owner to the infidelity of his girlfriend by squawking "hiya Gary" when she answered her mobile phone. The couple split up and the parrot's owner gave the bird away because it kept calling Gary's name.

But now just too many of the birds are being taken. "There's no doubt that because of the trade, the African grey parrot is now on the way to becoming an endangered species," said Alison Stattersfield, of BirdLife.

"The pet trade has been exploiting wild birds for decades, yet the trade goes on with too little thought for its sustainability," said Duncan McNiven, the senior investigations officer at the RSPB. "The plight of the African grey reflects the state of the bird trade as a whole, and as the world's major importer of wild birds, the EU should now be banning imports of all wild birds."

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