Pity polly: she teeters on edge of extinction as poachers steal her offspring

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Alas, pretty polly ­ those bright feathers and that talent for mimicry that make you so popular are proving your undoing. The parrots of the world are suffering such a sustained poaching onslaught for the pet trade, a new study strongly suggests, that many are set on the road to extinction. And Europe is one of the major markets driving the trade.

Alas, pretty polly ­ those bright feathers and that talent for mimicry that make you so popular are proving your undoing. The parrots of the world are suffering such a sustained poaching onslaught for the pet trade, a new study strongly suggests, that many are set on the road to extinction. And Europe is one of the major markets driving the trade.

Conservationists have long known that habitat destruction and poaching have between them driven certain parrot species to the brink. The most celebrated include Lear's macaw, with fewer than 140 individuals left in Bahia, Brazil, the Puerto Rican parrot, with fewer than 50 left on its native island, and best-known of all Spix's macaw, whose final representative in the wild disappeared from its Brazilian river valley last autumn after surviving alone for 10 years.

What has not been known until now is the scale of the relentless poaching assault that is going on across the whole species range. It is phenomenal. For 21 parrot species included in the study, in 14 countries in the neotropics ­ Central and South America and the Caribbean ­ the average rate of nesting failure through poaching was 30 per cent, and in four species it was greater than 70 per cent. Parrots have a slow rate or reproduction, usually laying only one clutch of eggs a year, and none are likely to survive such depredation.

The study, led by Timothy Wright of the University of Maryland, published in the journal Conservation Biology and reported in the latest edition of New Scientist magazine, is the first proper documentation of the real impact of robbing parrots' nests of their chicks for the pet trade, which has long been suspected.

Its value lies in its extent and thoroughness ­ the study looked at 4,024 nesting attempts, by bringing together unpublished data from 23 parrot researchers.

"Parrots are among the most highly threatened birds on earth, with more endangered species than any other bird family," said Dr Wright, who has studied parrots since 1991.

"Forty six of 145 species in the neotropics are at risk of global extinction from habitat loss and poaching, and poaching alone affects 39 species and is a greater cause of mortality than natural causes."

According to several earlier studies, between 400,000 and 800,000 parrot chicks were taken from the wild each year between 1991 and 1996 ­ and those numbers may be low.

Dr Wright fears the full effects of poaching might not be apparent yet. "Parrots only breed once a year, and they may live for 50 years," he said.

"With very little recruitment of young birds to reproduce, we may see the number of parrots drop dramatically and all of a sudden."

Driving the poaching on is a vicious circle of rarity and value that Dr Wright terms "the collector's vortex" ­ the rarer the bird, the higher the price, which increases even further the threat of endangerment to the species. When Spix's macaw became rare in the wild, for example, the market price soared to $20,000 (£14,360) a bird.

That is unusual, but many species will make between £500 and £1,500 on the retail market, and their value, combined with relative ease of capture, make them attractive targets for poachers, especially in poor rural populations. Parrots return to the same nest year after year, and adult birds leave the young alone in the nest for hours at a time about five days after they hatch.

"People will take amazing risks to get these parrots," Dr Wright said. "Some of them just throw lassoes up the trees to the nests and climb up. Others are more organised, and they wear spurs, like the ones telephone linemen use, and scamper up the tree.

"They themselves might make only 10 or 20 dollars for each bird, but that's worth a day's wages for a field hand in Costa Rica."

Dr Wright suggests that the legal and illegal trade in parrots are strongly correlated, the one market allowing the other to exist; the study points out that immediately after the passing of the US Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1994, which dramatically cut down the numbers of exotic birds which could be imported into America, then the biggest market, poaching declined for a time. The European Union, with Japan, is now the biggest market, and if restrictions were brought in across Europe poaching might again fall off, he said.

His view is strongly supported by Tony Juniper, the deputy head of Friends of the Earth in London, who is also one of the world's leading parrot experts and the man who discovered the last wild Spix's macaw in 1990.

"It is high time the trade in wild parrots was totally banned," he said yesterday. "These are intelligent and emotionally complex creatures, that's why people buy them. If cats or dogs were treated in the same way there would be public outrage and immediate government intervention.

"Sure there are issues about deforestation and habitat loss but the trade is unnecessary and brutal. If people wish to own a parrot they can get one bred specifically for the trade. They are more expensive but make better pets and avoid the misery that goes with the despicable trafficking of wild parrots."

One way ahead, says Michael Reynolds, director of the British-based World Parrot Trust, is to encourage people in pour countries to use their rare parrots as a basis for eco-tourism, rather than harvesting them until they are all gone. But Mr Reynolds adds: "We should also realise it is not just we in the 'wicked West' who are driving the trade. In many tropical countries there is a very big internal market. Lots of people in Africa, in South America and Indonesia want to own parrots."

It's understandable: parrots display brilliant colours, have strong personalities, and are fascinating mimics. May it not prove a recipe for extinction.

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