As a business its turnover is claimed to rival illegal drugs and arms, and it devastates swaths of tropical forest, each year claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of exotic wild birds. And, say its opponents, those that do survive the crude techniques employed by the low-paid trappers are forced to endure journeys of thousands of miles crammed in to filthy, overcrowded cages.
Tomorrow in Brussels, vets from the European Union will consider whether to recommend the lifting of the temporary ban on importing wild birds, introduced at the height of last year's scare over avian flu.
A new report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals claims to show that the EU ban has led to the collapse of the trade in wild birds in some parts of the world. It says that captive breeders closer to home have stepped in to fill the void, enjoying rising prices for their stock, and that, far from driving the trade underground, seizures of illegally imported birds have almost ceased.
According to David Bowles, the RSPCA's head of external affairs, the lesson learnt over the past months is simple: "There was this rumour going around that bans don't work. Our work shows that they do and that they are easy to enforce," he said.
Following a similar ban imposed in the United States in 1992, Europe has accounted for 93 per cent of the global avian trade protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) - a total of 2.7 million birds between 2000 and 2003. Britain remains one of the most lucrative markets - it is estimated 1.37 million households host finches, canaries, mynah birds and members of the parrot family - though not all are imported from the wild.
For every 10 birds finally sold, as many as six are thought to have died en route, it is claimed.
"The scale and degree of cruelty in this wasteful trade is wholly unacceptable. Legislation outlaws the capture of wild native birds within the EU. Yet the EU continues to fuel the international trade even though captive bred birds are readily available. Millions of birds have died or suffered as a direct result of these double standards," said Mr Bowles.
The RSPCA sent undercover investigators to Ghana, a country at the heart of the west African export trade. They found that the introduction of the ban had had a minimal effect on the trappers, who tended to use wild birds as a secondary source of income. Many had diversified into other jobs, with some switching to collecting reptiles, another potential wildlife problem.
Research found that the trappers were the lowest paid in the supply chain, with the lion's share going to the retailers in the developed world. In the Chaco region of Argentina, for example, trappers earn just $7 (£4) per bird, birds which sell for $400 in Europe. One example found that the very rarest birds, Spinx's macaw chicks, could command prices up to $40,000.
Trapping techniques include the gluing of birds to branches, netting, lassoing and simply plucking birds from nests or knocking them forcibly into water.
Les Rance, of the Parrot Society UK, said that even though many of his members were against the wild bird trade, African countries relied on it as a legal source of foreign revenue. "The importation is fairly well regulated in this country through customs and Defra. No one wants to be cruel to birds coming into this country, either importers or breeders."
The vets' recommendations will be put to EU ministers in July.Reuse content