What started as a trial to ascertain how easy it is to acquire the endangered African grey parrot in Kenya has revealed a thriving online illegal trade of the bird that has been accorded the highest level of protection globally.
Investigations unearthed a web of endangered birds traded virtually as pets while traffickers exploit buses and long-distance transport to conduct their deliveries.
The African grey parrot is listed as endangered by the International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN) and ranked as the world’s most traded bird.
The bird has been accorded the highest level of protection under Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), meaning that the bird is threatened with extinction and that they are not allowed to be traded locally or internationally.
Although the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) does not give permits to the public to keep the bird, a wave of wildlife cybercrime where hundreds of the birds are virtually traded annually poses a threat to their survival.
The trade involves a lucrative trafficking ring right under the nose of authorities in some websites.
One of the investigations conducted by this writer, found that sellers of the parrots conduct their businesses online without any fears. The sellers go ahead to contact customers who have shown interests but most avoid the question on permits.
The engagements with online traders reveal how traffickers use public transport to deliver the birds to their customers across the country. Traders deliver the birds from the coastal city Mombasa to Nairobi, the capital, at a fee of 500 Kenya shillings (about £3.50), an amount traders reveal is a tip for the drivers to deliver the package by themselves.
On March 7 this writer pretended to have an interest in purchasing the grey parrot that had been put up on sale at Jiji.co.ke, where tens of the birds are advertised monthly. The birds, as per the posts on the website, retailed between KSh25,000 (GBP165) and KSh30,000 (GBP200). The interest prompted the seller to contact the writer through a phone call.
The seller, who is highly-rated in the website, revealed that the bird would be stuffed in a box and packaged as a parcel to be delivered by a bus from Mombasa to Nairobi. Upon inquiring whether he would help process the permits that allows one to own the bird, the seller admitted that permits do not exist.
However, he advised that in case the writer encounters run-ins with the authorities, he/she should state that the bird was a gift from a friend. He warned the writer against revealing that the bird was being traded since it was against the law.
“Delivering the bird is easy, I have friends who are bus drivers and will deliver the bird. You will just pay for the bird and delivery fees but in case the police officers or KWS officers find you with the bird, tell them it was a gift from a friend. If you reveal that you bought the bird, that will be the case,” the seller warned.
Initially, the bird was retailing at KSh25,000 (£165) which was finally reduced to KSh23,000 (£150) after negotiations. The writer, however, aborted the mission after negotiations.
A separate engagement with yet another seller of the birds based in Thika prompted him to share videos and photos of the bird. The bird, the seller told the writer, could be delivered through private means once payment is complete.
“I always do deliveries of the birds once you pay. In case you do not have a cage, I can deliver alongside it at a fee,” the seller, who went ahead to send pictures of cages, told this writer.
Unlike pigiame.co.ke which has fewer adverts of the birds, jiji.co.ke has tens of the birds being advertised for sale weekly. To transact businesses in both websites however, sellers post pictures of the birds alongside their contacts to ease negotiations and transactions. The sellers are aggressive and often make follow-up with the buyers whenever they show interest. They call the buyer for negotiations and arrange delivery of the birds. At Jiji.co.ke, African grey parrots mostly rank among the most popular advertisements every week under the Birds category.
While wildlife cybercrime exploiting the grey parrots thrives in Kenya under the watch of authorities, Katto Wambua, a Senior Criminal Justice advisor who formerly worked with the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, notes that no single case of wildlife cybercrime has successfully been prosecuted in Kenya.
Wambua who currently works with the Space for Giants, an international conservation organisation headquatered in Kenya and working in a dozen African countries, says prosecuting wildlife cybercrime in Kenya is still a challenge. Lack of capacity among investigators, he says, is one of the biggest challenges.
“Wildlife cybercrime is a fertile ground that needs urgent attention before it blows out of proportion. Criminals are now exploiting the internet, a case which needs a lot of sensitisation. Investigators still lack the capacity to investigate these crimes and press the charges,” Wambua says.
Tackling wildlife cybercrime, he says, is an uphill task given that while wildlife traffickers market the products in visible websites, and many others operate in the dark web to sell trophies like rhino horns and elephant ivory.
“While some websites are not based in Kenya, many others operate on the dark web and it needs a lot of skills to prosecute these crimes,” he adds.
According to Wambua, training of wildlife prosecutors, rangers and investigators on wildlife cybercrime has been conducted twice jointly by KWS, the DPP, Space for Giants, and Africa Wildlife Foundation among other agencies.
Further, he notes that wildlife and cybercrime dealers of African grey parrots can be charged with several counts, including dealing with endangered species, a live species without a permit and contravening the new law on Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act.
KWS only gives permits to farming of crocodiles, tortoises, chameleons, ostriches, frogs, lizards, guinea fowl, quails, snails and butterflies.
A person trading on a critically endangered species, like the African grey parrot, can be jailed for seven years with no option of a fine. They can also be charged with trading on a live species without a permit, attracting a minimum of three years’ imprisonment. Selling an African grey parrot online with pictures attracts three years in prison with an option of a fine and being in possession of the bird without permits attracts seven years in prison.
Dealers of wildlife cybercrime, Wambua says, can also be charged under the Computer Misuse and Cybercrime Act while e-commerce platforms accelerating wildlife crimes can also be charged for contravening ethical and legal laws that protect wildlife.
Bird experts and researchers now warn that African grey parrots are facing population collapse within their ranges. The declines are driven by capture for the pet trade and habitat loss within its ranges.
Paul Gacheru, a bird expert at Nature Kenya, an organisation that majors in conserving birds, says the social nature of African grey parrots has been the major reason for their exploitation for pet trade. He says that over the years, the birds have been overharvested, leading to their declining populations.
“These birds rank as the world’s most trafficked birds as they are exploited for pet trade. Coupled up with loss of habitat within areas which the birds exist in, the declines have been massive,” Gacheru said.
Mr Gacheru says that African Grey Parrots, like chameleons and other small amphibians, among other small-sized wildlife, are heavily traded because they are easy to smuggle in boxes and even pouches and pockets.
This article is reproduced here as part of the Space for Giants African Conservation Journalism Programme, supported by the owner of ESI Media, which includes independent.co.uk. It aims to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in Africa, and bring more African voices into the international conservation debate.
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