Site icon Conservation news

Bans on the bird trade in South America yield mixed results

  • After decades of rampant exports, several South American countries banned the international trade of wild-caught birds.
  • In some cases, in concert with conservation, the bans have helped bird populations recover, leading several countries to invest in birdwatching tourism.
  • However, the bans have also led to a significant illegal trade on the continent and a shift of the economic benefits from the wild bird trade to other countries.

The trade of live birds in South America is down to its lowest levels in years, according to a report released Jan. 16 by conservation NGOs TRAFFIC and WWF.

But bird populations are still in danger across the continent, Bernardo Ortiz-von Halle, the report’s author, said in a statement.

“Habitat loss remains the greatest threat to wild bird populations in Amazon countries,” said Ortiz-von Halle, a biologist at Colombia’s Universidad del Valle.

And bans on the collection and sale of wild birds enacted by many South American countries by the 1980s have shifted the trade abroad, he said. In his research, he found that South Africa exported 64 South American parrot species — more than any other country — between 2000 and 2013.

Paraguay’s ban on the export of CITES-listed species caused indigenous families to no longer harvest toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) chicks for sale, but instead clear their forests for charcoal production. Image by Staffan Widstrand/WWF.

Ortiz-von Halle interviewed authorities, conservationists and bird traders in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname to understand the current state of the bird trade in South America and how it has developed since Brazil became the first country to shutter the international trade of wild-caught animals in 1967.

Swiftly growing economies in the United States and Europe after World War II fueled demand for pet birds from abroad, and traders already knew that South America — and in particular, the Amazon — were flush with colorful and unique species. For nearly a century before the war, European traders had imported birds from South America by the hundreds of thousands, as well as their skins and feathers, for use in the fashion industry.

Packets of bird feed for sale in a São Paulo shop. Image courtesy of TRAFFIC.

The number of species that live on the continent dwarfs tallies just about everywhere else. The world’s three most species-rich countries, and six of the top 10, are in South America, all with more than 1,300 species each. Colombia holds the top spot with 1,877 species.

Trading wild birds became important economically, but it also began to empty the countries’ forests. After enacting a ban on the wildlife trade, Brazil began captive-breeding programs to replace the lost income. But the move, followed by similar bans in Ecuador and Colombia, had the unintended consequence of touching off a robust illegal wild bird trade in South America.

Some 25,749 black-headed parrots (Pionites melanocephalus) were exported from South American countries between 2000 and 2013. Guyana and Suriname continue to export the species. Image by Arturo Hortas/TRAFFIC.

In many cases, poachers would collect birds from the Amazon in Brazil and then “launder” them in the markets of countries where selling them was still legal.

The bans also shifted the benefits of the sale of sought-after South American birds abroad, Ortiz-von Halle found. Most of the countries benefiting from the trade of South American parrots, for example, in recent years are in wealthy, including Switzerland, Singapore and the United States. None of the top 10 are in South America.

“Brazil has produced the opposite situation of a market monopoly,” Ortiz-von Halle wrote. “[I]t has unintentionally placed the right to benefit commercially from the trade in its [native] species in the hands of any other country that chooses to profit from them.”

Brazil has more threatened species of birds than any other country. Image courtesy of TRAFFIC.

Brazil still has to contend with significant illegal trading, particularly in songbirds. As many as 35,000 are confiscated before they can reach the “wild bird song contests” for which most were destined. Peru, Suriname and Guyana still export wild-caught birds from more than 100 species, though many are considered common, according to the report. Suriname and Guyana have established quotas to support this important cog in their economies. (In Guyana, one in every 20 rural residents benefits economically from the bird trade.) But conservationists worry that these quotas aren’t backstopped by scientific data and thus the trade could lead to the collection of more birds than the countries’ populations can sustain.

To replace those past economic benefits, Brazil and Ecuador, along with Colombia, which has recently thrown off the shackles of the Western Hemisphere’s longest conflict, have stepped up investments in birdwatching tourism. Proponents see the economic potential in bringing often-wealthy and conservation-minded birders into previously out-of-reach locations in the Amazon and beyond.

Image courtesy of TRAFFIC.

But that sort of investment will likely only be part of the solution, Ortiz-von Halle said.

“The complexities of bird trade have been underestimated: to secure a future for the region’s increasingly threatened birds we need integrated strategies that seek urgently to halt or reverse habitat destruction and improve enforcement, complemented with economic incentives for local income generation through tourism and sustainable use of the natural resources,” he said. “This offers the best pathway forwards for South America’s remarkable birdlife.”

The non-CITES listed red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) continues to be wild-harvested and exported from Guyana and Suriname to countries including the United States. Image by Keith Arnold/WWF US.

Banner image a Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) courtesy of TRAFFIC. 

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.