- Loopholes in the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have allowed near-extinct animals to be moved across borders for breeding; in principle, CITES allows species trading for research, zoos or conservation.
- It was in this context that dozens of Spix’s macaws, a blue parrot from Brazil that’s considered extinct in the wild, were introduced into the EU, despite an international ban on the species’ commercial trade.
- In 2005, German bird breeder Martin Guth acquired three of the parrots for breeding purposes, with CITES approval, before going on to amass nearly all the world’s captive Spix’s macaws and transferring several dozen of them to facilities throughout Europe and India under an EU permit not covered by CITES.
- At a CITES meeting last November, representatives from Brazil and other tropical countries affected by the illegal wildlife trade expressed frustration that the EU had allowed unregistered commercial breeders to flourish, despite CITES having created a dedicated registration program for legitimate captive breeders 20 years earlier.
Bianca’s Bird Farm sits on a two-lane country road outside of the city of Antwerp in Belgium. There’s no sign out front, just a keypad and a video camera. A wooden gate and tall hedges block the view, but if you pass through to the aviaries in back, you may just get a glimpse of one of the most threatened parrots on Earth: the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), a brilliant blue bird from Brazil that’s currently considered extinct in the wild. The farm’s owners have acquired six of them in recent years, despite an international ban on the species’ commercial trade. In fact, European wildlife officials approved the deal that brought them there.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty from 1973, was supposed to prevent such transfers from taking place, conservationists say.
All of the world’s Spix’s macaws, some 200 birds, are thought to be descended from seven individuals that were likely snatched from their tree-hole nests in northeastern Brazil and smuggled out of the country. When CITES came into force, the Spix’s macaw was one of the first animals on the list. From then on, the birds could only be moved across international borders with a permit for specific purposes, such as scientific research, zoological exhibitions, or conservation programs.
But, according to an October 2023 letter from the World Parrot Trust and 19 other organizations, there are a number of loopholes in the original agreement that have allowed Spix’s macaws and other threatened animals to become breeding studs. If a poacher isn’t caught red-handed by local customs authorities with, for example, an earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) in Borneo or the seeds of a rare Cochise pincushion cactus (Escobaria robbinsorum) from the Arizona desert, they can frequently sell their descendants inside the European Union after a single generation in captivity. “The system is only as strong as its weakest link,” says Roddy Gabel, former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Management Authority. “Once in the EU, they can move the specimens with impunity.”
The story of how the EU has allowed a quasilegal market in Spix’s macaws to grow can be traced back to July 2005, when German bird breeder Martin Guth quietly purchased three Spix’s macaws in Switzerland. At the time, Spix’s macaws had been wiped out in the wild by habitat loss and the parrot trade in South America.
Guth obtained a CITES permit to move the three birds to Berlin, promising the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation that he was keeping them for “non-commercial purposes as part of a breeding program to conserve the species.” The import was only allowed with the consent of Brazilian regulators, and the terms were so strict that he wouldn’t even be allowed to exhibit them in a zoo or sell their descendants for profit. “No exceptions to the marketing ban can be granted for offspring animals,” the agency wrote. “Parrots descended from them are included in the breeding program for the conservation of the species.”
With funding from wealthy parrot breeders, Guth founded the Association for Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP), a nonprofit organization. He built a multimillion-dollar aviary outside Berlin and hired veterinarians and technicians assist in breeding dozens of threatened parrots from Latin America and the Caribbean. Guth himself often flew to underresourced countries to make deals with government ministers, trading four-wheel-drive vehicles and funding promises in exchange for captive birds.
Guth was open about his intentions to sell surplus parrots to help fund flagship conservation efforts. Captive-breeding programs often end up with surplus animals, including older animals or those with genetic diseases, which may be transferred to zoos in exchange for donations. But no one had ever proposed such a scheme on such a scale and with species that were so close to total extinction.
Ultimately, Guth acquired nearly all the world’s captive Spix’s macaws with the approval of CITES officials. Under a memorandum of understanding he signed with Brazil, he agreed to send 70% of the chicks bred by his facility each year to Brazil for a reintroduction program. In 2020, he sent the first 52 Spix’s macaws to Brazil.
But German authorities also gave Guth one-time permits to transfer at least 43 Spix’s macaws to parrot enthusiasts in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Slovakia, according to documents obtained by Mongabay. He sent another 28 to a zoo in Belgium and 26 to an Indian zoo built by that country’s richest family.
About one-third of these birds were exported under an “EU Marketing Permit,” indicating that Guth’s organization or his partners received a donation for handing over the birds, according to Lars Lachmann, a consultant for international species protection with the State Office for the Environment in Brandenburg state, which issued the permits. The agency didn’t collect any information on the sales price of the macaws or verify that money obtained from sales was directed toward conservation efforts.
Lachmann says no CITES guidelines exist regarding the issuance of such marketing permits, but any future sales of those birds or their offspring would require a new permit from CITES authorities in the region where they’re now based. “The recommendation from our authority to such other authorities, which is included in our permits, is, that any such permits would only be issued under the same conditions as our permits, i.e. for single specified transactions only and only for the purpose of the conservation programme,” he wrote in an email.
“Every individual Spix’s macaw is essential to the conservation program,” Brazil’s environment ministry noted in a statement. The ministry doesn’t approve of sales of Spix’s macaws “even under the need to fund conservation actions,” and said the zoo in India, Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom, isn’t part of the officially sanctioned conservation program.
In response to Mongabay’s request for comment, Guth provided a three-page statement from ACTP that said the transfers to the Indian zoo weren’t commercial sales. “Every bird and its offspring from ACTP or housed by our partners are available for the reintroduction and captive program,” ACTP wrote. The statement didn’t mention the transfers to hobbyist breeders in Europe, like Bianca’s Bird Farm.
In November 2023, the issues around the regulation of captive breeding of Spix’s macaws and other threatened species in the European Union came to a head at the meeting of the CITES Standing Committee in Geneva. Although CITES created a registration program for commercial breeders of threatened species more than 20 years ago, the EU hadn’t made it mandatory, and most bird and reptile breeders weren’t registered.
The committee, which is made up of representatives from the six major geographical regions, was split on the recommendations for the EU, which included a freeze on exports of captive-bred specimens sold by unregistered breeders and a requirement that commercial breeders prove that their breeding stock had been legally obtained.
Hesiquio Benítez Díaz, one of Mexico’s CITES representatives, took the side of Brazil and many other tropical countries that had been exploited by the wildlife trade, expressing frustration that the EU had allowed unregistered commercial breeders to flourish after all the effort spent to create a registration program for them. “This discussion could set a poor precedent for the future of our convention,” he warned.
Other members of the standing committee, however, were reluctant to admonish the EU for failing to properly regulate captive breeders.
The binding rules of the CITES treaty, which hasn’t been amended since 1979, are ambiguous on whether countries need to trace the source of captive breeding stock, noted Carolina Caceres, director of international biodiversity at the Canadian Wildlife Service. “If there was registration in the European Union, there would be greater transparency,” she said. “We would encourage, in fact, the European Union to consider registering their systems, but we recognize it is not an obligation.”
For Brazilians, the Spix’s macaw remains both a source of national pride and also a symbol of CITES’s lack of power, according to Dener Giovanini, founder of the National Network for Combating Wild Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS), a Brazilian wildlife trafficking watchdog. He called for a halt of any future trades in Spix’s macaws and the return of the population to Brazilian control.
“We must never forget that these species were originally taken illegally from Brazil,” Giovanini told Mongabay.
Banner image: A taxidermy Spix’s macaw. By 2005, Spix’s macaws had been wiped out in the wild by habitat loss and the parrot trade in South America. Image by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).
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