CITES protection sought for the Cape Parrot

Cape Parrot

Cape Parrots are under threat from poachers, loss of habitat, and parrot beak and feather disease. Photo by Steve Burton

CITES protection is being sought for the Cape Parrot, a critically endangered species endemic to South Africa. The birds are under threat from poachers, loss of habitat, and parrot beak and feather disease.

Species recognition

Field research and annual censuses have been conducted on the Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) for more than a decade. When investigations began, very little was known of its ecology or conservation status, and it was only recognised as a subspecies of the Brown-necked Parrot of West Africa.

Preliminary studies indicated that the Cape Parrot has a local and fragmented distribution centred on Yellowwood (Podocarpus) afromontane forests in the Eastern Cape, Transkei and KwaZulu-natal provinces, with a small disjunct relic population in Limpopo. Nowhere are numbers high as the birds are limited by this forest type which is also endangered, largely as the result of felling for high quality furniture.

Further threats to the parrots

The parrots are dependent on the Yellowwood forests for their food, as they are specialist feeders, taking the kernels from the stones of the fruits of unripe Yellowwoods. Since the fruiting of the three Yellowwood species are not synchronous, the parrots are food nomadic, and during the crunch period – when none are fruiting, or the crop has failed – they attack forest orchards.

Owing to their rarity, and hence high financial value, Cape Parrots are more likely to be poached than ever before

Cape Parrots are also largely dependent on old Yellowwood trees to provide cavities for nesting sites, but these are subject to damage from storms in the mountains. Many artificial nest boxes have been provided, but only one has been occupied and young reared. Clutches of four to five eggs may be laid although only one or two usually survive to fledge and adulthood. They only breed when four to five years old in the wild, so population increase is low. Juvenile mortality is caused by inadequate nutrition, predation in the nest and psittacine (parrot) beak and feather disease (PBFD).

This disease has now become prevalent in adult birds in the Eastern Cape sub-population, which are at greater risk because of their feeding patterns in fruit orchards. In addition, these birds are subject to capture and illegal trade. Owing to their rarity, and hence high financial value, they are more likely to be poached than ever before.

Preventing exports

Fortunately, several conservation organisations are now working synergistically to prevent trading and to produce a vaccine against PBFD. CITES has been approached to impose a total ban on the export of Cape Parrots from South Africa, as in recent years illegally traded birds have appeared in the East and in eastern Europe. Individual identification is now possible, through DNA sequencing, to aid the prevention of illegal trading.

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