species of parrots which are indigenous to Jamaica are being snatched from their natural habitat, illegally, by unscrupulous people and sold for between $8,000 and $10,000 each to bird lovers.
The endangered yellow-billed parrot, the black-billed parrot, and the Jamaican parakeet (otherwise known as the olive-throated parakeet) are protected by law and it is illegal to capture, sell, and have them as pets without a permit.
However, this wildlife crime has been ongoing for a number of years, and in recent times sellers have become even more barefaced, advertising the endangered birds for sale on social media platforms, along with videos of the captured animals.
The sellers, who have also been seen on the roads, particularly in St Ann displaying the captured birds to motorists, appear not to be worried about being accosted by the police or National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) enforcement officers.
In response to queries from the Jamaica Observer, NEPA said it has received reports about the illegal activity, but its ongoing investigations suggest that this practice is not widespread.
The agency said it has been collaborating with the Jamaica Constabulary Force to deter the perpetrators, and that it has ongoing public education campaigns to educate people that these birds are protected and it is illegal to have them in one’s possession.
The once wild, carefree birds, which are now domesticated, are sometimes proferred on sticks or in small cages on the roadside as their “handlers” show them off to customers who may not know that it is illegal to have native parrots as pets.
An online video seen by the Sunday Observer shows multiple birds crammed into one cage fluttering around haplessly and seeming to be struggling to come to terms with their sudden captivity.
A bird advocacy group is among two wildlife conservationists expressing alarm at increased reports of indigenous parrots being captured from their natural habitats and sold.
President of BirdLife Jamaica Damion Whyte said the practice not only endangers the existence of parrots, but disrupts the important roles that they play in the survival of other species in the wild, including breaking down hard seeds, nuts, and fruits so other animals can feed and dispersing seeds which contribute to the growth of plants and trees.
He told the Sunday Observer that sellers who post the endangered parrots on social media platforms have been employing cruel means of capturing the birds, which lead to them being injured or result in their death.
“Because some of the guys know that they live in the trees, they might chop down some of these trees and go in the nests to get the babies and by doing that you kill the trees, and some of the babies don’t survive. Another method is to put gum on the trees and the birds stick to it, then they catch them. But by doing that, some of them damage themselves, their feet get broken or their feathers get damaged or some of them die up there,” he said.
Whyte, who is also an environmentalist, lamented that the native parrots, which are costly to raise and properly care for, are normally fairly large birds and it is therefore ill-suited to have them confined in small cages where they continue to damage themselves until they are sold. He said that they are sometimes kept in very cruel conditions.
He noted that being exposed to humans and other domestic pets is dangerous to native parrots as there is the increased chance of diseases being passed on to the birds.
“If you release those birds back into the wild, you risk putting a disease to the other birds as well… so if it’s a bad disease, you can kill them out, so it’s a high risk. So when people have them as pets we don’t advise them to release them if they feel like,” he said, adding that the birds, after being kept as pets will not be able to survive in the wild without undergoing a proper rehabilitation programme.
Whyte noted that only official entities which see to the rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation of wildlife in Jamaica, such as the Hope Zoo and the Wendy Ann Lee-operated Seven Oaks Sanctuary for Wildlife (SOS-Wildlife) have permits from NEPA to have the saved native parrots in their care.
Lee, an environmentalist and wildlife rescuer, told the Sunday Observer that NEPA needs to do enforcement as well as education as no one should have Jamaican parrots in their possession.
“The purchasers as well as the vendors should be prosecuted,” she insisted.
She stressed that the Government needs to protect native parrot habitats, which include the north-eastern section of the Cockpit Country that is currently under a mining lease (SML 173).
“That area has the best remaining habitat for the rarer black-billed parrots,” she noted.
Lee, who has 39 Jamaican parrots in her care, said it is very costly to care for all the confiscated parrots at SOS-Wildlife, and the Government donates only a small fraction of the cost.
In a Facebook post, Lee spoke passionately of her 2016 rescue, aided by the police, of an illegally captured young yellow-billed parrot which was being sold on the roadside.
Lee said that she has reported many illegal sellers seen on Facebook to NEPA, “but there is never any follow-up or prosecution”.
She stressed that people need to “report, not support, this illegal and harmful trade”.
Whyte agreed that the wildlife crime cannot be allowed to continue — for the sake of the endangered birds and the environment in general — stressing that the parrots “are special, they are Jamaicans, they are found nowhere else in the world, they are a part of our culture [and ought to be protected].
“The parrots are protected by law, and by right. If you go and catch and sell them, you are breaking the law and you need to stop. If you have your pet and you are concerned, contact NEPA on the way forward,” he said.
Whyte noted that some countries, like the Cayman Islands, had faced a similar problem of people illegally capturing birds and the Government instituted an amnesty, whereby people brought in and registered the birds and they got a permit from the Government to keep them.
He suggested that the Jamaica Government could consider this for people who already have native parrots as pets.
“Those who have them right now, I think in the future, they are going to have to talk to NEPA on a way forward. I don’t think the Government can take all of them, so they are going to have to work out a permitted way,” he said.
He noted, however, that, even if people apply for a permit, they would have to meet certain requirements because NEPA would not grant a permit if the bird is living in a “wicked way”.
NEPA warned that people found in possession of the whole or part of a protected bird without an exemption certificate will be prosecuted under the Wild Life Protection Act. Anyone found guilty is liable to a fine not exceeding $100,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months.
“These parrots are an endangered species, meaning that their numbers in the wild have declined and they need protection and conservation efforts. Capturing and selling these native parrots, therefore, is directly contributing to the declining population,” NEPA said.
The agency also recommended that purchases of all pets be limited to official pet stores. Also, NEPA said, it would be useful to enquire as to the origin of the bird(s) and retain receipts in a safe place, adding that “it would be prudent to immediately engage the agency” should people find that they have unknowingly purchased a parrot illegally.
“If one is contemplating being in possession of an endemic or native parrot that is protected under the Wild Life Protection Act, an exemption certificate is required from the Natural Resources Conservation Authority/National Environment and Planning Agency. Otherwise, they will become liable for prosecution,” the agency said.