Christmas Eve 2010 wasn’t particularly merry if you love parrots. On that day, at least 731 African grey parrots died on a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban, South Africa. What killed them remains a mystery. Theories range from suffocation to poisoning by carbon monoxide fumes.

African greys are not wingless; they can fly quite well on their own. So why were they stuffed into crates — up to 48 birds crammed into a 1 x 1 x 1.5 meter space — and stored in the cargo hold of an airplane by the hundreds? Like so many of the ills of the world, the deaths of these birds can be traced to human greed.

As explained by Voice of America News, “Grey parrots are found only in the rainforests of West and Central Africa, but they’re prized as pets in countries around the world.” As a result, South Africa has become a hub for the international trade of wild-caught birds.

The illegal trade in exotic birds is a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise. “Imagine something that is more lucrative than trafficking in drugs,” says Ofir Drori, director of LAGA, an African wildlife law enforcement group. “It interests very high officials and very sophisticated criminals.”

These smart parrots are so popular, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that 450,000 of the birds were captured and exported from Africa between 1994 and 2003. And those numbers only account for the legal exotic bird trade. No wonder at least 90 species of parrots are at risk of global extinction.

Some efforts have been made to combat the problem. Many nations in both Europe and North America have banned the importation of wild birds. This is a big help, but the illegal trade continues to thrive, and some nations still allow wild birds to be legally brought in, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

So how about taking up matters at the source? Please sign Born Free USA’s petition urging the South African government to immediately halt all future exports of wild-caught African grey parrots and then look at ways of ending all South African trade of wild-caught birds and animals.

Photo Credit: Born Free USA