They have been given the highest level of protection after countries voted 95-35 in a secret poll at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Johannesburg on Sunday.
The convention’s new “Appendix I” status outlaws international trade in a species, and the decision involving wild African greys has been hailed by conservationists.
WWF global wildlife policy manager Dr Colman O’Criodain said the “total ban on international commercial trade” is a “huge step forward”, but stressed traffickers also need to be targeted.
He added: “(It) will help to protect this extraordinary species from the rampant trapping and trading that has contributed to population collapses and local extinctions across Africa in recent decades.
“Fraud and corruption have enabled traffickers to vastly exceed current quotas and continue to harvest unsustainable numbers of African grey parrots from Congo’s forests to feed the illegal trade.
“Banning the trade will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to crack down on the poachers and smugglers, and give the remaining wild populations some much-needed breathing space.”
He said a “total trade ban was absolutely essential”, as the bird was being “trapped and traded towards extinction in its last major bastion in the Congo basin”.
Dr O’Criodain warned the ban alone “will not be enough”, and stressed that illegal networks will continue to “plunder parrots” until countries target traffickers.
The parrots are one of the most heavily traded wild-harvested birds, and are highly prized pets due to their ability to learn and imitate human speech.
African greys were listed on CITES Appendix II in 1981 due to the potential impact of trade on its population at the time.
But many experts said the regulations in place over that period failed to halt the exploitation of the birds, and gave way to over-harvesting.
Animal protection organisation Humane Society International said more than 1.3 million wild live birds have been exported since 1975 – with an estimated 70-90% dying before they were smuggled.
Welcoming the decision, Masha Kalinina, an international trade policy specialist for Humane Society International, said the news was “fantastic”.
She added: “African greys have been listed on Appendix II – which allowed commercial trade – since 1981, and yet efforts proposed and undertaken for 35 years have been completely insufficient in addressing unsustainable – and also illegal – trade in this species.
“It was urgent to increase protections, and the conference of the parties has succeeded.”
Kelvin Alie, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s wildlife trade programme, said the pet trade, habitat destruction, and fragmentation have “decimated” African grey parrot populations in the wild.
He added: “An Appendix I listing by CITES will immediately improve the welfare and conservation of African greys, by protecting them from overexploitation, from uncontrolled and illegal trade; and requiring countries to support all efforts to increase protections for the parrots.”