Image: J. GILARDI ¿ 1992
One threat that is notoriously difficult to quantify is the illegal pet trade. A recent report in the June 2001 issue of Conservation Biology suggests that earlier analyses have underestimated parrot poaching for the pet trade. "Our results are the first to demonstrate that poaching of nesting parrots is indeed widespread and, in many species, is occurring at levels that probably are not sustainable," says co-author Timothy Wright of the University of Maryland.
The researchers analyzed 23 previous studies of parrot ecology and behavior in the Neotropics¿an area that includes Central and South America, parts of southern Mexico and the West Indies¿and determined that, on average, as many as 30 percent of all parrots' nests were poached. The highest rate of poaching for a single species was more than 70 percent. Island countries exhibited lower poaching rates than mainland countries did. Because parrots have low reproductive success¿a pair will typically produce only one clutch of two or three eggs a year¿some species may not be able to sustain the pressure from such prevalent raids, the authors write.
Because of the St. Vincent Amazon parrot's status, trade of the birds is highly regulated. Would-be owners wishing to import the animals must first obtain permits under both the Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA), passed by the U.S. in 1992, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). And only birds bred in regulated captivity can be legally traded.
A byproduct of the genetic research Amato and Russello conducted is a potential tool to stop the smuggling of wild St. Vincents. Because the genetic make-up of the captive, breeding parrots is now known, it is possible to use DNA technology to compile a genetic family tree for their offspring. When a parrot whose origin is in question is confiscated, scientists can compare its DNA to the compiled databank and tell whether the bird was bred in a licensed captive-breeding group.
Amato says that over the course of their studies he and Russello have already uncovered some birds that were said to be products of captive breeding but in reality were not. As he is quick to point out, such a finding could be merely the result of poor record keeping. But it could also be an attempt to launder an illegally caught wild bird through more respectable channels. At the August meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, Amato and Russello planned to suggest a powerful application for the new technology: that no permits be given for birds moving from one area to another until a feather sample is submitted to verify its pedigree.
Previous examples of the increasing use of genetics for forensic identification in wildlife smuggling have relied on genetic databases¿ such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information's GenBank, assembled for basic research purposes. Amato himself has used such data to determine the origins of contraband caiman skins destined for fashion items and to identify bushmeat confiscated by U.S. customs officials. The St. Vincent Amazon parrot is only the latest threatened animal to benefit from genetic profiling.
Gilardi concurs that the newly compiled data is a powerful tool. "My guess is that it would be effective to nail the people who are coming up with the big money for these birds by pinning them with the genetics and showing that 'Oh, this whole collection is, in fact, full of poached birds' rather than 'this whole collection is full of captive-bred birds,'" he says. "I don't know how much that would deter poachers, but obviously, getting the word out that we've got them all catalogued would certainly help."