The African Grey Parrot

Nigeria's Spotted Owl
On Wings April/May 2001

In 1973 Nigeria adopted the CITES treaty along with 134 other countries. They passed their own Endangered Species Decree in 1985, but according to Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth(FoE), the decree is a paper tiger with no teeth. (The ERA is the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) is the Nigerian branch of the WWF).

The habitat of the wild African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) is found mainly in the swamps and mangroves of lowland forests in equatorial African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.

Due to their uncanny ability to accurately mimic all kinds of noises including human speech, these Grey parrots with red tails have been coveted as pets since the 14th century. Naturalist Ulysses Aldrovandi mentioned the Roman trade in African greys in his 1522 zoological journals.

In 1999 the ERA/FoE wrote and published a report about the continuing illegal trade in African Grey parrots in Nigeria. Information in the report has been used for many other biased press releases since. The paper deals mainly with the plight of the Ikodi village located on the banks of the Orashi, which is one of many waterways that branch off in the Niger River's delta.

Nigeria's coast lies on the Gulf of Guinea and the country is bordered by Benin to the west,Cameroon to the east/southeast, Niger to the north and Chad to the northeast. Nigeria contains approximately 911,000 square km of land and is roughly twice the size of California. The Nigeria River Delta covers about 14,000 square miles and its waterways empty into the Gulf. There are 36 states and 1 territory in Nigeria.

The drainage systems of the Niger Delta include the Niger, Ase, Ethiope, Warri, Orashi, Sombreiro and Imo Rivers. The Niger River system has two major distributaries, the Nun and Forcados Rivers, and a myriad of smaller and shallower distributaries. The Niger Delta lies mainly in the wet equatorial climatic region. Because of its nearness to the equator, cloud cover is very high and parts of the delta are under permanent cloud cover throughout the year. Rain falls every month of the year with a short dry spell in the months of January to March in some parts. However, the interior locations at the apex of the delta can have a six month long dry season between October and March.

The Preservationist Press
The Ogoni people are a minority in Nigeria that inhabit a 404 square mile area, known as the Rivers State. The ERA report focuses on the Ikodi village, located on the Orashi River in the delta region of this state. The village is also known as Parrot's Paradise because thousands of African Greys roost in the nearby community forest.

These particular Ogoni have long practiced sustainable harvest of the Greys' red tail feathers. They do not trap the birds, cut down trees in their forest or harvest the palm nuts that grow there. Gunshots are prohibited because they would frighten the parrots. Any local person that transgresses these native customs and laws is heavily fined.

The villagers trade the scarlet feathers that are molted and they are a good source of income. Several hundred red feathers are gathered daily as they drop from flocks of Greys inflight to their feeding grounds.

People use the proceeds from feather sales to purchase books, clothing, shoes and school fees for their children. The red tail feathers are also an important ingredient in some of the local drugs and spiritualists claim they contain powerful magic that is necessary for protective charms. The feathers are used for ornamental purposes on clothing, caps, royal regalia and other traditional items. The Ikodi villagers are anxious to establish eco-tourism their area.

According to the ERA report a ring of international poachers has found their way to the village. These poachers are prepared to pay huge sums of money to trap the parrots for the international pet market and they pressure the Ikodi villagers to let then enter the community forest to do so The Ikodi have resisted.

Neighboring villages in need of cash, however, have allowed the poachers to use their villages as a working base. Hired trappers from their villages would sneak into the Ikodi's community forest to trap thousands of grey parrots. The price of one parrot in the foreign pet market higher than the average annual wage in Nigeria.

The conflict of interest between poachers and the Ikodi village has led to bloodshed. In 1997, two brothers who led the resistance against the poachers were hacked to death in the parrot forest. They were aged 18 and 27.

Spinning the Web

The information about the parrot poachers is scanty, and the entire report is couched in the inaccurate propaganda of the animal rights and environmental groups. For instance, they stress that illegal trade in flora and fauna is carried out on a monumental scale, with the profits second only to those made by the drug trade. We are told criminals find the wildlife trade more attractive because the penalty is less than for drug related offences.

They make the statement that there is evidence that illegal trade in endangered species is linked with organized crime like arms trading and drugs, and that the East European Mafia uses profit from illegal trade in exotic birds - like Grey parrots - to finance their drug smuggling enterprise.

They allude to an incident where a number of African Grey parrots were illegally flown by Egypt Air from the Kano airport, but were all returned dead because the birds contained cocaine. Of course, no details are given.

We are told that influential Nigerians based in Kano and Port Harcourt sponsor the parrot poachers who are mainly illegal immigrants from Ghana. This statement serves to inflame Nigerian activists since there have been numerous political border disputes between Nigeria and Ghana throughout the years.

The ERA/FoE have no numbers of parrots trapped monthly but are quite sure the value must run into several million Naira ($1 U.S. = approx 125 Naira). Supposed investigations by the London based World Society for the Protection of Animals were used in the report. According to the WSPA, the Mafia smuggled parrots and other endangered animals via the Kano Airport.
In order to do so, the Mafia must bribe wildlife officials to supply export papers, veterinary officials to issue health certificates, quarantine officers, customer service employees, various clearing and forwarding agents and several airlines. Why spend all that money in overhead for a parrot that is commonly captive bred for the pet market? Those stories just don't add up.

Organized crime is not that interested in wildlife trade when there are two much more lucrative black markets in Nigeria — drugs and oil. According to the CIA Fact Book, Nigeria is part of the transit route for heroin originating from Southeast and Southwest Asia on its way to Western Europe and North America. Nigeria is also a transfer point for cocaine en route from South America to the European, East Asian, and North American markets.

As we shall see, Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil producers and there is a thriving 'black gold" market for illegally siphoned fuel. Nigerian crude is routinely smuggled out of the country. The pipeline vandalization which occurs during the siphoning thefts has resulted in pollution of waterways and caused explosions, fires and deaths.

Meet the Alarmists
Friends of the Earth is a 30 year old non-profit environmental group, based in Washington D.C. which has over 60 affiliates around the world. They are one of the greenest and most active global of the global NGOs. Brent Blackwelder, president of the FoE, was also a founder of the Environmental Policy Institute. FoE publishes the Green Scissors report and lobbies to elimnate special tax breaks for corporations already burdened by environmental rules and regulations.

The FoE was very active ii this year's Summit of the America held in Quebec City, Canada.According to the 1999 IRS Form 990, their income was over $3,000,000 with salaries and wages being a third of their expenses. Nearly the same amount was spent lobbying expenses over a five-year period. More than half a million dollars was spent on publications, telephone bills and postage in. They award grants worldwide.

They themselves receive numerous grants and are heavily funded by the Ford Foundation, the Hunt Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Joyce Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, Charles Steward Mott Foundation, W. Alto Jones, the John D. and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, The Bullit Foundation, the Beldon Fund and numerous others.

Last spring the Friends of the Earth, representing a coalition of environmental, human rights, religious and social justice organizations, blocked Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the World Bank to protest oil, gas and mining projects around the world. The protest coincided with the World Bank's annual "Energy Week" conference during which bank officials and industry representatives discuss energy investments.

The green coalition blocked the street with a 17-foot panel truck which was emblazoned with the words, "World Bank Plunders The Planet - No More $$$ For Oil, Gas And Mining." Brent Blackwelder and a Ozone Action executive made speeches on top of the truck. (How do you suppose they drove the truck to this crucial location?)

The Friends of the Earth has long advocated the Kyoto Protocol, an addition to the United Nations climate change treaty. For just as long, the Friends of the Earth has targeted the energy industry and held it responsible for causing the supposed greenhouse effect that led to the now debunked global warming crisis.

A Nigerian FoE member has even blamed Mozambique's flooding on global warming, emphasizing that the floods could have led to a "risk" and "threat" of malaria and cholera outbreaks. The flooding had more to do with "environmental concerns" over river dredging, but that is another story.

At one time or another, the FoE has also joined other eco-organizations in lawsuits to halt logging in U.S. forests. They are well aware that threatened and endangered species can be used to shut down businesses they don't believe in.

Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director at Friends of the Earth UK, told reporters in Washington, DC, "People are suffering real consequences as a result of industrial activity. Many environmentalists are looking at the means we might have to bring legal actions against fossil fuel companies and industrialized nations that are blocking action on the treaty, which could solve the problem." Tony Juniper co-authored the book "A Guide to Parrots of the World." He was formerly the parrot conservation officer of ICBP, now BirdLife International.

Nigerian Politics and Economy — the Real Issues
Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil exporters and as such is a member of OPEC. Nigeria was the 5th largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. in 2000. Nigeria possesses estimated proven oil reserves of 22.5 bil¬lion barrels.

Almost all of these reserves are found in relatively simple geological structures along the country's coastal Niger River Delta (where the Grey parrots live.) The majority of the oil lies in about 250 small (less than 50 million barrels each) fields.

In 1999 the Nigerian republic began the transition from military domination to civilian rule. In January 2001, the old cabinet was dismantled and all its senior ministers lost their positions. On February 8, 2001, the new President, Obasanjo, announced his choices for his new cabinet but has not yet appointed a Petroleum Minister. Under the old rule, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was run by the government and they owned a 55 to 60% interest in all oil joint ventures in the country. NNPC had JVs with Shell, Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, Agip and Total/Fina/Elf.

Production from the JVs accounted for 95% of the country's crude oil production. The oil sector provided Nigeria with 80% in government revenues, 90-95% in export revenues and over 90% in foreign exchange earnings.

The new Nigerian government is attempting to transfer the revenue sharing JV monies from the central government to the Nigerian states where it is produced. They also want to diversify their business prospects to lessen their over dependence on oil. Economic reforms in the form of a three-part privatization program involve divestment of state holdings.

Various state-owned enterprises such as hotels, vehicle assembly plants, paper mills and telecommunications companies are being sold off. Power utilities and oil refineries are the last step in this reform process. Nigeria has received a debt- restructuring deal with the Paris Club and a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund contingent on these economic reforms. In the meantime, it must also resolve border and maritime boundary disputes regarding ownership of the oil- rich areas in the Gulf of Guinea.

Environmental Propaganda Fuels Civil Unrest
The ERA considers itself a human rights organization and as such has led the war against the oil corporations' use of one of earth's most important natural resources. Minorities, like the Ogoni, in the oil-producing areas of Nigeria were recruited to fight the environmental wars. These people have been responsible for sabotage — including arson at oil facilities.

An incident in 1995 led to confrontations which eventually resulted in government rule for the people. Ogoni activists claimed that Shell Oil was responsible for an oil spill that ruined water supplies and harmed their farmland. Shell claimed that the oil spill resulted from pipeline damage caused by the Ogoni siphoning oil for the black market.

During the Ogoni campaigns against Shell, they often demanded that the oil spills be cleaned up and that they receive part of the company's profits for oil taken from their native lands. They felt their theft was justified. The vicious cycle of blame finally escalated and the military was called in to enforce order. The leader and president of the MOSOP (movement for the survival of the Ogoni people) was tried and executed by a military tribunal for his insubordination. The plight of the Ogoni was a real fund raiser and helped turn the tide of political rule in Nigeria.

The successor president of MOSOP spoke to groups worldwide to plead the cause of his people and ask for donations. One such conference was held in Eugene, Oregon and billed as the International Human Rights Conference: People in the Darkness. Pressure from Nigerians, foreign NGOs, the World Council of Churches and green activists worldwide helped to topple the old regime.

Conflict between the military and Ogoni is history. The people now have the opportunity to receive royalties for the energy companies' use of their lands. However, the oil companies are still in business.

Will the ERA/DoE continue to fan the flames and stir up Ogoni civil disobedience against the industry? Or will they try to lock up land and keep it off limits to future oil production under the guise of protecting the African Grey parrot?

And what do you think will happen to the Ogoni when they are no longer needed?

As one astute Ogoni observed, people around the world care more about these parrots than they do about our people.

[Ironically, a similar scenario exists in Venezuela. Their economic growth i increasingly dependent on exports of petroleum, which now account for almost 80 percent of Venezuela's ton export earnings. In response to the global wave of trade liberalization, Venezuela opened its nationalized petroleum industry to foreign investors in 1993, and opened its oil reserves in the Orinoco River watershed to leasing and mining by foreign companies in 1995. Amoco, Citgo, Conoco, and British Petroleum obtained mining rights to tracts within the river's Amacuro Delta, a vast complex of estuaries, tidal marshes, and mangrove swamps.

This area is the home of rare jaguars and endangered species of parrots an monkeys, as well as about 25,000 Warao Indians, who subsist mainly by hunting and fishing. Although the delta had previously been protected as a Biosphere Reserve, Venezuela opened it to petroleum development without environmental impact assessments, and without any involvement of the Warao who live there.  In March 1997 a regional assembly of Warao demanded an end to petroleum mining in their territory, but have not yet prevailed.