Conservation: Pity Polly: She Teeters on Edge of Extinction as Poachers Steal Her Offspring ; New Study Reveals How a Sustained Onslaught by Nest-Raiders Is Threatening the Survival of Some of the World's Most Exotic Birds

Article excerpt

ALAS, PRETTY polly - those bright feathers and that talent for mimicry that make you so popular are proving your undoing. The parrots of the world are suffering such a sustained poaching onslaught for the pet trade, a new study strongly suggests, that many are set on the road to extinction. And Europe is one of the major markets driving the trade.

Conservationists have long known that habitat destruction and poaching have between them driven certain parrot species to the brink. The most celebrated include Lear's macaw, with fewer than 140 individuals left in Bahia, Brazil, the Puerto Rican parrot, with fewer than 50 left on its native island, and best-known of all Spix's macaw, whose final representative in the wild disappeared from its Brazilian river valley last autumn after surviving alone for 10 years.

What has not been known until now is the scale of the relentless poaching assault that is going on across the whole species range. It is phenomenal. For 21 parrot species included in the study, in 14 countries in the neotropics - Central and South America and the Caribbean - the average rate of nesting failure through poaching was 30 per cent, and in four species it was greater than 70 per cent. Parrots have a slow rate or reproduction, usually laying only one clutch of eggs a year, and none are likely to survive such depredation.

The study, led by Timothy Wright of the University of Maryland, published in the journal Conservation Biology and reported in the latest edition of New Scientist magazine, is the first proper documentation of the real impact of robbing parrots' nests of their chicks for the pet trade, which has long been suspected.

Its value lies in its extent and thoroughness - the study looked at 4,024 nesting attempts, by bringing together unpublished data from 23 parrot researchers.

"Parrots are among the most highly threatened birds on earth, with more endangered species than any other bird family," said Dr Wright, who has studied parrots since 1991.

"Forty six of 145 species in the neotropics are at risk of global extinction from habitat loss and poaching, and poaching alone affects 39 species and is a greater cause of mortality than natural causes."

According to several earlier studies, between 400,000 and 800,000 parrot chicks were taken from the wild each year between 1991 and 1996 - and those numbers may be low.

Dr Wright fears the full effects of poaching might not be apparent yet. "Parrots only breed once a year, and they may live for 50 years," he said.

"With very little recruitment of young birds to reproduce, we may see the number of parrots drop dramatically and all of a sudden."

Driving the poaching on is a vicious circle of rarity and value that Dr Wright terms "the collector's vortex" - the rarer the bird, the higher the price, which increases even further the threat of endangerment to the species. …