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Critical decisions made for vultures, songbirds & other birds threatened by illegal trade

At a crucial meeting in Switzerland last month, governments of more than 180 countries made critical decisions to manage the escalating international trade in wildlife including vultures, songbirds, hornbills, parrots and a number of other bird species. Here are some of the highlights.

Governments made critical decisions about managing the international trade of a number of highly threatened bird species including vultures, songbirds and hornbills this past week at a conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that featured more bird-related agenda items than ever before – a sign of the rising threat illegal wildlife trade poses to birds around the world.

One of the most crucial decisions involved West African vultures, which were up for discussion for the first time. Vultures are one of the most threatened group of birds in the world – of the 11 species found on the African continent, seven are on the edge of extinction. Sentinel poisoning, or poisoning by poachers to prevent vultures drawing attention towards illegally killed carcasses, has long been a known threat for many of these species. However, in recent years there has been increased awareness that illegal killing and trade for belief-based use is also threatening populations.

“Twenty-nine percent of vulture deaths in Africa are due to killing for illegal trade for belief-based use,” says Dr Beckie Garbett, BirdLife’s Vulture Conservation Manager. “This is largely occurring in West Africa where vulture populations have been decimated. It is a complex issue to tackle, and requires the support of the entire West African community in order to alleviate this threat for vultures.”

During the meeting, Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal all sought to bring attention toward this problem, raising concerns about the critical state of six vulture species in the region. In light of this, the meeting mandated the formation of a working group to research the international vulture trade, and to develop and implement policies, many of them based on a plan to protect vultures that BirdLife helped develop.

Concern was also raised about the plight of songbirds, with the US and Sri Lanka calling for investigations to be conducted into how to halt the illegal killing and international trade of songbird species. The US has noticed increases in recent years of songbirds being imported and is concerned about the impact of this on wild populations; this echoes concerns across Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, as previously highlighted through BirdLife’s work on the songbird trade in Asia in particular. However, as most of the more than 6,000 songbird species are not CITES-listed, it is difficult to track the scope of the global international trade.  Parties therefore requested that more information be gathered on the songbird trade in order to establish conservation, management and enforcement needs.


“Songbirds, with their often beautiful songs and colourful plumage, are increasingly affected by trapping for the pet trade and for singing competitions,” says Dr Roger Safford, senior manager of BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. “This now threatens the survival of a range of species around the world. Conservationists know of some urgent needs and are taking action, but there are so many species that we need a new assessment of the scale and scope of international songbird trade, so that we can be confident of the management and conservation priorities.”

The formal outcomes of both the vulture and songbird discussions included requests that country Parties to CITES provide the funding necessary to carry out these decisions.

A number of other bird-related issues were addressed at the meeting. An agreement was made to support enforcement work protecting the Helmeted Hornbill, which, though banned from international trade, is still illegally hunted for its solid casque. The Black-crowned Crane was moved to CITES Appendix I, meaning that commercial international trade of the bird, which is threatened by the captive trade market, will now be banned. The Reeves’s Pheasant, meanwhile, was added to Appendix II, meaning that international trade of the species must now be monitored and is only allowed through a permitting system.

“The illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn and this year giraffe tends to get the headlines at CITES,” says Dr Noëlle Kümpel, Head of Policy at BirdLife. “The fact that our team were kept busy with so many bird-related proposals at this meeting, though, shows how all-pervasive and unsustainable the international trade in wildlife has become. That so many bird proposals were necessary underscores the scale of the threat of the illegal wildlife trade to birds around the world, and the challenge we face in tackling this.”


BirdLife’s strong presence at the CITES Conference, and collaboration with other organisations, was made possible through its membership of the Restore Species partnership, which works to prevent extinctions caused by illegal and unsustainable trade and hunting, and poisoning.

Read the BirdLife Partnership’s full CITES CoP18 position statement here.

Read more about CITES and download the official CITES CoP18 decisions here: https://www.cites.org/eng/cop/index.php

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