Critical Analysis: The Effectiveness of Current Laws Regulating the International Exotic Bird Pet Trade

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The international pet trade for exotic animal species is a highly lucrative, multi-billion dollar enterprise, second only to drugs and weapons on the black market. Notably, exotic birds are one of the most significantly impacted species by the international pet trade industry. The number of exotic birds in the wild has dramatically declined in recent decades as poachers have violently removed such birds from their native habitats in order to sell them in this highly profitable market. Interestingly, poachers sell these exotic birds to not only developed countries like the United States and the European Union, but also to willing buyers within their country’s borders. The predominate share of exotic bird species are exported from Senegal, Tanzania, Argentina, and Indonesia.[i] The majority of these exotic birds are imported into countries in the European Union, Central America, and the United States. Both national and international laws have been implemented as a means to halt the international pet trade and black market for these exotic birds.

Parrots, like these scarlet macaws, are threatened by the pet trade when they are stolen from nests, smuggled, and then sold. Image Source:
Parrots, like these scarlet macaws, are threatened by the pet trade when they are stolen from nests, smuggled, and then sold. Image Source:

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. was the largest importer of exotic birds.[ii] Roughly, 50,000-150,000 neo-tropical parrots were being brought into the United States each year.[iii] However, the number of exotic birds imported into the United States significantly declined with the Congress’ passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (“WBCA”) in October 23, 1992.[iv] Under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), the WBCA regulates the international parrot pet trade by permitting the importation of exotic bird populations into the United States only when certain criteria for exotic bird populations have been met. FWS’s enforcement of the WBCA sustainable management plans has decreased the importation of exotic birds to merely hundreds annually.[v]  The WBCA requires that “all trade in species of exotic birds involving the United States is biologically sustainable and is not detrimental to the species.” The WBCA permits the importation of exotic birds when it has been shown that the “wild exotic bird populations are not harmed by removal of exotic birds from the wild for the trade . . . or exotic birds in trade are not subject to inhumane treatment . . . .” The United States has been hopeful that the WBCA would in turn encourage exporting countries to enforce their own wild bird conservation laws as the Act allows for wild-caught and captive-bred birds to be imported into the United States if they were captured/raised in accordance with FWS’s approved sustainable management plans. [vi]

As the trade for exotic bird species crosses international borders, an international collaborative effort is necessary to protect these species from over-exploitation. International treaties have been implemented to safeguard exotic birds from being killed or poached from the wild. One such international treaty is the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”) that was entered into force on July 1, 1975. Pursuant to CITES, signatory countries have agreed to work together to regulate the importation and exportation of both captive-bred and wild-caught birds listed on its appendices (as well as over 30,000 species listed on its appendices). CITES provides a fundamental framework for member states to follow in implementing wildlife trade laws and holds member states responsible for the issuance and enforcement of the necessary legislation to defend the treaty. Although the CITES’s framework demonstrates a respect for national sovereignty, it greatly undermines the effectiveness of the treaty as the treaty itself neither designates wildlife trade in restricted species as a crime, nor does it prescribe sanctions for violations. In addition, enforcement of international and local laws continues to be a major conservation challenge in undeveloped member states.  For example, local officials will pass laws designating areas as parks or provide protection status to native exotic birds, but due to underfunding, public acceptance of such poaching practices, and pressures for resources, the local laws are often ignored.[vii]

Humans are attracted to having parrots as pets for various reasons, including companionship, entertainment, beauty, intelligence and vocal ability. And such exotic birds are often important to the culture and heritage of origin countries. Local officials, Non-Governmental Organizations, and other actors are attempting to find ways of sustainable take[viii], and are trying to promote other options such as ecotourism so that families can generate income while still conserving species and habitat integrity. In order to disrupt the illicit wildlife markets and prevent the poaching of exotic birds, CITES member states need to enact and enforce the necessary wildlife criminal legislation against violators of wildlife laws. From 1991 to 1996, the global legal trade in parrots reached 1.2 million, or about 240,000 parrots traded each year.[ix] Between 1998 and 2000, the World Wildlife Fund estimates the trade in parrots to be in the area of one million parrots, or 333,000 a year.[x] These statistics seem to illustrate that it is domestic, as opposed to international, wildlife trade that has a significant impact upon the decline of exotic birds in the wild.

The international demand for parrots has always been thought of as the driving force for poaching in the neo-tropics, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. Range countries are responsible for poaching, distributing and selling parrots on local and regional illicit markets. Very few parrots and parrot species will ever cross national borders compared to the numbers that are sold internally.[xi]

Despite the implementation of domestic laws and international treaties, the international pet trade and the black market continue to threaten the existence of exotic bird species.


Joann Kinsey is a 3L and Staff Editor for the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.

[i] See Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society 82 (Sonia Tidemann et al. eds., 2010).

[ii] See Stephen Ferreira, The Illegal Parrot Trade in the Neo-tropics: The Relationship between Poaching and Illicit Pet Markets 7 (Jan. 2012) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University).

[iii] See id.

[iv] See 16 U.S.C. § 4902-4916.

[v] See John D. Reynolds, Conservation of Exploited Species (1st ed. 2001).

[vi] See 16 U.S.C. § 4905, § 4906; but see Humane Society of the United States, (last visited March 17, 2014) (noting that while the WBCA has been seen as a wildlife conservation victory, it has led to sky-rocketing numbers for captive-bred exotic birds).

[vii] See 76 F.R. 62023; 76 F.R. 63501

[viii] See 16 U.S.C. § 1532 (defining “take” to mean to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct).

[ix] See Stephen Ferreira, The Illegal Parrot Trade in the Neo-tropics: The Relationship between Poaching and Illicit Pet Markets 8 (Jan. 2012) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University).

[x] Id.

[xi] Id. at 10.