The Cape parrot – rarer than rhino

80 Cape parrots in one view finder

In one fleeting glance I could see more parrots flying in a single flock than I'd seen cumulatively throughout the rest of my entire life. There are 80 Cape parrots in the photo, of around 120 airborne at the time. From a distance their areal manoeuvers seemed erratic, through binoculars I appreciated what skilled acrobatic aviators they are. The airborne parrots landed in an orchard and joined another 90 or so of their comrades. Seeing so many Cape parrots could give the false impression they are common, I was actually witness, at that moment, to almost a quarter of the entire wild global population.

Some species benefit from a huge amount of publicity, conservation efforts and funding. Rhino are perhaps the best example. Other less fortunate species, like the Cape parrot, rely on the dedicated efforts of a handful of passionate experts. With only 1,000 wild Cape parrot remaining there are twenty times fewer than there are white rhino. In the last half century Cape parrot numbers have plummeted by 90%. I spent four days with a team from the Wild Bird Trust and the Universities of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal to learn more about these beautiful rare birds.

The Cape parrot needs yellowwood trees, which is unfortunate, says Dr Steve Boyes, "as we've spent the best part of 350 years cutting them down". The timber has been used for railway sleepers, furniture and "support structures for tunnels in mines, we've buried a forest underground" added Steve. The yellowwood is a slow growing and exceptionally long-lived tree. Historically parrots depended almost entirely on the yellowwoods, eating their fruit and nesting in cavities in the oldest trees. With the arrival of European colonisation came woodcutters, vast indigenous forests faced an onslaught so extreme that the few remaining yellowwoods are now insufficient to support even today's tiny parrot population. 

An 800 year old yellowwood. One of the few left.

Steve explained, "the scarcity of yellowwood fruit means the parrots must now eat plums from Japan, pecans from America, wattle seeds from Australia, acorns from England and Jacaranda pods from South America. These food items are simply not good for them."  So much of South Africa looks green but these multicultural forests of introduced alien species are not natural. When food sources and the species depending on them do not co-evolve problems result. Steve continued "the pecan nuts are a life saver when the indigenous food sources have gone but it's like us eating McDonalds every day, the fat content is too high and can lead to the birds getting fatty liver syndrome." 

The major Cape parrot population collapse took place in the 1970s and 1980s. With the absence of indigenous food, parrots had to look elsewhere for sustenance. When their gaze hit the pecan orchards farmers took action. It's estimated that in 1972 one pecan farmer shot 1,000 parrots to protect his crop – as many as are alive in the wild today.

Jordan-Laine Calder is also studying the parrots, "they have another problem, Beak and Feather Disease" she explained. When food is scarce the virus causes progressive feather, claw and beak malformation. The disease occurs naturally in the species but with the human caused food shortage and tiny population size the disease is of increased concern.

Riël Coetzer, of the University of KZN, is looking at the genetic diversity of Cape parrot. He told me "interbreeding is a big worry when you're dealing with a species with so few birds. We're building a genetic database to distinguish between wild and captive bred birds." A breeding pair of Cape parrot can sell for as much as R120,000 (£8,000 or US$12,000) and so the illegal capture and trade of parrots is a further human threat. Riël hopes the database will be used to determine whether parrots sold in the pet trade were caught illegally in the wild.  At the Fort Hare Cape Parrot Sanctuary I watched as the team caught parrots to take blood samples as part of this research. The sanctuary is the parrot's only protected major feeding ground. I asked Steve for the size of the sanctuary "it has 54 trees" he said. I was again struck by the difference in resources given to some species and not others.

Cape parrot caught for its DNA, before release

The work of the Wild Bird Trust's Cape Parrot Project seeks to safeguard the remaining parrots. They are working with community nurseries to grow and plant thousands of yellowwoods, pushing for enlarged protected areas and the restriction of yellowwood harvesting. Hundreds of nest boxes have been erected, techniques are used to help parrots find suitable feedings sites and work on a vaccine for Beak and Feather Disease is ongoing. It would take 350 years to rehabilitate a yellowwood forest so it's a long term challenge. 

Most people I've spoken to do not know South Africa even has an indigenous parrot, let alone that it's the most threatened of all South Africa’s endemic birds. Whilst rhino grab the headlines we are deluding ourselves if we think they are the only species threatened by our impacts, there's a whole host of relatively ignored species squawking for attention in the shadows. 

Whilst there are many obvious reasons why the plight of the rhino is so high profile I believe one factor is that we get to blame others - it's down to Vietnamese and Chinese people who think rhino horn has curative effects when obviously they don't. We can feel intellectually superior at the same time as horrified and saddened. With the parrots the threats are largely domestic and so we can't blame others. We are still cutting down yellowwoods and not conserving enough habitat, for instance. I've seen both a dead rhino butchered for its horn and a Cape parrot with Beak and Feather Disease. Both are deeply depressing.

Mama Jack, who runs a yellowwood nursery 

The impacts on both people and wildlife of human population and consumption growth are filled with similar issues where we don't like to take personal responsibility. It's common for South Africans to ask me "isn't a bigger concern how much is consumed in rich European and North American countries?" and for wealthy consumers to say "but isn't it more the countries like India with big populations we need to worry about?"  In other words "isn't someone else more responsible than me?" We need to worry about population and consumption growth and the best place to start is to look at ourselves. No one says "I suppose if my family size grows there'll be an increased demand for food and therefore agricultural land, hang on, that could impact the Cape parrot." When phrased like that the statement is absurd but as our population size grows and we consume more we place an ever increasing pressure on land use. Pecan orchards will not be returned to yellowwood forests when more people demand more pecans. 

In the short term saving species like the Cape parrot means we need to support the sterling work of organisations like the Wild Bird Trust. In the long term we need to take more responsibility for our own consumption impacts and consider the impacts we have when we choose to have more children. The lower our population pressures are the more likely it is that we can protect the habitat of the Cape parrot and all other wild species.

You can read more about the Wild Bird Trust’s Cape Parrot Project by clicking here

Thanks to Dr. Steve Boyes, Jordan-Laine Calder, Riël Coetzer, Nadia De Souza, Rukaya Johaadien, Elliot Kinsey and Robyn Milne for making my time in Hogsback so enjoyable and the 4.30 a.m. wake up call worth it.