Wildlife trade is a big business and generates substantial revenue worldwide. Alongside the illegal trade in arms and drugs, the smuggling of animals, plants and their parts, is one of the biggest challenges in terms of combating international crime. The headlines about the illegal wildlife trade are usually dominated by the ‘usual suspects,’ rhino horn or tiger skin. But each year, millions of birds fall victim to illegal trade. Thousands of species are affected – finches, weavers, parrots and raptors being some of those that suffer the most.

In Cyprus alone, the illegal wild bird trade is estimated to generate ten million euro per year, with much of this revenue coming from the sale of songbirds that people eat in restaurants or on special occasions. These are expensive delicacies – a dozen Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) can fetch up to €80.

Trapping for the international bird trade has been identified as a contributing factor in the threat status of one in twenty threatened and near-threatened bird species globally. For instance, the Yellow-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea) of East Timor and Indonesia is close to extinction due to the trade, while the Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) of Brazil is already extinct. In the African Eurasian Flyway, several are close to extinction as a result, such as the Black-crowned Crane (Balearica pavonina), which has been eradicated from parts of its range in West Africa.

The illegal trade of wild birds can take different forms. It includes live birds, carcasses and eggs, as well as body parts and by-products.

What drives the illegal wild bird trade?

Wild birds are smuggled illegally and traded on the black market to meet the demand for the pet trade, collectors (taxidermy), consumption, belief-based use and even for bird fighting.

The smuggling and trade of birds ranges from high-end collectors that use global networks to secure rare and exotic species to the unsuspecting bird lover – you or me – that buys a parrot as a pet or songbird in a cage. Markets across Europe are full of illegally caught birds that are being traded openly to customers who are often unaware.

Social media and online market places means that it is now easier than ever to unwittingly encourage the illegal trade in wild animals. With social media posts of cute or exotic looking species being kept as pets being widely shared, there is an increased demand for wild animal as pets.

Trade is not limited to the pet market, however. The trade in bushmeat or wild caught birds as local delicacies is also commonplace across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Wild birds sold as game meat is common, and it is often difficult to the average person to assess whether the bird is being sold lawfully or not. The illegal trade of birds for traditional medicine or belief-based use is also a serious issue.

In the past, the consumption of wild songbirds would have been relegated to the poorest in society, whereas these days, illegally traded songbirds are a luxury for the wealthy to indulge in.

What does the law say?

Trade can be classified under two categories with different legislation in each case: within country trade and cross-border trade. For wild birds that are illegally caught and sold within one jurisdiction, national laws and penalties apply. For the case of cross-border smuggling or international trade, international legislation applies.

The damage that international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora can cause to biodiversity, the functioning of ecosystems and the ecosystem services they provide has been long acknowledged as a serious threat. In 1973, an international agreement, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – or CITES – was established to provide a framework under which the international trade in certain species could be defined as illegal.

In the European Union, the Environmental Crime Directive requires Member States to treat the killing and trade of protected species as a criminal offence. EU countries  have to implement effective, dissuasive and proportionate criminal penalties for these and other environmental crimes.

What can you do?

The illegal pet trade is widespread across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. If you must buy a live animal, please make sure you buy from a reputable pet shops and demand a certificate of origin. Caged birds purchased in pet shops and in markets may have been illegally taken from the wild. This includes songbirds, parrots as well as common species. 

When in doubt, please contact your local BirdLife partner.

Depending on the country, the sale of certain wild songbirds by restaurants and butchers is also strictly controlled. Please report all suspected bird crime to the police and to your local BirdLife partner.