Thanks to Brendan Borrell for sleuthing this through to publication, with evocative illustrations, in Audubon Magazine:
THE PARROT KING
OVER THE PAST 14 YEARS, MARTIN GUTH HAS BUILT A MONOPOLY ON SOME OF THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS. WILL HIS SECRETIVE ORGANIZATION ULTIMATELY HELP PUT MORE PARROTS IN THE WILD, AS HE SAYS—OR PUSH THEM CLOSER TO EXTINCTION?
For Stephen Durand, March 16, 2018, began like most other days—with an inordinate amount of squawking. Durand lives on the Caribbean island of Dominica and oversaw the federal aviary that houses rescued parrots, including casualties of Hurricane Maria. Six months earlier, the storm had leveled large numbers of the island’s trees and stripped many more of their fruit and foliage, threatening two endemic parrot species.
The festive green Red-necked Parrot, or Jaco, and the monkish, mountain-dwelling Imperial Parrot are a source of pride for Dominicans. When their populations were at an all-time low in the 1980s, Durand helped launch an amnesty program to reclaim pet parrots for research and education. After the hurricane, he hosted International Fund for Animal Welfare veterinarians who performed surgeries under generator-powered lights. “Goal is to RELEASE back home to their wild habitat!” they wrote on Twitter that February. Four Jacos were set free and aviary staff tended to those still recuperating.
In March Permanent Secretary of Agriculture Reginald Thomas sent a memo to Durand’s boss: “None of the birds being housed at the facility should be released into the wild until further notice.” Durand had an inkling of what this was about. For years he’d been concerned about a group of deep-pocketed European parrot enthusiasts cozying up to island leadership, promising to build capacity “at a local level to better manage the island’s resources,” as they wrote in a 2012 letter. Durand was skeptical. “I had been trying to avoid these people for a long time,” he says.
Led by a German named Martin Gerhard Guth, the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) bills itself as a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered parrots and their habitats. Since its founding in 2006, countries, institutions, and people across the Americas have handed over rare birds to ACTP for captive breeding to rebuild populations—including Caribbean Amazons and Spix’s Macaws, which are extinct in the wild. The organization operates a licensed zoo in Germany, and birds are also kept in the personal aviaries of ACTP’s members, who pay $1,100 to join. Surplus parrots that members and zoos don’t want are traded or sold to outside breeders. One ACTP representative, for instance, sells Hyacinth Macaw chicks at his pet shop that can go for around $18,000 apiece. How many birds are bred versus collected or sold nobody knows, because ACTP does not publicly disclose its finances or structure.
When Durand left work that Friday, he told the staff he’d be attending a funeral the next day. After services, Durand got alarming news: The parrots were gone. Several Germans, accompanied by the agriculture minister, extracted the 12 healthiest specimens. The birds were flown to ACTP’s invitation-only zoo outside of Berlin—a place that so zealously guards its flock that visitors aren’t allowed to take photos without permission.
“Rare endangered parrots illegally smuggled from Dominica,” blared one headline. Both Jacos and Imperial Parrots are regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but Thomas—a political appointee—approved the export permits without the sign-off from Dominican CITES authorities. Paul Reillo, president of the Florida-based Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, co-organized dozens of conservationists, including Audubon’s international director, Matthew Jeffery, to demand the parrots’ return. “There is a long history of rare Amazon parrots being taken from the Eastern Caribbean to Europe for captive breeding, with the expectation that their progeny will be released,” they wrote in an open letter. “None of these efforts have born[e] fruit.”
Read the whole article here.