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Home » 2009 - Issue 2, Conservation, In the Wild, Issue

uPholi* Want a Forest - the Plight of the Cape Parrot

By Steve Boyes
Principal Investigator of Cape Parrot Project DST/NRF Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow
(Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town)
*Zulu nickname for Cape Parrot or isiKwenene


Parrots have the largest number of threatened species of any bird family, whereby over 90 of the 332 recognized parrot species in the world are threatened by global extinction. Around 73 of these species have habitat loss, fragmentation or degradation as factors influencing their threat status, while 39 are under pressure from capture and nest poaching for the wild-caught bird trade. The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus) falls in with the 28 parrot species affected by both pressures.

Having undergone a population collapse over the last 50 - 100 years, Cape Parrots are recognized as critically-endangered in South Africa, with between 1000 and 1500 parrots remaining in the wild.

Unjustified, or unsubstantiated, changes in taxonomy, more often than not, lead to confusion, supporting illegal or unsustainable trade in wild species, counter-productive changes to conservation status and international trade regulations - and accruing significant benefit to special interest groups (eg traders) as opposed to the species in question.

Birdlife International has, therefore, been reluctant to accept the Cape Parrot as an independent species from the Grey-headed Parrot (P. fuscicollis suahelicus) and Brown-necked Parrot (P. f. fuscicollis), citing concerns around niche overlap with Grey-headed Parrots in Malawi, and the possibility of stimulating illegal trade in what is currently recognized as a critically-endangered subspecies.

A comprehensive review of peer-reviewed findings supports independent species status for the Cape Parrot, recognizing that, based on current criteria, this would elevate their threat status from “Least Concern” to “Critically Endangered” and result in their likely inclusion in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I.

With a recognized global population of less than 1500 Cape Parrots in the wild, their market value could soar, thus stimulating the illegal wild-caught bird trade already operating throughout their distributional range.  The risk of stimulating an already problematic illegal trade in Cape Parrots would, if unregulated, result in further population decline, but still pales in comparison to the conservation action required to save this species from extinction.

These are important times in Cape Parrot conservation, and, as Winston Churchill said:  “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”  No longer can we dither on what amount to taxonomic technicalities, what we need now is conservation action.  
Recognition as an independent species by Birdlife International and CITES would provide improved access to conservation and research investment from established grant schemes, conservation NGOs, corporate sponsors, government, import/export authorities, and charitable donors.  Urgency created around classification as Critically-Endangered is the stimulus to gain the financial and societal investment necessary for the recovery of the Cape Parrot to population levels robust to the extinction threats of the 21st century (eg climate change).

The global Cape Parrot population is split equally between two disjunct populations in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, with an additional isolated population of approximately 100 parrots persisting in the Woodbush-Wolkberg forests in Limpopo Province.  Cape Parrots are unique to South Africa and need to be recognized as proudly South African, a unique part of our natural heritage, our only endemic parrot species.  As we prepare for the 2010 World Cup here in South Africa, polishing all our national treasures for presentation to the world, we should count the Cape Parrot in with the Blue Crane, the springbok, and the protea.  We should be proud to still hear them screeching and whistling in our most pristine yellowwood forests, ambassadors of our forest heritage.

An integral part of South African natural heritage are the four majestic yellowwood tree species, the Breede River yellowwood (Podocarpus elongatus), the Outeniqua yellowwood (P. falcatus), Henkel’s yellowwood (P. henkelii), and the Real yellowwood (P. latifolius).  When visiting Afromontane mistbelt forests in South Africa, you will often find a sign for or hear of the “big tree”, which will invariably be a gargantuan Outeniqua yellowwood standing alone, proud in the forest.  I have yet to meet someone who isn’t taken back by the sheer size and majesty of such a tree.

Our passion for yellowwoods here in South Africa, however, goes far beyond their aesthetic and intrinsic value.  It is much deeper, under the bark in fact. Our attentions historically have been focused on the wonderful, warm yellow timber ready grown in long straight beams, perfect for building ships, cathedrals, forts, furniture, wagons and much else.  Shortly after the discovery of the Orangekloof forests behind Table Mountain in June 1652, we began over three hundred years of almost systematically removing yellowwood trees from the landscape mosaic.

The first Dutch surveyors described these forests as “full of large, tall, straight, heavy, medium and small trees, suitable (for) the largest construction one could desire”.  Well, these forests have long disappeared and so too have the large flocks of Cape Parrots reported as far south as Knysna and Storms River.  But was this solely the result of the logging of yellowwood trees in the past, or the product of several factors?  More later…

Pioneering research on the ecology of Cape Parrots in the mistbelt Podocarpus forests of southern KwaZulu-Natal, by CJ Skead (Percy Fitzpatrick Institute) and the late Olaf Wirminghaus (University of Natal), produced high-quality empirical data supporting a very strong link between Cape Parrots and yellowwood trees, whereby Cape Parrots are dependent on the three yellowwood species distributed within their range (ie Podocarpus falcatus, P. latifolius and P. henkeli) for sustenance and nesting opportunities.  Their research in the Hlabeni and Ingeli forests demonstrated specialized feeding on Podocarpus sp. fruits, whereby over 76% of their diet over three years constituted yellowwood pods.


Similarly, 75% of Cape Parrot nesting records were secondary nest cavities (ie excavated by a woodpecker or barbet) in tall yellowwood snags (ie standing dead trees).  Cape Parrots can, therefore, be considered perfect ambassadors for the Afromontane mixed Podocarpus mistbelt forests they depend upon.  We need to recognize the distress calls being put out by these forest ambassadors and look at ways to better support these forest ecosystems and the multitude of plant and animal species that inhabit them.

Cape Parrots are long-lived (probably up to 30 years in the wild), mature late, often do not breed annually, and raise few chicks to adulthood over their lifetimes.  Ongoing monitoring of Cape Parrot population levels over 12 years throughout their distributional range - by Prof Colleen Downs of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - have demonstrated that the Cape Parrot exists in a population bottleneck of approximately 1200 parrots.  This population bottleneck (imagine a population curve that suddenly begins to narrow until it looks like half a wine bottle on its side - not a good sign) demonstrates the inability of Cape Parrots to recover their population levels under current conditions.  Whether this is directly linked to the number of large yellowwoods in our forests, avian disease, capture for the illegal wild-caught bird trade or persecution as a crop pest, requires further discussion…

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