African greys are considered endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Estimates of global populations vary wildly, from around 600,000 to over 13 million individuals. Either way, populations are rapidly declining and are estimated to be as low as 1% of what they once were.
It has been remarkably difficult to study African grey parrots in the wild for a variety of reasons.
They are highly secretive animals, and this has made accurate estimates of their population very hard to achieve.
Nonetheless, it is clear to see that their numbers are dwindling and human influence has been devastating for these birds.
Let’s find out more.
How many African greys are left in the world?
Answering this question presents a number of difficulties.
The simple answer is we really are not sure how many African greys are left in the world, though there are many estimates.
These estimates, however, vary enormously—the highest estimates for their current wild numbers are just over 13 million, while the lowest is only 600,000.
You might wonder how estimates can vary so much on a simple question of numbers.
The fact is, though, that African greys have always been particularly elusive and hard to study in their natural environment.
They are prey animals to many other species, such as other large birds, and this has led them to lead very secretive lives for the most part.
They avoid contact of any kind with people and indeed other species in general. Being birds, it’s quite easy for them to do this, too.
This has made it incredibly difficult to study not only their numbers but also their behavior.
It is for this reason, then, that estimates of their numbers in the wild are so hard to achieve.
Most agree that the numbers are probably somewhere between half a million and three million individuals—few would estimate the numbers are as high as 13 million.
In any case, even the most generous estimates of population numbers still paint a fairly dire picture.
The current population is at most 10% of the former number and may be as low as 1%.
In other words, the African grey population has been decimated by as much as 99%.
African greys are in a bad way, then.
There are a few reasons for this which we will get into later, but first it’s important to understand where in the world they come from.
Where do African greys come from?
African grey parrots, it will come as no surprise, are native to Africa.
Specifically, they are found throughout Equatorial Africa, such as in places like Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda.
They inhabit a fairly wide range, then, from Kenya to the eastern Ivory Coast.
They tend to favor the cover of dense forests, though they are also frequently found living at the edges of such forests and more rarely in open vegetation like savanna.
Roosts that had once housed as many as 1200 individuals now held only 18, and out of 42 forested areas surveyed in Ghana, only 10 were found to have living African grey populations.
A 2015 study showed that the bird had been all but eliminated from Ghana.
Populations are somewhat more stable in other places like Cameroon, but in the Congo, it’s estimated more than 15,000 of them are shipped out of the country every year in the pet trade.
So, in other words, African greys are in trouble.
Why, exactly, is this the case?
Why is the African grey endangered?
There is naturally no one reason why African greys are endangered, and the whole picture is fairly complex.
That said, the bulk of the issue can be attributed to one or two factors.
The pet trade is undoubtedly one of the worst offenders in the decline of wild African grey species. Congo, as mentioned above, is a great example.
The annual quota of African greys to be exported from Congo is only 5,000 and yet 15,000 are exported every year.
The population simply cannot keep up with this level of pet trade, and the story is the same in many countries.
Indeed, when surveyed, the pet trade was the number one reason locals thought that the population of this parrot had dwindled so catastrophically.
The other primary reason is the destruction of their habitat.
Again, locals generally thought that the felling of trees for the timber trade was the next biggest factor in explaining why the African grey parrot was in so much danger.
It is hard to overstate the level of destruction that global forest habitats have undergone, and the forests of equatorial Africa are no different.
Most of this felling of trees is done either for the lumber trade or to make space for farmland.
As their habitat is destroyed, the overall population is forced into smaller and smaller areas of forest.
They do, as mentioned, sometimes live out of forests, but the vast majority live in the deep forest.
As mentioned, they are very secretive species, so the cover of the forest is perfect for them.
As they pack into tighter and tighter areas of woodland, competition between individuals becomes fiercer.
Fewer and fewer survive into adulthood, and the breeding pool is slowly diminished.
Without more space to live in, it’s hard to see how the African grey population will recover from this.
When did this all start, then?
When did African greys become endangered?
Again, it’s hard to put a precise date on it because African greys are so hard to study in the wild.
Surveys of their population number have taken place for decades, but it is specifically the figures that come to us from the 1990s that we need to look at.
For example, the aforementioned survey in Ghana carried out in 2015 compared population numbers now to their levels in 1992, and found a decline of 90-99% in that time.
It certainly seems, then, that the vast majority of the population decline of this species has taken place over the last thirty years or so.
Since the 1990s, their figures have dropped massively.
No doubt the destruction of their habitat and the pet trade had already taken a considerable toll on the species before then, but things have really sped up in the last few years.
It was in 2017 that the species was officially listed as in danger of extinction, in light of the recent surveys undertaken which showed the rapid decline of their numbers.
Will African greys go extinct, then?
Will African greys go extinct?
It is certainly entirely possible that African greys could go extinct in the wild.
Captive breeding programs, for better or worse, will most likely prevent the total extinction of the species at least for some time.
Whether captive breeding will stave off extinction forever is hard to say, as without outside breeding stock for the gene pool things can get difficult.
However, reintroducing African greys to the wild would not be entirely impossible.
Under well-managed programs, you can have success in releasing populations of parrots into the wild.
Their populations can bounce back, though it’s not as simple as just releasing them.
No such program is planned as of now, though, so the future of this species is deeply uncertain.
Is it illegal to sell African grey parrots?
Naturally, the answer to this question varies a lot based on the country, but in general, it is not illegal to trade African greys—provided you have the proper paperwork.
Furthermore, cross-border international trade in the species is completely banned, so you cannot legally purchase an African grey from an international seller.
This is in an effort to curb the export trade which is the cause of so much of the population’s decline.
To legally sell an African grey, then, you can only do so domestically and you can only do so with the proper paperwork.
Otherwise, it is illegal to sell African greys and you could face fines for doing so.
The future of this species teeters on the brink of extinction, then.
Their numbers are declining far more quickly than we could hope for, and this makes it very difficult to address the problem.
Already, enormous, irreversible damage has been done to the wild population of this beautiful bird.
With future legislation and conservation efforts, hopefully, the African grey’s natural habitat can be preserved and the species saved from extinction—but things certainly don’t look good as they stand.