24 Endangered Amazon Parrot Chicks Rescued From Sophisticated Wildlife Trafficking Operation In Florida

Photos by: The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation

Two dozen rare Amazon parrot chicks left orphaned and homeless by a sophisticated wildlife smuggling operation are receiving round-the-clock care by Florida International University (FIU) conservation zoologists.

The parrots were poached from their nests as eggs, though some had hatched by the time they were discovered in a Chinese national’s carry-on bag (a cleverly disguised incubator) by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents on March 23 at Miami International Airport. This presented a unique challenge for the federal agencies that regulate the importation of wildlife due to the agency’s lack of equipment and means to hatch and care for the birds at the airport’s USDA quarantine facility.

The agency contacted Paul Reillo, research professor and director of FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute, for assistance. The eggs and hatchlings were transported to the institute’s program partner, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), where they have been cared for ever since.

“It’s clear this was part of a very sophisticated trafficking operation,” said Reillo, who is also the founding director of RSCF. “It’s not easy to assemble a group of this many eggs synchronized to all hatch around the same time.”

The smuggler, who was traveling from Nicaragua to Asia with a total of 29 eggs, was arrested and recently pled guilty to wildlife trafficking charges — one of the largest parrot-smuggling busts in recent years.

Twenty-six of 29 eggs hatched, with 24 parrot chicks surviving and now fully feathered. FIU researchers oversaw DNA species identification, revealing that three of the parrots are red-lored Amazons and the other 21 are endangered yellow-naped Amazons. Yellow-naped Amazons are threatened with extinction and prohibited from international trade. Their beauty, temperament, and mimicking ability make them among the most trafficked parrot species. More than 90% of the species wild nests are poached for the illegal pet trade.

“This batch of intercepted eggs likely represents a significant fraction of offspring from a swath of forest, seriously impacting species already in trouble,” Reillo said.  “In high demand as pets with high price tags on their heads, parrots have become innocent victims of human greed. Aside from the sheer number of eggs, what makes this case unusual, is that most of the intercepted eggs were viable and the chicks survived. Smuggled animals often experience very high mortality.”

For more than 30 years, Reillo and his team have successfully bred and managed endangered parrot species to support their recovery in the wild. Incubating and caring for the smuggled hatchlings is demanding work, as they require round-the-clock care.

For 45 days, the parrots remained under federally mandated quarantine. Today, they are thriving. Sadly, due to political issues and because the birds are being hand-reared, they are poor candidates for repatriation or release. Reillo and the USFWS hope the birds will find new homes at wildlife centers where they can serve as conservation ambassadors, educating the public about the consequences of wildlife trafficking.

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