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A young Cape parrot perches on a branch.

A young Cape parrot perches on a branch.

Photograph by Cyril Laubscher, Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Steve Boyes.

Steve Boyes is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Photograph by Vikki Boyes, National Geographic

David Braun

National Geographic

Published June 14, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo The green and gold Cape parrot (Poicephalus robustus) is one of the most endangered parrots in the world.

The only parrot endemic to South Africa, fewer than a thousand individuals survive in the last patches of its dwindling habitat of yellowwood forest.

As the Cape parrot's yellowwood fruit resource disappears, the bird has changed its diet—for example, turning to pecan trees—but it's not always able to find sufficiently wholesome food. Malnutrition makes it more susceptible to a deadly virus that in some years has infected as much as 100 percent of the birds. (Related post: "Africa's Most Endangered Parrot Revealed Like Never Before.")

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Steve Boyes is trying to pull the Cape parrot back from the brink of oblivion.

Boyes has a plan to restore the endemic yellowwood forests that once flourished across a wide swath of the southern tip of Africa, giving the parrots and other species that depend on the trees a chance to rebound. The plan involves many local communities that also stand to benefit from the return of the forests. It's a strategy in which villagers, parrots, and yellowwood trees share a healthy ecosystem for the benefit of all.

Boyes is in Washington, D.C., this week for the annual National Geographic Explorers Symposium, where he talked to us about his work, which is funded in part by the National Geographic Conservation Trust.

Is South Africa's Cape parrot the world's most endangered parrot? Is there any good news to report following all the work you have done to save it?

A. Between 800 and 1,000 individuals survive in the wild. It's definitely one of the most endangered parrots, if not the most endangered parrot in the world. (Related video: "Rescuing the Endangered Cape Parrot.")

The good news this year is that the rate of psittacine beak and feather disease infection that plagued the parrot in recent years appears to be coming down.

In 2011 the entire Cape parrot population we caught and tested was infected with the disease, following a dire food shortage for the birds after a prolonged drought and severe hailstorms that knocked the flowers off our pecan trees in Alice (map). Pecans are a very important nutrition resource for the birds four months of the year. As a result of losing that food resource and no other food being available to them, they lost condition and the virus became overwhelming.

What's so special about saving this particular bird? Is it because it is a beautiful and rare parrot?

The Cape parrot serves very nicely as an ambassador for threatened ecosystems. The [indigenous] Xhosa people know it as iziKhwenene. If you shout iziKhwenene in a village, people respond automatically. People know that this parrot is associated with their enterprise projects and the restoration of their forests. (Related post: "Establishing Local Communities as Forest Custodians to Save the Cape Parrot.")

They want those forests back, especially as they watched them being torn apart during the years of apartheid by companies exploiting them and not sharing the proceeds with the local communities. The older people have stories and traditions about their forests.

The Cape parrot is the only parrot endemic to South Africa. It is the most beautiful parrot in South Africa. It's green and gold, the colors of South Africa's national athletic teams. We need a national sports team to adopt the Cape parrot as its mascot, like rugby has the springbok. It's as simple as that in conservation; if people care about it, good things will start happening.

Cape parrots have survived the destruction of their ecosystem even while many other species of the ancient yellowwood forests have disappeared. An ancient bird that has survived all that's happened must be very special. Of course we must try to save it. (Watch a video of Cape parrots in the wild.)

Is the parrot pet trade a concern?

It's a problem. The more we showcase the parrot and make people aware of its situation, the more people want them as pets. The price for healthy breeding parrots has soared. We've seen birds go from $300 each in 2003 to as much as $12,000 for a pair today. Collectors want the rarest, most endangered parrot in Africa, if not the world. It's a beautiful bird too. (See more bird pictures.)

Back in the day, before the European settlers started ripping out the yellowwood forests that sustained these birds, how many Cape parrots might there have been in South Africa?

We have no idea. But in 1972, according to a letter from pecan farmers, flocks of 1,200 parrots were observed visiting orchards and tearing them to pieces. The farmers wrote about shooting them, catching them in nets, killing them. They pleaded to the government to come and witness what the parrots were doing to their commercial farming operation. That alone illustrates how many birds there used to be. Today there are fewer Cape parrots in total than were in that one flock reported in 1972.

I would estimate that the forests in South Africa's Amathole mountain range could sustainably host as many as 8,000 to 10,000 Cape parrots. Instead, today there are flocks of between 10 and 30 individuals in small isolated patches of forest. These fragmented flocks come together at feeding sites like the Cape Parrot Sanctuary at the University of Fort Hare, where we keep pecan trees for them to feed on for four or five months of the year.

How did your grant from the National Geographic Conservation Trust boost your Cape parrot project?

That grant was extremely important because it was granted urgently to focus on the linkage of the psittacine beak and feather disease virus with the wild population of Cape parrots. It resulted in the discovery of a 50 percent infection rate in the first year and a 100 percent infection rate in the second year of that study. In that research we sequenced the genome of the virus, and now we understand that it is an endemic disease; it's been in the Cape parrots for at least 18,000 years. (Learn more about National Geographic explorers.)

The disease did not come from macaws or budgerigars in captivity, or some other source. The virus dates back to a time when the yellowwood forests were connected together, before climate change fragmented them. It normally infects only a small percentage of the birds, but in times of starvation—because of loss of their food resources—the virus has infected a great many of them.

How have you involved local communities in your project?

The communities are planting all of the trees for us. They find the seeds and grow them. We've decentralized completely, creating micro-nurseries in many villages. Typically it's the grandparents and young children who are involved. We pay for each tree they grow and transplant for us in the forests.

We pay between $2 and $5 per tree, depending on how much care they put into growing the trees. If a grower does well for us, as most of them do, we will double up the number of trees we ask from them in a season, so that in time they can build a decent source of income.

We also fence off one or two hectares of land between the forest and the village, where we plant fruiting wild olives, plums, and other indigenous trees. We hire two people and task the whole community to protect these plantations from fire and cattle, which also discourages the movement of both cattle and fire toward the main forests.

For the planting of the young trees in the forests, we recruit teams of five planters—no more than one planter per household, so we spread the benefits across the entire community. Depending on how well the community protects the fruiting trees, they get compensated in the form of community benefits such as fencing of pastures, painting schools, and so on.

We have tried to involve as many people as possible in the custody of the Amathole forests, and our efforts have produced results. Today you can see community-planted forests almost the size of state forests. (See more South Africa pictures.)

Are the forests still harvested for yellowwood?

Yes. There is no political support to start a zero quota for harvesting yellowwoods. But I wrote an open letter to President Jacob Zuma on National Geographic News Watch, and as a result he asked the appropriate cabinet minister to establish a forum in the Eastern Cape. It met three weeks ago and on the agenda was establishing a yellowwood harvesting quota, yellowwood protected areas, and a national heritage tree list.

The heritage tree list will identify and mark the most precious specimens in the forests so that they cannot be harvested. I hope there will be eventually be as many as 30,000 trees identified as important and strategic, never to be touched.

We're also working on setting aside as much as 10 percent of the forests as reserves, which would be a haven for trees, birds, and other animals such as bushbuck and bushpig.

What help do you need to realize your dream for the Cape parrot?

We need support, financial and otherwise, to reestablish the forests. We are the only NGO doing this. The government is not doing this. We're alone and we need help to make it happen.

We can bring these forests back, and with them the parrots and other animals that depend on the trees. My dream is to see flocks of a thousand parrots or more flying over reestablished forests. I think our communities can plant a million trees, and this can all come true.

22 comments
R Smoak
R Smoak

He never concretely said it was the rarest or most endangered parrot in the world; if you read the article carefully he does say that it is the rarest in South Africa and POSSIBLY the world.  Not sure how that is pushing an agenda...I think you're looking for infowars.com

Sarah L.
Sarah L.

Its really great that the communities living among them are involved. No sense in not including them in the protection- I just hope none are turning around and poaching the birds.

KIRITKUMAR DAVE
KIRITKUMAR DAVE

really ! it's great to watch the rarest bird , lovly parrot

Nupur Deb Burman
Nupur Deb Burman

It is pleasure to know the great efforts being to save the parrot hearty wish could part of the team well done 

Sukumar Sundaramoorthy
Sukumar Sundaramoorthy

Steve you are doing a GREAT job, this beautiful parrot should not be endangered, we've to protect it.

Gavin Heath
Gavin Heath

The dire truth is very simple, through habitat reduction it's primarily the base or smaller species that spiral into decline at alarming rates globally. Deliberating the validity of one species decline to another's is counter productive and irrelevant. The time for discussions is over, action needs to be taken expeditiously for the stabilisation of the global system to even have a chance at recovery. I am South African, and I have only seen this parrot in captivity and as a museum exhibit. I was left the task of explaining to my daughters that the stuffed animals were once alive and those that still are may soon not be at all. I look at the plight of the Rhino here and see the plight of the Cape Parrot, Spix Macaw, Kakapo or even the critical losses of amphibians across the globe as equally critical. I really feel that it's not the responsibility of conservation alone, but of zoo's, sanctuaries, media and educators as well as parents alike to take action now. I would like to thank NatGeo and Steve Boyes and all the dedicated people concerned for all their work. I only hope that there are similar or better campaigns to raise awareness and conserve the other critical species mentioned in these comments within the native countries that they inhabit.   

chuck hawkes
chuck hawkes

I think that it should be mentioned that no aviculturalist in his right mind would bring PBFD in to their avaries for any price so maybe these prices are for captive raised birds that have not been exposed to PBFD. I think the first thing they should consatrate on is reinstalling the habitat so their is a food soucre and nesting  sites for the birds. That is the major problem with the Large Macaws like Hyacinth, Lear's, Spix's and Blue Throated which require certin Palm trees on which to live in and nest in, in South America because of cheap beef for McDonalds and other establishments.

chuck hawkes
chuck hawkes

If they are smart they will do captive breeding than produce babies with out  psittacine beak and feather disease than replant the habitat and than reintroduce the captive population of Cape Parrots from captive birds. Than maybe they would have suffesent food for the population.

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore

Thanks for the comments, though their deliveries are unfortunate. We've tweaked the headline to say South Africa's rarest. 

Chris Zepeda
Chris Zepeda

The kakapo is the most endangered parrot in the world. Less than 200 individuals in existence.

Bruce Hudson
Bruce Hudson

World's rarest parrot? I think not. Kakapo (Flightless Parrot) has 124 individuals left - nearly double the number back in 1992.  

Though of course that doesn't detract in any way how worthwhile the project is, just perhaps an overstatement of an enthusiastic project worker (Steve Boyes), and poor editing skills by National Geographic who draw attention to the statement by using it in the title.

Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!
Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!

Whoever wrote this article either has an agenda or doesn’t have a clue about what are the real facts. This is far from the rarest parrot in the wild or captivity. This upsets me because I am tired of people that sit in an office somewhere trying to control everyone else. Our world is becoming full of so many rules, laws and regulations that you can’t seem to wake up in the morning without breaking one of them.

Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!
Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!

I read articles with lies like this one has and think of how those few ignorant ones sitting in their office with no real world experience are trying to cram crap down the rest of the world’s ears so they can gain sympathy for the control that they wish to impose on the lives of all the rest of the world.

The rarest Parrot in the world is probably the Spix Macaw. Last known count there is 1 in the wild and 79 in captivity. If it were not for those that love these birds there would be none in captivity and 0 in the wild. 15 Years ago there were fewer than 15 in captivity. It is through the knowledge, hard work, dedication, and genetics of those birds that are kept by bird lovers that are why there are any of this species at all as well as others.

Do gooders writing baseless articles and worse do gooders influencing politicions to create oppressive laws are trying to make it impossible for those that love these birds to continue to care for them in captivity. Loose those good people and you have nothing. Where do you think the zoos get them from? Where do you think the zoos gained their knowledge of how to care for them from? Where do you think zoos gained the knowledge of how to breed each species from? How do you think their gene pool can stay vast enough to not cause them to go extinct? By all the private owners in the world that breed and care for all the different lovely species of parrots.

Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!
Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!

The Spix Macaw is alive today because of private individuals that love these birds and sacrifice to breed them. The Lears Macaw is almost extinct in the wild. Less than 30 in the wild. Less than 100 in captivity. The Hyacinth Macaw has fewer than 1,000 in the wild and fewer than 2,500 in captivity around the planet. These birds are and have been losing their natural habitat. There are those that love them and are trying to help them by buying up ranches and farms and planting the trees specific to their needs. But just as important maybe more is all the captive breeding that is going on around the world.

There are other parrots more rare than the one in this article as well. But I think my point has been made. Why sensationalize and lie? Try telling the truth!

f ampstifier
f ampstifier

bust it's not always able to find sufficiently wholesome food

should be 'but', not 'bust'

Marie H.
Marie H.

@Joe Ask The NSA for my last name!Whoa, calm down. The way that sentence was phrased does not mean that this is definitely the rarest bird in the world, simply that people will pay for the rarest birds. From your comments, it's hard to tell where you stand on this issue. Do you care about parrots? Do you care about the environment at all? Do you realize that without a healthy environment, the human race is doomed? Probably not. You seem to be only concerned with big business and laws stopping you from raping the Earth bare. Stop using "do gooder" as an insult, and try doing some good in the world yourself.

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