by Tristen Taylor, Ingrid Gercama, Nathalie Bertrams and Nemanja Rujević, Daily Maverick
February 15, 2023
Bane Kilibarda, one of Serbia’s top bird traders, is a specialist in birds of prey. When Daily Maverick’s Serbian investigator called him up to ask if he imported birds from the West African country of Guinea, Kilibarda yelled that he would not speak to “fascists from the European Union”, and that “the west always blames Serbia for everything”.
Word had spread among Serbian bird traders that journalists were investigating the country’s role in the illegal global wildlife trade, estimated to be worth between $7-billion and $23-billion.
Since the 1970s, trafficked people and drugs have flowed across the Balkans route, going into the European Union (EU) from countries like Serbia and Albania. When the EU banned the importation of wild birds in 2005, the illegal trade along the Balkans route gathered pace.
The main problem, according to Svetlana Nikolić* of Serbia’s Public Prosecutor’s Office, is that “Serbia is a transit country for all kinds of smuggling. The same route might be used for human and wildlife trafficking. But of course people are more important, and almost nobody cares about wildlife crime.”
Europol, the EU’s version of Interpol, estimates that up to 50% of all smuggled birds die in transit.
Regulating the unknown
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) figures, between 2020 and 2022 up to 35,618 birds were legally exported to Serbia from Guinea.
CITES in Guinea issued certificates of origin to five Guinean companies to export 120 different species. Included in the list are the yellow-fronted canary (5,640 certificates), a small bird that sings in a rapid series of beautiful, high-pitched chirps, and black-and-white-casqued hornbill (four certificates), which weighs up to 1.5 kg and has a wingspan of 70 to 90 cm.
The birds from Guinea aren’t on CITES’ Appendix I or II lists, which means they can be traded at the country’s sole discretion as long as there is a certificate of origin. Guinea used to trade in Appendix I and II species; those that are near extinction or highly endangered.
But in 2013, CITES headquarters in Switzerland banned the country from trading in protected species due to overexploitation and corruption.
In 2015, Interpol arrested Ansoumane Doumbouya, the former head of the CITES Management Authority of Guinea for issuing fraudulent export permits for endangered parrots, chimpanzees and gorillas.
Despite repeated attempts, CITES in Belgrade refused to speak to Daily Maverick. Incidentally, the CITES office is located in Serbia’s ministry for the environment and has just two employees.
Songbirds account for most of Guinea’s exports to Serbia.
Daily Maverick asked Commander Mohamed Fofana, the current head of CITES in Guinea, about the bird populations in the country of those exported to Serbia. He said, “We can not give you the exact numbers on how many birds there are left. There are some studies, but not for all species. Most studies are old.”
Moreover, there is little data about the sustainability of the trade as a whole, according to the Monitor Conservation Research Society (MCRS), an NGO dedicated to stopping the illegal and unsustainable trade in lesser-known species.
Of the 6,000 species of songbirds, only 58 are under CITES protection: there is just not enough research on the others to declare them endangered. We simply do not know how many songbirds there are.
The danger is that by the time the songbird trade is discovered to be unsustainable, it’s simply too late and more species will crater towards the human-caused sixth mass extinction.
Chris Shepherd, the executive director of the MCRS, says about the sustainability of the songbird trade: “For most species coming out of Africa, there is nothing published on the trade. Nothing. Plus there are few people who care about songbirds.”
An awful lot of people in the European Union, however, really do like to listen to African birds singing in cages.
48 million ornamental birds kept as pets
The exhibition hall in the Dutch south-central city of ’s-Hertogenbosch was long, high and lit with harsh industrial lighting. Holding perforated wooden cases to transport their purchased exotic birds, thousands of shoppers filed into Europe’s largest bird fair, AviMarkt 2022, open for just a single day.
Shoppers walked past rows and rows of birds in cages on long wooden trestles resting on a bare concrete floor. The only thing that offered even a hint of nature was the loud birdsong, an unnatural mishmash of a vast array of species.
AviMarkt 2022 was the 72nd time the show had been held. More than two million birds are kept as pets in the Netherlands, which has a population of 17.8 million. And across the entire EU, 48.7 million exotic birds are kept as pets.
Harald Garretsen is an inspector at the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority and he patrolled the AviMarkt. He was on the lookout for illegal birds, missing or fraudulent papers, and counterfeit identification rings on the birds’ legs.
At the 2021 fair, he confiscated exotic birds being illegally sold out of the trunk of a trader’s car in AviMarkt’s parking lot.
“People always want what someone else has,”
Garretsen says about exotic birds, “and always bigger and more expensive. It’s like with cars… they want the more exclusive – and where it comes from, they don’t care so much.”
Shepherd concurs. “Songbirds are being traded for their colour, their song and their perceived rarity. In Europe, it is a status thing. You have rare birds… how cool are you?” He goes on to say that “fashion changes; no one wants last season’s bird, they want something new.”
The EU’s 2005 ban on importation wasn’t born out of a concern for animal welfare, but to stop the spread of avian flu, which is deadly for poultry. Between May and June 2015, and in response to an outbreak of the disease, 25 million chickens in the US were culled at a rate of nearly 300 per minute.
As the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reports, the continent is experiencing its worst epidemic of bird flu, which has spread to 37 European countries. Since October 2021, at least 50 million domestic birds have been culled in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.
There is a massive loophole in the EU’s importation ban on birds that aren’t protected by CITES. Smuggled birds, like the songbirds from Guinea, become legal once they are inside the EU.
Simon Bruslund, an ornithologist working for conservation NGO Birdlife International, says “the birds are openly sold once they arrive; they just need to get over that EU border. That is the most critical point. And Serbia comes up in this whole trade.”
José Alfaro Moreno, the head of Europol’s network of law enforcement agencies that fight environmental crimes, also points out that breeders require wild-caught birds.
“You need fresh blood. You cannot always use the same specimens to breed, because otherwise you are breeding brothers and sisters.”
Even in the case of endangered species, those on CITES’ Appendix I and II lists, unscrupulous breeders can easily make the birds legal.
Moreno explains: “The breeders take the documents of a dead breeding bird and give it to a new, smuggled specimen. They then breed with that. You have basically laundered the illegal activity – the baby birds have then become legal.”
Since the ban has come into place, according to Europol, smuggling has increased and prices have risen. Moreno says a pair of breeding parrots can now fetch up to €100,000.
Where Robert Mugabe sent rhinos to die
Daily Maverick obtained hard copies of the 35,618 certificates of origin that Guinea issued for the trade to Serbia between 2020 and 2022. In total, CITES in Guinea issued 226,164 certificates of origin.
One out of every six birds is approved for export to Serbia.
Milan Ružić of the Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia points out a major weakness in the legal trade. He says “every bird that is being shipped should have proper CITES papers. But would guys who check on a shipment of thousands of birds at 2am at the Belgrade airport know to recognise the species?
“Two birds can really look alike… one can be critically endangered and the other fully legal. Even me, as a trained ornithologist, I can tell all European species apart, but not African ones.”
Miroslav Petrović* is another scientist who also has intimate knowledge of the animal trade. He states that the “Serbian Veterinarian Office is probably the most bribed service in Serbia. Whether they are checking on the health of imported animals or are dealing with stray animals, they are completely bribed.”
Serbia’s Veterinary Directorate in the Ministry of Agriculture refused to speak to Daily Maverick.
In 2010, ABC News revealed that former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe sent two black rhinos to the Belgrade Zoo in the 1980s, back when Serbia was part of Yugoslavia. He also sent two other rhinos to North Korea. All four died soon afterwards because of inadequate and inexperienced veterinary care.
Thankfully, the standard of care at the Belgrade Zoo has improved considerably. The zoo isn’t just in the centre of the Kalemegdan fortress, of which the first version was built in 279 BCE. It is a popular venue with a pleasant atmosphere.
Daily Maverick sat down at the zoo’s cafe, near the zebra and giraffe enclosures, with Kristijan Ovari. He is the chief biologist at the zoo and has been working in the sector for the past 20 years.
While there are shelters for dogs and cats, there aren’t any for birds and exotic animals, so the zoo has to take them in and is thus overcrowded.
Ovari says “we often have birds confiscated from smugglers. That’s an issue because specimens from a foreign environment can’t be released into the wild. It’s a big challenge for the zoo”.
When the confiscated animals arrive at the zoo, they have a 50-50 chance of survival because “smugglers pack animals densely and without water, which is highly stressful.”
Of the illicit trade, Ovari says, “Tens of thousands of animals enter Serbia, including African grey parrots, and then disappear.” He also states that “the border controls are not that strict. You can have anything in your car and would still have, like, a 50% chance to smuggle it into Hungary.”
Like Ružić, he is aware of the significant enforcement issue regarding the trade. “After so many years of education, our border control still can’t tell if a species is on a CITES list or not.”
In a quiet part of old Belgrade, 67-year-old Halid Redža runs his animal breeding and trading operation out of his house. He’s been selling animals since he was 10. In addition to birds, he also raises and sells Shiba Inu dogs, a pedigree originally from Japan. A dozen Shibas wandered around the property and through the house. Two loud African grey parrots often tell them to “shut up”, something they’ve learnt from him.
Redža is happy to explain the trade.
“An African trader sends us an offer – a catalogue of sorts. After we choose, we gather permits from our environment ministry. Sometimes we get those, sometimes not. It depends on what we want to buy. Earlier we had a lot of birds from Tanzania, but since they have closed down exports, it’s Guinea and Mali now.”
In 2016, the government of Tanzania imposed a complete ban on the export of animals and birds, which has resulted in a decline in poaching.
On 4 June 2022, the government announced a six-month lifting of the ban so that traders could clear their stocks. Tanzanian society went into a complete uproar, especially on Twitter, over the decision. One day later, the government reversed its position and the ban remains in place to date.
Once Redža’s ordered birds arrive at the airport, they have to go into quarantine for 21 days. He says that the quarantine is served at his place and that veterinarians “are regularly coming over”.
Regarding the illicit trade, Redža says “there’s always smuggling. Everything bought at the Subotica fair crosses the border later. You can see many Bulgarians and other foreigners there. They obviously have their schemes for smuggling. I don’t have any idea how.”
The small city of Subotica is only 10km from the Hungarian border. Once over the border, you are in the EU.
According to Guinean certificates of origin (see below), two Serbian companies have addresses in Subotica. They were listed on the certificates of origin as the legal importers for 16,749 birds. One certificate of origin, dated 15 September 2020, lists one of the companies as the importer of 1,200 yellow-fronted canaries (Serinus mozambicus).
Nebojša Vasić from Serbian Customs is a specialist in smuggling and he knows how the trafficking along the Balkans route works. Over the past few years, he’s been seeing a lot of African songbirds smuggled – “the birds are often transported inhumanely”.
In the depths of a cold winter, he once found “eight parrots in boxes that were attached to the bottom of the car. Sometimes smugglers pack birds in jute bags and put them into jackets, trousers, under the car seats, others in the luggage in the trunk. Many birds don’t survive.”
“We catch Serbian citizens and foreigners,” he stresses, “no rule about that. We often catch only middlemen, drivers.”
From Istanbul, with love
Because of the EU’s ban, European airlines such as Air France won’t transport birds from Guinea. Turkish Airlines will, and, according to its website, the airline also transports primates, endangered species and rodents. Animals that “give off a bad smell”, such as minks and goats, have to go in a freighter. With a layover in Istanbul, the Turkish Airlines flight to Belgrade from Conakry takes 14 hours.
Bella Diallo, a retired Guinean CITES officer, explains that it is legal to deliver birds to Turkey. While he thinks that traders do have a right to export birds, he also thinks that songbirds should be on CITES’ Appendix II list and thus protected.
“We have problems at the airport,” he says. “We can see the certificates of origin but the people at the airport – customs – are not bird specialists. They can put any bird they want into the crate and send it.”
Turkish Airlines refused to answer any questions about the transportation of birds from Guinea to Serbia, including the total value of the avian cargo from 2020 to 2022.
So Daily Maverick created Zoran Jovanović, owner of the fake Serbian company Songbirds Ltd, and then WhatsApped Turkish Airlines in Conakry.
The minimum Turkish Airlines charges to ship one crate of birds to Belgrade is $550, no matter the number of birds. The dimensions of the crate are 100 x 50 x 16cm. If the shipment goes over 30kg, including the wooden crate and any other materials such as food and water, Turkish Airlines charges $15 for every additional kilogram.
At this point, and because Turkish Airlines refuses to say, we can only speculate on how much the airline earned from Guinean birds. If 35,618 birds were transported at an average of 30 a crate, and at the minimum of $550, the airline would have netted about $650,000.
In 2019, the American charity World Animal Protection released the results of its undercover investigation into bird smuggling. According to the organisation, Turkish Airlines was transporting illegally caught African grey parrots from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Nigeria to the Middle East and Asia.
At the time, World Animal Protection declared Turkish Airlines to be the “poacher’s airline of choice”.
Six cars and 6,466 km² of forest
Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, former member of the French Foreign Legion, led a military coup d’etat in September 2021. He is now the president of Guinea. The country of 13.1 million is poor: nominal per capita income is $1,346 and it ranks 182 out 188 countries in terms of the human development index. Resources are tight and birds are money.
Mamadou Diakite* met Daily Maverick in an upmarket Lebanese bakery: expensive and ornate birthday cakes, espresso and croissants on offer. Outside, beggars and overcrowded minibus taxis. One of the ironies of poor and unequal countries is that they can be quite expensive: for example, one user-generated dataset, My Life Elsewhere, ranks housing in Guinea to be 26.7% more expensive than South Africa, and groceries 24.6% dearer.
Diakite, like Halid Redža in Belgrade, has been trading birds since his childhood and exports mostly finches to Serbia. Finches are a type of songbird and aren’t protected under CITES regulations.
A yellow-fronted canary, of which Diakite says “we have lots”, sells for $1.50 a bird. In the Netherlands, the same bird goes for €75. When asked why people want finches, Diakite answers, “I don’t know. It is you. You have to ask your family in Europe.”
Diakite rejects the notion that his profession is harming the environment.
“What makes the bird populations decrease is deforestation. People are cutting trees and building. Where I live now, it used to be a forest. We used to catch birds there, but now it is a city.
“Some of the farmers put pesticides on the crops, on the rice. People said we the traders are killing birds, that we are demolishing birds, but we told them no. You are putting poison in the rice… when they eat it they die.
“We are getting them alive and it is by quota. And then we export them to the specialists. We are not the same as killers.”
Of course, the combination of deforestation, pesticides and catching has to be the worst. Still, Diakite has a point.
Forests with 30% tree cover have declined dramatically since 2000, going from 8,159 km² to 6,466 km² in 2020. The rate of deforestation over the past two decades leaping by 960%. And there’s not much left of the vital primary forest – only 218 km² remains, 0.9% of the country’s landmass.
Pierre Kamano is the commander of Guinea’s National Brigade for the Fight against Crime in Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an elite militarised unit of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. Kamano joined the brigade at its inception in 2011. The organisation’s job is to protect the country’s fauna and flora.
Kamano’s office is in the Ministry of Environment, located in Conakry’s botanical garden, which is full of rubble. On the wall hangs a large photo of him standing next to President Mamady Doumbouya. Both are in uniform and the president is wearing sunglasses and a red beret.
The brigade is at the forefront of the country’s efforts to protect its dwindling forest and threatened wildlife. Kamano states, “It is very difficult to protect our nature. We are doing our best to repress environmental crime, but these criminals are very smart… they are organised and have a lot of money.”
“We in Guinea, we have a lot of wild animals here, and if we increase the security, it will be better. Wild populations can be sustained. The only problem is that we need help to be able to mobilise ourselves – to be able to go and travel to do inspections.”
To cover the country’s forests, the brigade has just six vehicles. Somewhat ironically given the demand factor, the EU paid for them. The brigade is so broke that, in a total imbalance of power, it is dependent upon WARA Conservation, a non-profit headed by a white French woman, for fuel.
Inspector Harald Garretsen and his colleagues at the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority seem to have done their job well. In late January, AviMarkt put the following statement on its website in late January 2023:
“Unfortunately, we have come to the conclusion that it is no longer financially feasible to organise another bird fair like AviMarkt Europe. The costs of organising such an event have increased extremely.
“In addition, we expect far fewer visitors and exhibitors because of the European Animal Health Regulation. AviMarkt Europe is precisely an interesting bird fair because of its international character.
“Because of all these circumstances, we have decided that it is better to stop at the peak. It is not desirable for the exhibitor and visitors as well as for us if birds are confiscated or fines are issued because certain requirements cannot be met.” DM
Tristen Taylor is a freelance journalist, photographer and academic. Ingrid Gercama is a freelance journalist and researcher writing about environmental and social issues and conflict from Europe and Africa. Nathalie Bertrams is a freelance journalist and photographer. Nemanja Rujević is an author and editor for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
This article was developed with the support of Journalismfund.eu
* Names have been changed to safeguard the individuals.