BirdsCaribbean Expresses Alarm at the Escalation of Illegal Bird Trafficking in Cuba

Migratory birds account for approximately 70 percent of the bird population on Cuba, with some species spending at least half of each year on the island

December 21, 2021— BirdsCaribbean is extremely concerned at the drastic increase in the capture and trafficking of wild birds in Cuba over the past two years, and is urging the Cuban Government to enforce laws put in place to curb the practice.

The economic strain brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a return to the centuries-old tradition of trapping and selling birds as a way to make a living – and it has reached unprecedented levels, putting already declining populations of birds at risk. These birds are sold on social media platforms, in particular Facebook and WhatsApp.

The numbers are frightening. The November issue of the Cuban Birder includes a list of 36 Facebook groups that are openly selling wild birds. BirdsCaribbean recorded daily catches from images shared by trappers in just one of these groups (with 46,000 members). Our data showed that 3,270 birds from 28 different species were captured during the month of October 2021 alone [1]. The highest number of captures were of Indigo Buntings (2,041), Painted Buntings (785), and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (235).

BirdsCaribbean Executive Director, Dr. Lisa Sorenson, commented on the shocking numbers, noting that social media posts reviewed only reflect a fraction of the actual numbers trapped and sold.

“It is sobering and worrying that so many birds were removed from the wild in the space of one month. When you consider all the Facebook groups dedicated to the trafficking of birds, paired with sales made via alternative social networks, such as Whatsapp, the dire extent of the situation becomes clear – that bird captures likely add up to tens of thousands of birds each season,” Dr. Sorenson lamented. 

The colorful Painted Bunting is one of the most popular migratory songbirds captured by trappers for the bird trade. It’s population has been declining and it is on the US Fish & Wildlife Service Birds of Conservation Concern 2021 List. (photo by Hemant Kishan)

The ease of selling wild birds online provides an opportunity for residents to substantially boost their income. Many sales of captured birds are local, but international demand has also increased. Trappers obtain high prices for a Cuban Bullfinch (Negrito) or a Tomeguín del Pinar (Cuban Grassquit) among the Cuban-American community in Florida. The capture and sale of these birds has become a part of the international wildlife trade, which often has links to organized crime. 

Over three-dozen cages of trapped wild birds are displayed on a rooftop.

The impacts of large-scale trapping on bird populations

The Cuban archipelago is a critical area for migratory species, many of which are already in decline in their breeding territories in North America. Some use Cuba as a stopover to rest and refuel during their long migrations to countries in Central and South America; others spend many months wintering in Cuba. The tired, hungry birds arrive in large flocks on the coast, giving trappers the opportunity to catch thousands. They use abrasive, often cruel methods, including the use of lyre traps spread with glue. Many birds suffer and die in the process.

Two young men on a motorbike transport stacked cages of captured wild birds

Learn more here

Migratory birds account for approximately 70 percent of the bird population on Cuba, with some species spending at least half of each year on the island. The brightly-colored Painted Bunting, Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak are among the most targeted birds for capture. Many of these species are on the US Fish and Wildlife Service Birds of Conservation Concern 2020 List [2]. This list identifies species that may warrant Endangered species status in the near future if immediate conservation actions are not taken.

Some iconic endemic bird species are also targeted by trappers, including the Cuban Bullfinch, a popular bird for Singing Competitions, the Cuban Grassquit, Cuban Parrot and Cuban Parakeet. Some of these birds are categorized as Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) [3].

The increase in trapping comes at a time when the very survival of Caribbean birds is in jeopardy. Wild bird populations have been severely impacted by climate change and resulting extreme weather events, as well as habitat loss due to development. A recent study found that nearly 3 billion birds have been lost since 1970 [4].

BirdsCaribbean would like to express its deep appreciation to the dedicated Cuban ornithologists and conservationists who continue to work diligently on this issue through education and outreach initiatives. It is vital to build on their valuable work through an expanded national environmental education campaign in schools, communities, and national media. This sensitization should target children and young people, who are increasingly involved in the illegal trade. It is essential to also inspire changes in behavior and attitudes of older Cubans and families who traditionally keep birds as pets.

It is also vital to invest in alternative and sustainable ways to make a living, providing incentives for Cuban citizens to protect wildlife instead of destroying it. Community-based tourism, including bird and nature guides and engaging citizens in birding as a hobby, as well as citizen science monitoring programs such as eBird, could be expanded. 

Cuba reopened to tourism on November 15 and its population is now approximately 87 percent vaccinated. As tourists return, community tourism including eco-tourism and nature guiding could be expanded as alternative livelihoods, catering for an increasingly environmentally conscious tourism market – benefiting all involved.

A young boy shows off his capture of an juvenile Painted Bunting

At BirdsCaribbean, we believe in long-term, sustainable solutions that benefit both nature and the local community. In collaboration with our partners in Cuba, whom we have long supported, we have been working to educate communities on the beauty and value of wild birds. Birds provide essential ecosystem services that are critical for the health of communities and quality of life. 

Cuba is a signatory to international treaties aimed at the conservation of species and the island’s biodiversity in general, such as the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. It is also a contracting party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1990, and has an excellent record of protecting its natural resources through establishing many Parks and Protected Areas throughout the country.

We are urgently appealing to the Cuban Government to take stronger action to protect its migratory and endemic birds, a vital piece of their natural heritage and national pride. We ask the international conservation community to help Cuba in its efforts to put a stop to bird trapping and trafficking. Efforts to raise the level of awareness of Cuba’s unique avifauna – many of which are significantly declining in numbers – must also continue.

To learn more about this issue and view many photos and videos, please visit our website: https://www.birdscaribbean.org/2021/12/birdscaribbean-expresses-alarm-at-the-escalating-illegal-bird-trafficking-problem-in-cuba/

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