Smuggled birds flooding market

Thousands smuggled into Malta, flooding the market with birds whose DNA, lineage and health have no way of being checked or guaranteed

A blue and yellow macaw for sale by a licensed breeder at €1,700
A blue and yellow macaw for sale by a licensed breeder at €1,700

Thousands of birds are being smuggled into Malta every couple of months, hurting licensed pet shops and amateur breeders, but also flooding the market with birds whose DNA, lineage and health have no way of being checked or guaranteed.

MaltaToday has learned that many different breeds of birds – including parrots, conures, ringnecks and different kind of finches and songbirds – are being brought over to Malta from Sicily, Reggio Calabria and Emilia Romagna by the truckload.

These birds are bought from trappers and unlicensed breeders and therefore cannot be registered in Malta or sold with a ring on their feet. And although they are bought from illegal sources, many are still displayed and sold in many pet shops and on marketplaces online.

Tony Debattista, a licensed amateur breeder from Tarxien, said that even pet shops often could not resist selling birds sourced illegally, when they could make additional hundreds of euros on the sale of one bird alone.

“A parrot bought from a licensed source comes with a certificate that includes information on the bird’s DNA, provenance and veterinary health certification,” he said. “But consider this, buying a hand-reared African Grey parrot with certification will cost you around €1,200 but you can get a hand-reared African for €800 from an unlicensed breeder.”

A quick browse of a popular online local shopping site confirms that many birds are being sold by unlicensed breeders at a much lower price than a licensed breeder or pet shop can afford.

“Being offered a hand-reared blue and yellow Macaw for €1,100 should trigger warning alarms in a buyer’s head, because there is no way that seller is licensed, member in a club or a certified breeder,” Debattista said.

“Most of these birds are being smuggled in from Sicily. Many of us know who’s doing it, it’s an open secret in some circles, and yet they keep in bringing in birds by the thousands.”

He said that a couple of thousands of birds are regularly bundled into a container with other goods and transported to Malta via catamaran from Sicily.

“More than half the birds shipped are usually dead by the time the vehicle reaches Malta, and those that make it will be in such a sorry state, it is amazing how they still manage to sell.”

In May, Italian police and Europol arrested nine men and shut down an organised group with a network of illegal buyers and sellers of protected birds in Malta and northern Italy. The nine were arrested on suspicion of belonging to a criminal network aimed at illegally trading protected wildlife, mostly songbirds, which are protected under the Berne Convention. In recent years the criminal group has built up a network of illegal buyers and sellers of protected birds in northern Italy and Malta.

Simon, the owner of a pet shop in the south of Malta, said it was becoming increasingly more difficult to resist sourcing and selling birds that are trapped or bred illegally, since the local market was flooded with all kinds of birds for sale.

“People seem to be under the misguided impression that bird breeding is some sort of get-rich-quick-scheme and that there are enormous profits to be had,” he said. “So, like Maltese tend to do, many people have jumped into the fray and are buying birds to breed without making sure of the birds’ provenance and health.”

Simon said that people knew that he focused on the sale of exotic birds – such as macaws, cockatoos, African Greys, Senegals, conures and parrotlets – and many tried to offer him birds that they bred themselves at home to sell in his shop.

“But every bird I buy locally or from abroad comes with a certificate including a DNA profile, breeder’s identity and a veterinary’s report,” he said. “Unlicensed breeders do nothing of that, of course, and that is also why their birds cost less.”

Christopher Bartolo, another amateur breeder, confirmed this.

“I am doing everything by the book. Like many others, I joined a club and became a registered breeder, having my own registration number, which is used on the bird rings I use and which identifies me as the breeder,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are many others who continue to breed and sell birds without licence rings.”

Bartolo specialises in breeding songbirds, including greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches and gouldian finches, which by law should be sold with a closed ring, or not at all.

The rings are placed round the birds’ feet when they are only nine days old, so it would be impossible for the rings to be removed without actually cutting off the bird’s foot. They contain the breeder’s name and registration number.

Bartolo said that he made sure to buy his birds from reputable pet shops in Malta and that every bird he sold carried a closed ring, identifying him as the breeder.

“But birds are sold without the rings all the time and all over the country, in pet shops, at open air markets and even online,” he said. “And then you get all the birds that are illegally imported from Sicily every few months, thousands of them. Those, of course, sell for much cheaper than birds bred under licence.”

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