Over the last few years the plight of the Endangered grey parrot Psittacus erithacus has sparked growing concern amongst conservationists, as wild populations have declined dramatically over much of the species’ vast distribution range. There has been a renewed effort by scientists to investigate the causes of the grey parrot’s near-extinction in Ghana, understand its population dynamics in São Tomé and Príncipe, monitor its abundance in Cameroon, and track its trade globally. The congeneric Timneh parrot Psittacus timenh, however, has not attracted the same level of attention, despite also being categorized as Endangered yet limited to a much smaller range (from Guinea-Bissau and Guinea through Sierra Leone and Liberia to western Côte d’Ivoire).

Areas in the immediate surroundings of the park’s 4-km buffer zone are cleared to make space for subsistence farming. The national park authorities have set up formal agreements with most of the communities to encourage small-scale agriculture, agroforestry and other local livelihood activities aimed at reducing intensive exploitation of the forest.

In 2018 researchers from Bangor University, Manchester Metropolitan University and BirdLife, funded by the Parrot Wildlife Foundation, assessed the status of the Timneh Parrot in one of its supposed strongholds, Gola Rainforest National Park. This park is the Sierra Leonean portion of the Transboundary Peace Park, which is shared with Liberia. The study was part of a larger effort to train and plan for long-term monitoring system of the species, using encounter rate.

Researchers were disappointed and alarmed to find very low densities of parrots in the park and only slightly higher numbers in the surrounding buffer zones. Densities were estimated to be as low as 1–3 individuals per km2, far below what would be expected for a healthy population. This came as a surprise, in particular because thanks to careful management by the government in partnership with the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds this is probably one of the better preserved sections of Upper Guinean forest in West Africa.

The study was part of a larger effort to implement a monitoring scheme across Timenh Parrot’s range. Here Prof. Marsden (Manchester Metropolitan University) leads a training workshop for Gola Rainforest National Park’s personnel.

As testimony to the good quality of the habitat, forest species such as the as the Vulnerable yellow-casqued hornbill Ceratogymna elata and Endangered Upper Guinea red colobus Piliocolobus badius, which are struggling elsewhere, are thriving in the Gola Rainforest National Park. Why is this not the case for the Timneh parrot?

National park personnel survey an area of the park’s buffer zone as part of a training workshop on how to monitor for Timneh Parrots using encounter rates.

Was the Timneh parrot never common in the Park? Or did trapping for the pet trade irreparably damage the population, as has been the case elsewhere? The lack of consistent historical data only allows us to speculate on the causes of the low density in Gola Rainforest National Park. However, it is clear that the Park is not a stronghold for the species, as was previously believed. With only an estimated 2,400 individuals remaining in the Park, the situation requires further investigation. In the light of our findings, other reputed strongholds of the Timneh parrot, such as the Bijagós Islands in Guinea-Bissau and Sapo National Park in Liberia, need to be urgently assessed, as the global population of this species could be much lower than previously thought.

Local guide Manzarè leads one of the surveys in the Gora Rainforest National Park. Thanks to careful management by the government in partnership with the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds the park is probably one of the better preserved sections of Upper Guinean forest in West Africa.

All in-text photos: Simon Valle
Cover photo: Stuart Marsden

The article Low abundance of the Endangered timneh parrot Psittacus timneh in one of its presumed strongholds is available at Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Dr Simon Valle is a lecturer in Conservation Science at Bangor University. He is wildlife ecologist whose main research focuses on the conservation of threatened birds, particularly in the Afrotropics. He has been working for many years on ecology and conservation of the heavily traded grey parrots (genus Psittacus). Other specific research interests include the theoretical and practical aspects of estimating and monitoring species abundance, and modelling population dynamics.