Alarming escalation of illegal bird trafficking in Cuba


Sporophile négrito. Famille des Thraupidés. Ordre : Passériformes

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. 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 to add up to tens of thousands of birds each season,” Dr Sorenson lamented.

Cuban Parrot

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 have become a part of the international wildlife trade, which often has links to organized crime.

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.

Migratory birds account for approximately 70 per cent of the bird population in Cuba, with some species spending at least half of each year on the island. The brightly-coloured 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. This list identifies species that may warrant Endangered species status in the near future if immediate conservation actions are not taken.

Tomeguín del Pinar (Cuban Grassquit)

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).