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The Morrison government has proposed lifting a ban on the importation of exotic parrot species into Australia, with experts concerned it could lead to the introduction of diseases and feral pests and an increase in illegal wildlife trade.
It has been illegal to import live psittacine birds into Australia since 1995 when a ban was introduced due to concerns about disease.
But the government is now considering a change to the rules in response to calls from pet owners, hobbyists and zoos to develop a safe importation pathway for captive parrots.
Currently, the only parrots that can be imported are pets from New Zealand whose owners are relocating to Australia permanently.
The federal agriculture department has begun public consultation on a risk assessment that considers the potential biosecurity threats of opening Australia’s borders to captive parrots from overseas.
Luis Ortiz-Catedral, a conservation biologist at Massey University in New Zealand, has spent years assessing risks to parrot populations.
He said he believed it was important to develop a safe pathway for parrots that were companion animals, but the government assessment was missing important detail on what authorities would do to ensure Australia’s wild native parrot populations were not exposed to disease.
“There is an intrinsic connection between global trade of these kinds of birds and the spread of novel diseases and pathogens,” Ortiz-Catedral said.
“Before going ahead, I think they need to consider the scale of the cost if there were a spillover into wild populations or to facilities in Australia that have captive populations or zoo collections.
“I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, I’m just pointing out the risks that are not properly addressed in the document,” he said.
Johanne Martens, an ecologist at Deakin University, said she was concerned control measures weren’t listed for some common parrot diseases, such as beak and feather disease.
She said there were several other risks, including that introduced captive parrots could escape and become feral populations that threaten native species and that opening legal imports would also facilitate the illicit trade of animals.
“I don’t really see any arguments in favour. I can see why some zoos and wildlife parks might want to get more exotic species but I don’t really see why it’s necessary. We have such an incredible variety of birds here already,” Martens said.
Public comment on the draft is open until 19 September. If the feedback is favourable, import conditions will be developed and prospective importers – such as zoos, aviculturists and pet owners – will be able to apply for a permit.
A department spokesperson said the rule changes were being considered now because advances in science and testing meant concerns about disease could be managed.
Countries with a compliant history of avian trade with Australia – Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States – would be approved for export of captive parrots without the need for further assessment.
Other countries that want to export animals would need to apply and be assessed.
The spokesperson said only animals that are on a list of species considered suitable for import under Australia’s national environmental laws – such as the blue and yellow macaw – could be imported.
The spokesperson said specific control measures had not been considered for beak and feather disease virus because it was endemic to Australia “and not subject to official notification or control”.
Applications to import birds would require “evidence that the specimen has been legally sourced”.
The federal MP Warren Entsch is a bird lover who has pushed for a safe pathway for parrot imports with record-keeping and health checks.
In 2018, he spoke out in a Guardian Australia investigation that revealed the environment department granted permits for the export of hundreds of native Australian birds to the German organisation the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots, despite concerns the animals would be sold at a huge profit.
He believes the current prohibition on all imports encourages illegal trade.
“If anybody has any understanding of wildlife trade, they would understand that the best way to promote illegal trade is prohibition,” he said.
But George Olah, a conservation geneticist at Australian National University’s Fenner School, said introducing Australia as a new importer of parrots could boost both legal and illegal forms of trade.
“I have worked with the police on some illegal parrot trade cases,” he said.
“Breeders often buy poached parrots and make them ‘legal’ by reporting them as [having] hatched in their facilities and giving them CITES (convention on international trade in endangered species) certificates.”
Olah said Australia had learnt from past mistakes when it came to biosecurity regulations and the current policy had been put in place after a lot of consideration.
He said trade in parrots, as well as other human activities such as habitat destruction, had contributed to their decline in the wild.
“I know that many people don’t share this opinion … but as a wildlife researcher, I think people should just not keep any parrots or exotic animals as pets.”