Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, is rarely regarded as a place for conservation.
If anything, quite the opposite. The city is notorious for being a trading hub for smuggled ivory, shark fins, and pangolin skins.
But one critically endangered parrot species has managed to find a home in this bustling metropolis.
Globally, out of the 2,000 yellow-crested cockatoos left in the wild, 10% of them are in Hong Kong.
One only need to walk through Hong Kong Park, an oasis in the city’s financial district, to see them frantically flapping their wings and squawking loudly before disappearing behind imposing skyscrapers.
But these birds were not meant to be city birds. They originally came from the forests and shrublands of Indonesia and East Timor.
So how did they end up thriving in the concrete jungle?
Urban legend has it that during World War II, when Japanese troops were about to invade Hong Kong, the British governor—or in some versions, the head of the British garrison—set his pet cockatoos free.
Hong Kong’s small army of cockatoos grew from there. As more pet birds escaped or were released, the population crept toward its present-day size of around 200.
Despite the noise and pollution, the birds chose to live in the middle of the city instead of the rural areas surrounding Hong Kong. That’s because cockatoos don’t build nests on branches. They live and lay their eggs in tree holes.
The trees in the center of the city are large enough to have cavities that make perfect homes for the cockatoos, according to Astrid Andersson, a doctoral student at the University of Hong Kong who is researching Hong Kong’s wild cockatoos.
How the cockatoo became endangered
Between the 1970s and early ’90s, yellow-crested cockatoos became popular pets around the world, Andersson says, and Indonesia fed that demand.
Over a period of 15 years in the 1970s and ’80s, the country exported 78,000 cockatoos to places all over the world, including the United States, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“They really overexploited that population,” Andersson says. “So now in Indonesia, they just survive in small pockets scattered across the islands.”
One notable exception is a flock of 700 cockatoos at Komodo National Park.
Some conservationists hope Hong Kong’s cockatoo population might be able to help repopulate the one in Indonesia.
After the yellow-crested cockatoo was listed as critically endangered under the CITES treaty in 2002, the international trade of wild-caught birds was made illegal, but trading birds obtained before the ban, as well as captive-bred birds, is still allowed.
On-the-ground enforcement, though, can be tough.
One reason is because the yellow-crested cockatoo looks almost identical to the sulphur-crested cockatoo, a slightly larger parrot that is not endangered and is native to Australia and New Guinea.
Another reason is because poachers seldom capture grown cockatoos in the wild. Instead, they climb up trees to steal their eggs, and these birds can be hard to distinguish from captive-bred ones.
At a popular bird market in Hong Kong, we spotted four cockatoos with yellow crests, including a small one that looked like the endangered species.
But when we asked the seller, he insisted it was a sulphur-crested cockatoo, not the endangered yellow-crested one.
“It’s bred in captivity,” he said, adding it’s not endangered. “There’s a lot of them overseas.”
The yellow-crested cockatoo is not the only parrot struggling to survive. According to one study, nearly 30% of parrots are listed as threatened, and over 50% of all parrot species are in decline.
“Many parrot species in the world are threatened with extinction and in large part due to trade,” said Caroline Dingle, a senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “They’re kind of like the elephant of the bird world.”