The demand for feathers for ceremonial headdresses from the highland cultures of Papua New Guinea is putting a vulnerable species of parrot in peril, say WCS scientists.

Publishing their results the scientific journal Emu – Austral Ornithology, authors Grace Nugi and Nathan Whitmore of WCS’s Papua New Guinea Program looked at traditional headdresses in Kerowagi District in Chimbu Province that use the red feathers of Pesquet’s parrot (Psittrichas fulgidus), a species classified as Vulnerable by IUCN. They estimated that between 160,000 ‒ 280,000 parrots were likely harvested.

Although these headdresses are treated as heirlooms, the data suggest that around eight percent of the Pesquet’s parrot population is still harvested every year for demand in Kerowagi District alone.

Lead author Grace Nugi said one of the keys to protecting the parrots in the future is preserving the heirloom headdresses to reduce or eliminate the need to harvest additional parrots.

Said Nugi: “For these parrots, it comes down to encouraging people to protect their headdresses. It may seem odd ‒ but we have to conserve the dead to protect the living.”

Nugi also points out that the numbers of dead birds present in the headdresses in Kerowagi  dwarfs the best estimates of the total Pesquet’s parrot population by four-to-six times. She suggests that since the Pesquet’s parrot population is widely spread across areas of remote foothill forest, direct protection conservation management is not likely to be viable in PNG. Nugi instead advocates the most practical conservation intervention is to reduce hunting by prolonging the lifespan of the existing headdresses already in existence.

Said Nugi: “Site based conservation of these parrots just isn’t that feasible. The cost and logistics of operating in such remote areas of PNG would be prohibitive.”

The authors note that while Pesquet’s parrot is a must-have in headdresses of Chimbu today, this doesn’t appear to be the case 100 years ago, and that the future generations of highlanders users may have substantially different perceptions of beauty and cultural authenticity.