In conversation with Cass Koenen: Our success with Turkish Airlines


On March 7, we met with Turkish Cargo – a subsidiary of Turkish Airlines – to discuss our concerns with the illegal smuggling of African grey parrots out of The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Turkish Airlines’ planes. Cass Koenen, Global Head of Campaign, reflects on their response.

I am feeling really great about this outcome after two years of building this campaign with a number of amazing, smart and talented colleagues from around the world. We’re going to build on this and really make a difference for animals who are victims of the exotic pet trade.

Cass Koenen, Global Head of Campaign

Our investigations

Our global campaign to put pressure on Turkish Airlines to end the transportation of African grey parrots from the DRC launched to the public on Monday, February 4, 2019. The evidence captured by World Animal Protection's investigations team, conducted throughout the previous year, had uncovered the shocking and cruel illegal trade in African grey parrots – often poached from the wild.

“The evidence we got was clear and compelling," Cass tells us. “It’s horrific. African grey parrots live in large flocks and in family units. Suddenly they’re being caught, having their feathers hacked off, being shoved in a box and put on a plane. And for what? So they can be flown across the world and spend their lives as a solitary animal in a cage? It was a story we needed to tell. It’s something that people don’t know about. They buy their parrot and have no idea it’s been bred in an inhumane facility or very likely poached from the wild in Africa.”

Up to 1 in 5 African grey parrots are being poached from the wild for the exotic pet trade every single year, with global populations decreasing by up to 75% in the last 50 years. People’s desires to keep them as a pet is now a key threat to this species' survival. Taken from their habitat and illegally shipped to buyers around the world – our investigations, along with those done by World Parrot Trust, uncovered multiple incidences of the same airline being used by unscrupulous poachers: Turkish Airlines.

A wonderful surprise

“The campaign launched on a Monday and on that Wednesday, I noticed somebody had called my phone from a Turkish telephone number. It was so soon after launch that I just assumed at that point it was a journalist. But then I received an email from the Chief Cargo Officer at Turkish Cargo. It was very clear – they had seen our evidence and campaign report and wanted us to come and meet them in Istanbul and leanr more about what World Animal Protection had discovered was happening on the ground in the DRC."

Cass has been working in the NGO sphere for the last 22 years, with 17 of these for animal welfare organisations, and has just celebrated her fifth anniversary leading digital communications and now campaigns at World Animal Protection. In her experience within NGO campaigning, the speed of Turkish Cargo’s response was surprising. “It’s almost unheard of. I’ve been lucky at World Animal Protection that this is the second time we’ve had such a fast response from a corporate business on a campaign I’ve led. The first was when we moved Instagram to work with us in trying to educate people about the cruelty involved in animal selfies. But in that situation, we already had a relationship – we had contacts. That wasn’t the case for this campaign, which makes the speed of this response all-the-more surprising and exciting. But the evidence was compelling and right there. It quickly reached senior staff within the company and they wanted to work to put a stop to it.”

The results

Very soon after our campaign launch, we heard from the company that they had placed a global embargo on the transportation of all African grey parrots – even those who have bred in CITES approved facilities who meet the requirements for the limited international trade that remains legal – until they could be assured that the issue of the species being smuggled using their airline has been resolved. And to resolve it, they are looking to us for help.

Cass, Corporate Engagement Advisor, Nancy Clarke, and Investigations Advisor, Nicholas Bruschi flew out to Istanbul to the Turkish Airlines headquarters at Ataturk Airport where the subsidiary Turkish Cargo are also based to begin discussions. After speaking with staff in the morning and being given a tour of the facilities, the team were impressed at what they saw and the genuine commitment of the airline when it comes to the responsible transportation of wildlife.

“What Turkish Airlines don’t really advertise is that they already take issues around animal transportation seriously – more so than many other airlines. They don’t fly shark fin, for instance. They don’t fly Appendix 1 CITES listed hunting trophies. Their live animal room is temperature controlled. They have an on-call vet 24 hours and they’re looking into having a vet on-site in the near future. They separate animals who traditionally don’t get along. Cats are kept separate from dogs, for example. It was very encouraging and set the tone for the meeting we had with senior staff in the afternoon: It’s great what this airline is doing at it’s central hub in Turkey – but how do we stop the animals like the African grey parrot getting here in the first place?”

Working together

In terms of countries served, Turkish Airlines is the world’s biggest airline – serving 121 countries and flying in-and-out of more African countries than any other operator. The geographical location of Turkey as a stop-over and evidence of widespread corruption on the ground in countries such as the DRC made the airline a perfect target for poachers. With faked paper-work and disguised crates, it’s all-too-easy for the traders to continue to operate with ease.

“It was this issue that was a key topic of discussions with Turkish Cargo’s leadership team in Istanbul. They need to start at the source of the problem – Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital. We outlined what we felt their responsibilities should be and what they could do on the ground to try and stop this and agreed that a solution would be would be for them to have an enforcement officer employed on the ground. We’re already actively working with them to identify the type of person who can fill this role and build a picture of who they need to be – primarily to counteract the constant threat of corruption that is widespread in the country.”

Cass tells us this is a solution that Turkish Cargo are keen to explore with us – and could have far wider reaching positive impacts “If this is implemented, it’s not just the African grey parrot we are protecting. We can stop other species being transported too – primates, for instance. This will make it more difficult for poachers who want to target Turkish Airlines and weak enforcement procedures. When it’s suddenly known that you can’t get these animals out of Kinshasa anymore – that’ll be a happy end state for us. By taking real leadership here, Turkish Airlines could become a model for what other airlines should do to help wild animals.”

A better future for animals

Cass reflects on the close relationship we’re now developing with Turkish Cargo and the overall success of the campaign “I am feeling really great about this outcome after two years of building this campaign with a number of amazing, smart and talented colleagues from around the world. I have to admit, there are always nerves when building a campaign as you never know how it’s going to land – especially an issue like exotic pets which we haven’t tackled before. But it’s worked. From the relationship we now have with Turkish Airlines to the amazing response we’ve had from supporters…It’s been exciting. But even more, it’s spurred us on. What can we do next? How can we continue to tackle this issue and widen it to other species? We’re going to build on this and really make a difference for animals who are victims of the exotic pet trade."

Learn more about our Wildlife. Not Pets campaign here.