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updated 2/10/2010 1:00:25 PM ET 2010-02-10T18:00:25

A conservation group is caring for more than 1,000 African gray parrots with help from an Ohio zoo after the birds were rescued from smugglers who had stuffed them into crates bound for the Middle East.

At least 120 of the birds have died since they were saved last month. The remaining parrots have been transferred to a wildlife conservation center in the West African nation, said Ofir Drori, director of a conservation group called the Last Great Ape Organization.

"The birds have been tied down for too long. They are very tired, many are sick," he said Tuesday.

The parrots are kept as pets, but they also are believed to possess special powers in countries such as India, China, Nigeria and Cameroon, where the birds are used by witch doctors for rituals.

Cameroonian officials found the parrots stuffed into poorly ventilated wooden crates at the airport. Drori said the crates were being ferried to a Kuwait-bound Ethiopian Airlines flight.

The birds will be released into their natural habitat in a few months after veterinarians complete treating them, Drori said.

The Columbus Zoo in the U.S. state of Ohio said it will provide a grant of $6,000 to help feed the parrots and provide emergency care.

It was the third time in two years that authorities have stopped a shipment of parrots from being taken onto an Ethiopian Airlines flight. Ethiopian Airlines could not be immediately reached for comment.

In 2007, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora put a ban on the trade and export of the African gray parrots in five countries including Cameroon.

Two days before the authorities saved the 1,120 parrots, the Last Great Ape Organization, with the help of U.S. investigators and the Cameroon government, tracked down an Internet trader in the southwest regional capital of Buea who had struck a deal to deliver 23 African gray parrots to the United States. The trader is now awaiting trial.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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