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Conserving Parrots in the Wild Through Locally-owned Ecotourism Initiatives
by Charles A. Munn, Ph.D
Senior Conservation Zoologist
As this conference demonstrates, aviculturists worldwide devote tremendous energy and enthusiasm to conserving parrots in captive collections. Simultaneously, conservationists stress the importance of protecting parrots in the wild by setting up and protecting nature reserves in the world's remaining wildlands. Until the past few years, neither group paid much attention to the important role that parrot-oriented ecotourism can play in protecting healthy wild populations of many species of parrots. Here in this brief paper I shall describe one particularly encouraging example of parrot conservation and ecotourism in the Peruvian Amazon. Then, drawing on lessons learned from this example, I shall attempt to offer some simple suggestions for how to develop successful, sustainable ecotourism projects based on wild, free-flying parrots.
II. A case study: the Tambopata Research Center in Amazonian Peru
In 1985, a river expedition funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to the upper Tambopata River of southeastern Peru discovered a gigantic macaw and parrot clay lick that amazed the expedition participants. Surrounding this lick the WCS researchers marvelled at millions of acres of uncut, primary rainforest full of toucans, monkeys, jaguars, giant otters, 1300 species of birds, 200 species of mammals, 90 species of frogs, hundreds of species of fish and reptiles, 10,000 species of higher plants, and millions of species of arthropods and microscopic life forms.
As a result of the excitement generated by this first expedition, in 1986 WCS teamed up with a Peruvian conservation group, "Selva Sur" (the Southern Rainforest Group) to send an expedition down the eight days worth of whitewater rapids in the extreme upper Tambopata River. The spectacular, intact cloud forest in the area of rapids and the huge macaw lick in the adjacent lowlands impressed WCS and Selva Sur so much that the two groups immediately presented a preliminary joint proposal to the Peruvian government to examine the feasibility of creating a large national park in that region.
To strengthen the technical justification for creation of the park, in 1987, WCS and Selva Sur sent a joint expedition to the Heath River in the eastern part of the Tambopata province. Like the upper and extreme upper Tambopata, the Heath River also proved to be almost completely intact, uninhabitated, and full of wildlife, particularly macaws and parrots. A U.S.-based film team documented the expedition and produced a one-hour TV show that was broadcast in the U.S. and Eumpe.
In 1988, WCS and Selva Sur worked closely with technicians from the Ministry of Agriculture of Peru and finished and submitted a full proposal for the creation of a large reserved zone in the entire Tambopata-Heath area. In Peru, a reserved zone is a first, transitory phase of protection to allow Ministry officials to study where the exact boundaries should lie for a permanent national park.
To give further impetus to the proposal, WCS and Selva Sur collaborated in 1989 by sending two more research expeditions to the large Tambopata clay lick. The second of these two expeditions included another professional film team (Superflow, Inc.), which documented the clouds of 200-500 large macaws and approximately 700-1100 other parrots that visited the lick daily. In late 1989 WCS and Selva Sur used broadcast-quality footage donated by these filmers to convince government officials in Lima of the importance of protecting the Tambopata region. The reasons given for protecting this area were to conserve biodiversity and to protect major wildlife attractions that could lead to creation of jobs in ecotourism.
After 18 months of processing, in January 1990 the Peruvian government declared an enormous reserved zone in the drainages of the Tambopata and Heath Rivers. This reserve covered a total of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of intact lowland and Andean forests. This huge area (the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut or nearly half the size of Switzerland) probably protects between 3,000 and 10,000 large macaws of four species: the Green-winged, Scarlet, Blue-and-gold, and Military. Probably 500-1,000 or more Military Macaws live safely in this reserve. This reserve protects a total of 30 species of parrots, nearly ten percent of all the parrot species in the world. Eight of these are macaws. The reserve likely harbours 30,000-50,000 individual parrots of all species. The total cost to WCS and to Selva Sur of carrying out the five expeditions to Tambopata and of preparing the full proposal that led to the creation of the reserve was approximately $40,000, or less than one dollar per parrot protected. This reserve protects roughly two thousand species of vertebrates, ten thousand species of higher plants, and many millions of species of arthropods at a cost of a tiny fraction of a cent per species. Many of the plant and arthropod species in the reserve still are unknown to science, and some of them certainly contain natural chemicals that could be the cancer cures of the future.
In late 1989 and early 1990, three Peruvian macaw biologists trained and supported by WCS began researching growth rates and survival of macaw chicks in natural nests within a few kilometers of the large macaw lick in Tambopata. At the same time, these same biologists secured small loans from family and friends to erect and operate the Tambopata Research Center (TRC). The TRC was their own, for-profit, research center and tour lodge dedicated to the conservation and study of macaws, parrots, and other wildlife near the lick. The three partners also founded with their own funds a small marketing company called Rainforest Expeditions to promote and sell wildlife tours to the TRC.
From 1990-1994 WCS and generous Peruvian companies from Lima supported these three dedicated men (Eduardo Nycander, Kurt Holle, and Alvaro del Campo) as they carried out groundbreaking research on macaw nesting near the TRC (Munn 1994, 1992, Nycander et al. in press). During these years, the funds provided by WCS and Peruvian companies covered only the expenses directly related to the macaw research. At the same time, however, the macaw research advanced much more quickly and efficiently than would otherwise have been possible thanks to the generosity of the three partners, who allowed the project to use at little or no cost the substantial infrastructure of the tour company and research center. This infrastructure included shelter for living and research, marked trails, motorized cargo canoes, shortwave radio communication, and major assistance in resupplying.
The generosity of the partners of Rainforest Expeditions and TRC has been particularly amazing when you consider that during their first four years of operation, Peruvian tourism went through a severe recession and few tourists came to their site. As a result, the small tour company constantly teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, and the future seemed grim. Fortunately, in 1994, tourism to Peru is showing a strong recovery, and it appears that the dedicated partners of Rainforest Expeditions soon may be operating at a profit.
The research of the TRC team has provided numerous conservation benefits for parrots. In the years before the TRC partners established a permanent presence at the Tambopata lick, professional meat hunters (an illegal occupation) regularly camped near the lick and used shotguns to kill macaws, monkeys, and other wildlife. These same men regularly cut down macaw nest trees to collect the babies. The hunters illegally sold the fresh or salted meat (including macaw meat) and baby macaws in the regional rainforest capital of Puerto Maldonado. Since their establishment at the lick in late 1989, the TRC partners have not allowed any meat hunters or nest robbers to camp or hunt within 10 kilometers (seven miles) of the lick. To date the partners and small staff of the TRC offer the only on-the-ground protection for the macaws and other wildlife in the most important, wildlife-rich parts of the gigantic reserved zone. Also, the TRC partners have been instrumental in obtaining firm commitments from local and national government agencies to install permanent guard posts on the edges of the reserve. Finally, the TRC partners have worked tirelessly to convince the government to gazzette most of the reserved zone as a permanent, fully-protected national park.
The parrot attractions that are present at the TRC are two-fold: the hundreds of macaws and one thousand other parrots that visit the huge clay lick, and a flock of 22 free-flying, hand-raised macaws that return daily from the rainforest to visit the TRC for nutritionally-balanced handouts and attention (Munn 1994, Nycander et al. in press). Some tourists prefer the spectacle at the clay lick, while others prefer to play with and to photogrnph the tame, free-flying birds. The handraised birds are all second- or third-hatched birds that the TRC partners and their team of Peruvian assistants rescued from likely starvation in wild nests near the TRC. The TRC partners also have erected over 50 artificial nest boxes of different designs, many of which have attracted nesting pairs of Scarlet Macaws. The most recent and most successful nest boxes were made of 2-2.5-m-long, 14"-diameter PVC pipes burned on the outside to mimic the blotchy coloration of natural tree trunks.
In addition to the different parrot spectacles and parrot photo opportunities at the TRC, visitors regularly encounter troops of habituated monkeys of 6-8 species, as well as a wild, hand-tamed tayra (a giant tropical weasel) that visits the lodge each day for handouts of bananas. The forest near the TRC is spectacularly diverse and intact, which makes it perfect for birdwatchers and botanists, who like to wander its 25 kilometers (17 miles) of trails.
In summary, parrot ecotourism and general wildlife and rainforest tourism at the TRC probably will become very successful in the next few years. As tourist visitation grows, so will the number of jobs created by this 20-bed lodge, which currently employs ten people, or one person for every two beds. The occupancy rate of the TRC probably is not yet over 10% (that is, the lodge does not yet average more than two tourists per night). As visitation gradually rises in the future to 25% and then eventually to 40-50% or more, the number of permanent jobs created probably will equal the number of beds or eventually reach 1.3-2.0 jobs per bed. Properly-executed rainforest ecotourism requires a ratio of one skilled guide to every 4-6 tourists. Thus, even the small TRC, with only 20 beds, will eventually employ 3-5 full-time guides.
Given their background as macaw researchers and conservationists, the TRC partners certainly will encourage and continue to participate in active research projects on macaws and other important species of rainforest birds and mammals near their site. As a result, even a short visit to TRC is likely to be more rewarding than a much longer visit to the many Amazonian lodges owned by urban investors who have an economic rather than emotional attachment to the rainforest.
III. Discussion and some suggestions for successful parrot ecotourism
As is frequently the case, the permanent field presence of researchers and tour company staff rather than government decrees or urban meetings was critical to the protection of the reserved zone from its declaration until the present. WCS invested suprisingly little on Tambopata from 1985 to 1990 to achieve the declaration of a gigantic protected area, but the declaration alone did not provide on-the-ground protection for the wildlife. Similarly, from 1990 to the present, government officials working with Conservation International, WCS, Selva Sur, and other Peruvian and international groups, held important public meetings about the future of the Tambopata reserved zone, but these meetings alone did not protect the fauna of the reserve. The meetings were critical steps toward the upgrading of the reserved zone to a large national park and adjacent forest reserves, yet the meetings alone did not stop any hunters from gunning down macaws or monkeys in the core of the new reserved zone. Rather, it was the WCS macaw researchers/lodge owners at TRC and their scientific assistants and lodge staff who provided the only consistent, effective, on-the-ground protection for the macaw and parrot lick and other wildlife spectacles of the most important parts of the reserved zone.
The lessons to be learned from the case study of the TRC and the resulting suggestions for how to develop a successful parrot-oriented ecotourism project are essentially just a list of obvious conclusions stemming more from pragmatism and opportunism than from any idealized, textbook notion of how to do pure conservation. WCS was successful in creating the Tambopata reserved zone because in talks with government officials, WCS scientists explained and emphasized the politically appealing ideas of job creation and income generation rather than the esoteric, though perhaps more important, issue of biodiversity conservation.
WCS was successful in putting protection on the ground at the Tambopata clay lick by spending years sifting through scores of young Peruvian biologists and conservationists in search of the most dedicated, field-oriented, determined, and single-minded individuals. WCS then supported these tough young biologists in important field research on macaw nesting while simultaneously encouraging them to start their own tour company based on the attraction of the Tambopata macaw lick. This method allowed WCS to support only the field research component at TRC near the lick while the TRC itself provided major infrastructure support that WCS could not have afforded.
WCS also provided the TRC partners with unlimited advice about how to operate ecotourism and brought some important film-makers and photographers to the TRC to document the exciting macaw work. Without the TRC, it would have been difficult for WCS to bring these filmers and photographers to see the research. Without these filmers and photographers, perhaps the TRC would have gone bankrupt in the years of 1991 and 1992, the years of deepest recession in Peruvian tourism. The TRC researchers protected the macaws from poachers and the protected macaws kept their tour business alive. Quite a symbiosis.
Because the TRC partners own the tour company, they work harder to make it prosper than they would if they were only the employees of a non-profit tour facility owned by WCS or another non-profit group.
WCS worked with and observed the future TRC partners for years before deciding that they were true conservationists and lovers of the rainforest. Consequently, when WCS funded them to research macaws in Tambopata and encouraged them to go into ecotourism, WCS already knew these men were dedicated conservationists before they were entrepreneurs. Thus, WCS was sure that if the TRC partners ever were faced with a choice between more profits and rainforest conservation, they definitely would forego increased profits in favor of protecting the forest.
The keys, then, to successful, sustainable parrot-based conservation and ecotourism projects are to survey the world's richest, most accessible wildlands for major parrot attractions, spend several years searching for dedicated local conservationists, test them in parrot research under rigorous field conditions, and encourage them to go into tourism even as they continue the research.
Though only a small number of sites in the world have enough spectacular parrots that parrot-based ecotourism might be a viable conservation option, in many cases the most promising sites also are globally important for biodiversity conservation. In the case of the Tambopata reserved zone, conservation-oriented field research on macaws and parrots led to the creation of a gigantic reserve that protects more species of animals and plants than any other park on Earth. Similarly, the best sites for macaw and parrot conservation in the Brazilian Pantanal, the Brazilian "caatinga" (dry forest), in the Amazon forests of Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Guyanas, and in each of the Central American countries tend in almost every case to be among the very best sites for conservation of all other species of animals and plants. At the same time, parrots obviously are the favorite birds of humans all over the world as well as being the largest, most colorful, intelligent, photogenic, and predictable of the world's tropical birds. The large parrots, in particular, are uniquely popular subjects for "trophy photographs" taken by ecotourists the world over. In many, if not most, tropical forests of the world, there are few other species of attractive, colorful birds or mammals that can be seen and photographed as easily and predictably as parrots (Munn 1992, Munn et al. 1991).
It is surprising to me that given the relative ease with which parrots can become major attractions for ecotourists, at least in the Neotropics it seems that the TRC is the only site that is taking full advantage of their protected parrots as tourist attractions. Not even in Costa Rica are there projects of a similar nature at this point. The only explanation that I can imagine for this apparent lack of similar projects is that the TRC is the only parrot-rich site in the Neotropics that is run and owned by field biologists who have been selected not just for their abilities as researchers but for their abilities to promote the exciting birds with which they work. Thus, the TRC partners know how to think like entrepreneurs as well as like field biologists, a winning combination that results in effective, sustainable parrot conservation.
I have no doubt that around the world there must hundreds or thousands of extremely talented local people who could reproduce in their regions the success story of Tambopata and the TRC. It should be the job of all serious parrot lovers to identify and train these people and to help them get started in saving parrots in the wild.
The Wildlife Conservation Society funded all of my parrot research in South America from 1983 to the present. I thank the governments of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil for permission to research macaws in their spectacular countries. I also thank my wife, Mariana Valqui, for invaluable assistance in the field and in later data analysis. The list of Latin Americans, North Americans, and Europeans who have assisted my WCS macaw research runs into the hundreds and cannot all be included here, but I thank them all sincerely.
V. Literature Cited
Munn, C.A., E. Nycander vM., D. Blanco Z., and D. Ricalde P. 1991. Prospects for sustainable use of wild macaws in southeastern Peru. Pp.- in Proceedings of the First International Symposium on the Conservation of Mesoamerican Macaws, J. Clinton-Eitniear, ed., Center for the Study of Tropical Birds, San Antonio, TX.
Munn, C.A. 1992. Macaw biology and ecotourism: when a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. Pp.- in The Conservation Crisis of New World Parrots: SoIutions from Conservation Biology, S. Beissinger and N.F.R. Snyder, eds., Smithsonian lnstitution Press, Washington, DC.
Munn, C.A. 1994. Macaws: Winged Rainbows. National Geographic 185: 118-140.
Nycander vM., E., K. Holle F., D. Blanco Z., C.A. Munn, and A. del Campo. in press. Nestling growth, fledging success, and experimental husbandry of wild macaws in southeastern Peru, Pp.- in The Care, Breeding, and Conservation of the Large Macaws, J, Abramson, J.B. Thomsen, and B. Speers, eds., Ara Publications, Fort Bragg, CA.
Charles A. Munn
Charles A. Munn is a senior Reaearch Zoologist for the Wildife Conservation Society (WCS), which formerly was known as New York Zoological Society. WCS, which was founded in 1895, manages 170 field conservation projects in 48 countries. Munn has researched wildlife for nearly two decades in Peru's Manu National Park and in other portions of the Amazon rainforest of Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Since 1983, Munn's work for WCS has concentrated on the biology and conservation of six threatened species of large macaws. He now is recognized as the world's foremost authority on wild macaws. Additionally, Munn has been instrumental in the creation of four million acres of protected areas in the most biologically diverse and intact habitats on earth -- the unspoiled Amazon rainforests and savannahs of the Peru-Bolivia border region. Finally, Munn has gained international recognition for the key role he played in catalyzing the creation of locally-owned, world-class ecotourism sites in the Manu and Tambopata rainforests of Peru. Munn has published over 30 scientific papers. Additionally, his work has appeared twice each in TIME and the New York Times, on the cover of January 1994 National Geographic, on the cover of October 1994 International Wildlife, and in other print and electronic media. In 1993 and 1994, Munn's macaw research was highlighted on the Discovery Channel in an Emmy-award-winning, two-hour TV documentary about Peru's Massachusetts-sized Manu National Park, the most species-rich biological reserve on Earth.