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| Status of the
Yellow-naped Amazon in Southern Guatemala
Ann Brice, Ph.D.
We've just finished our fifth field season studying the ecology and specifically the reproductive success of the Yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata) in southern Guatemala. At our site we have found that the combination of habitat degradation due to cattle ranching and sugar cane farming and the theft of nestlings for the bird trade is seriously imperiling the Yellow-napes' chances for long term survival.
There seems to be a movement in certain avicultural circles toward discounting the impact of the illegal pet trade and questioning the accuracy and even the veracity of parrot field biologists' warnings. It is quite disheartening if the very people who most care about captive parrots don't accept the reality of what's happening to the wild ones. Hopefully they will be persuaded of the seriousness of the situation as they see more data gathered on various species.
Yellow-naped Amazons in Guatemala
I have worked on this project in conjunction with Dr. Kim Joyner, Dr. Jim Wiley and Dr. Catherine Toft with three year's of funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Our annual study season spanned principally from mid-December through mid-April, which coincides with the dry season in southern Guatemala. During that period each year we gathered a great quantity of data which included parrot nest site attentiveness, chick health parameters, habitat information, tree fruiting phenology, and population surveys. We also documented the reproductive outcome of every Yellow-nape nest we could locate on three large cattle ranches. In addition we tracked a number of chicks via radio telemetry during the first year of their lives. We are now in the process of analyzing our data and beginning to write it up for publication.
Today I would like to focus primarily on the reproductive outcome. In our first two years in Guatemala we found fewer than 10 nests each year, and all of them failed to fledge young. Since we didn't have a full scale research program yet in place, we couldn't document what happened to the nests. We suspected poaching, however, because local people reported that it had been going on for years, and we had been guided to the best known nests. Once we receivedfunding from USAID, we were able to hire nest site observers, and we began a program of climbing to the nests once a week to assess the health of the eggs and chicks. Table 1 presents a summary of three years of data gathered.
As low as the percentages of fledging success seem in Table 1, the reality of what would happen if we were not there to guard nests is even more depressing. Our observers deterred poachers at virtually every climbable nest. Obviously the more determined returned when our people weren't there, but we felt our presence served to discourage the casual poacher. This means that Yellow-napes probably only reliably fledge from nests that have heavy infestations of Africanized bees and /or are located in very rotten branches, so that poachers cannot climb to the nest. This year only one of the four nests that fledged young fell into that category, which might well have meant a 3% fledging success under normal conditions.
As if the poaching didn't make the situation dire enough, this year we had a good portion of one of the three ranches where we work converted to sugar cane. Every tree was removed including many of our nest trees, some of which were hundreds of years old. The other two ranches are considering following suit if they can't make a better profit with cattle. At least with cattle ranching some large trees are left in each pasture to provide shade for the cows. After the annual cane harvest, there is nothing living left standing.
Yellow-naped Amazons are very long-lived. They are also opportunistic feeders and are quite flexible in their nesting habits. The species can obviously exist with some habitat alteration, and the birds have made a valiant effort to do so in southern Guatemala. They cannot, however, survive severe habitat destruction combined with such heavy poaching rates. Unfortunately, the extent of the poaching is not obvious to the average observer because the same pairs will probably stay in the area until the last nest trees and food sources are gone. What people don't realize is that virtually no young birds are being recruited into the population, so that when the adults die, the crash will be swift and probably irrevocable.
What can be done?
Is it hopeless to try to save wild parrots? Even at the most protected parrot habitats the solutions are not simple. In spite of that, I believe we have an obligation to try, both for the birds' sakes as well as our own, and I think we have a great opportunity to preserve many species of parrots if we are willing to make the commitment.
From the perspective of habitat destruction parrots are only one small facet of the diversity of life that is being lost, but they do serve as powerful symbols of exotic beauty and wildness to draw attention to the plight. Many people are more moved by the potential loss of a species of parrot than a species of invertebrate or flower. If news of a parrot's decline will encourage people to donate to legitimate organizations that buy and protect habitat, we need to make sure that the word gets out.
We in developed countries have to recognize how difficult life is for those in developing countries where most parrots live. The average person in Guatemala, for example, is desperately poor with little hope of improving his/her life. A very few people control the wealth in the country, and they aren't too eager to share it. Just trying to survive from one day to the next makes risking one's life to steal baby parrots seem pretty sensible. To tell someone not to poach parrots when he may need that money to feed his family is a very hard thing to do, and we as prosperous foreigners probably don't have the right to demand that. It is very evident that conservation biology must overlap with such fields as sociology and economics in order to achieve its goals. I also believe that ultimately Guatemalans must work with Guatemalans to implement the changes needed in their society, but that doesn't mean they don't need our financial and technical assistance.
Our policy has been to try to make people aware of the consequences of their actions without insulting them. To discourage the illegal harvest of young birds we have completed three years of extensive conservation education in the schools and communities surrounding our study site. Our outreach program has been conducted almost exclusively by local Guatemalans and has been extremely well received. Our educators have been welcomed in schools, churches and individual homes. We have also offered financial incentives to people to protect nests until the chicks fledge. This has worked in some cases, but there is always the problem of poachers coming in from outside the immediate community even when the local people are cooperating. Besides, in the long term there cannot be guards at every parrot nest. In spite of the results presented in Table 1, I think our education efforts have had a positive impact, especially for the children. If our only measure of success, however, was to be a reduction in numbers of parrots stolen, we did not succeed in five years.
The idea of making it more profitable to preserve habitat than to degrade it for other purposes is being explored in many countries. Ecotourism has become a viable source of income in some countries, such as Costa Rica, and it has the potential to greatly benefit parrots. Other possible alternatives to protect wild psittacines include sustainable harvest of wild chicks and parrot farming. Our particular study area is lacking in eco-tourism potential due to habitat destruction and social instability. Sustainable harvest of parrots is hard to imagine there becausethe people don't own their own land, and cheaters would abound. As for parrot farming, we conducted a pilot study in which we gave sexed pairs of Half Moon Conures (Aratinga canicularis) in cages with nest boxes to community families. We provided the food and a veterinarian who visited the homes regularly. The families were allowed to keep or sell any offspring. The initial program was very successful, but we were limited by available birds and ongoing management. A similar program with Yellow-napes would be harder because the birds don't reach sexual maturity for four or five years. To me the idea of parrot farming cooper-atives seems promising, because it would provide local income and remove the focus from the wild birds, but it needs a relatively long term commitment from a funding source and the right people to manage it.
I believe the plight of the Yellow-napes in southern Guatemala is among the most difficult in terms of conservation. The habitat has already been degraded, the people are extremely poor and resent the wealthy owners of the land the parrots inhabit, and the market for the very popular Yellow-naped Amazon is well established. We as bird owners in the U.S. can't truly do much to alleviate the poverty, but we can help to protect habitat that hasn't already been ravaged, and we can definitely work to shut down the illegal bird trade. We must contribute to international habitat protection programs, and we must strive to ensure that people don't buy smuggled birds in the U.S. Education and regulations are essential, but I also believe that improved domestic captive propagation by people like you is often downplayed as a means to help take the profitability out of smuggling. Eventually the loss of a market for illegal birds in developed countries will result in less poaching in countries of origin.
Finally I encourage you also to support those researchers studying the wild parrots. Improved techniques, such as better telemetry and software habitat mapping programs, will make data gathering easier, but it costs money. What we found in Guatemala certainly isn't what we set out to find, but we now have several years of data, not just guesses, about a specific population of Yellow-nape Amazons. We've learned a tremendous amount, and we want to compare our data with other Yellow-nape populations and other species. Just last month there was a parrot conference in Paraguay where field biologists from all over the Americas met to try to standardize parrot field techniques, so we can make meaningful comparisons. Those of us who couldn't go were immediately updated on the Internet. A sharing of knowledge and resources from all those concerned for the well-being of parrots, from the North American aviculturist to the South American field biologist, just may keep the wild birds flying free.