Pandemic does not deter nest-site ‘eco-guardians’


Margarita Island’s yellow-shouldered parrots nest in the shallow cavities of trees on the island’s Macanao Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Provita)

Conservationists on Venezuela’s Margarita Island have worked tirelessly since 1989 to protect the local population of yellow-shouldered parrots (Amazona barbadensis), a vulnerable species found in other isolated arid areas of coastal Venezuela and the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire.

The project began when a census concluded that the local population of the species—which lives on the Macanao Peninsula at the western end of the island—numbered just 700. A key cause of the decline were poachers, who steal chicks from their nests to supply what is for the most part a local, low-cost market for the birds. Experts warned that the island could see its yellow-shouldered parrots go extinct, as had occurred decades earlier on the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao.

The Margarita campaign that ensued turned the tables, building up the local population to 1,600 by 2019, when the last census was taken. Then, though, came the pandemic. The group spearheading the project—Provita, whose work is supported by international environmental organizations including the Whitley Fund for Nature, the World Land Trust and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—worried that all the progress would be reversed.

A vital component of the project are so-called eco-guardians, some 20 young people who take turns monitoring the birds’ nesting sites to prevent poachers from stealing the chicks. From May through July, a five-month period in which the chicks hatch, fledge and ultimately leave their nests, eco-guardians take turns camping near the nesting sites and monitoring them around the clock. But not far into last year’s breeding season, an interruption in the monitoring seemed unavoidable.

“Since the pandemic didn’t arrive in Macanao right away, we decided to continue; but in May, when we learned of the first [Covid-19] cases in the area, we told the eco-guardians that it was time to go home, and we arranged with international funders to continue paying their salaries,” says biologist Jon Paul Rodríguez, Provita’s president. “We couldn’t put people’s lives at risk.”

Most parrot species live in tropical or subtropical areas with tall trees where the birds can make their nests. But the woodland on the Macanao Peninsula is dry and low, and the nests of the yellow-shouldered parrots, built in the shallow cavities of the trees, are easy targets for poachers if left unguarded.

“When we left the forest on May 8, we covered the nests with branches to make things difficult for the poachers,” says José Manuel Briceño, a Provita assistant director. “But we knew it wouldn’t work because when we are not there 100% of the chicks are stolen.”

Surprise appearance
However, when Briceño returned to the woodland for the first time in early June, he was shocked to see that the eco-guardians had set up camp on their own and maintained watch over the parrot nests.

They had done so not only amid Covid-19 concerns, but also in the face of severe economic dislocations in Venezuela that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Despite the country’s acute gasoline shortages, for instance, they nevertheless found fuel to power two motorcycles they used to ferry themselves and supplies to the site.

“They did it because they heard rumors that the poachers knew the nests were unprotected and could soon be [at the nesting sites],” Briceño says. “It was very moving. Thanks to them, the final result of the breeding season was that 140 chicks eventually left their nests. That equaled the result from 2019, which had been a record in the 30 years of the project.”

Franklin Rojas, a Provita co-founder who established the Margarita Island project, says the initiative has a broad goal. “[Provita] is working to reconnect people with nature, and it chose to protect this species because it helps promote the culture of environmental conservation, given that [the parrot] is very charismatic and connected to the rural population of Macanao,” says Rojas, who now lives in Spain and heads an international arm of the group.

Project organizers say many men on the island fish, spending months at a time away on vessels. “When they go, they leave their wives a parrot for company in their absence,” says Rodríguez. “The parrot learns to talk and becomes a member of the family.”

Rodríguez notes that while parrots are sold, the market for them is “informal and pretty small.” He adds: “Many poachers want parrots for themselves or to give as gifts. We don’t have details, but we know there are more parrots in captivity than in the wild on Margarita.”

Local attitudes
Because the birds are difficult to breed in captivity, islanders look to the wild population. A poll Provita conducted last year found that 22% of 496 Macanao residents said they had a parrot at home, and 15% acknowledged participating in the capture of the bird in the wild. A 53% share of respondents said they were tolerant of poaching, which respondents portrayed variously as an additional source of income, a tradition and a “child’s prank.”

The findings, included in an article Provita researchers wrote about the parrot-conservation program for the journal Diversity, contributed to a mixed picture. “Approval of the conservation program was high, but it failed to engage communities despite their high conservation awareness and positive attitudes towards the species,” the researchers wrote. “People identified unsustainable use as the main threat to parrots, but negative perceptions were limited to selling, not harvesting or keeping.”

The local market for pets isn’t the only threat to Margarita’s yellow-shouldered parrots. Another is the mining for sand that has occurred on the Macanao Peninsula to support construction on the eastern portion of the island, which has seen considerable tourism development.

To reach the sand, sand-mining companies have typically cleared trees, but Provita has enlisted some of the companies in the parrot-conservation effort. “We began to see them as potential allies, and we got them to preserve certain trees,” Rojas says.

One of the companies, Arenera La Chica, authorizes the eco-guardians to set up their camp each year on its land, which holds the island’s greatest concentration of yellow-shouldered parrot nests.

Says Juan Carlos Salazar, one of the company’s owners: “We always try to affect the ecosystem as little as possible. For me it was very normal to see parrots, and from the start we supported the eco-guardians.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the Index: Volunteer “eco-guardians” of yellow-shouldered parrots set up camp during the birds’ breeding season to ward off poachers. (Photo courtesy of Provita)

José Manuel Briceño
Assistant Director
Provita regional office in the state of Nueva Esparta
Boca de Río, Venezuela
Tel: +(58 295) 291-3432
Jon Paul Rodríguez
Caracas, Venezuela
Tel: +(58 212) 263-7240
Franklin Rojas
Biologist, President
Provita International
Barcelona, Spain
Juan Carlos Salazar
Arenera La Chica
Boca del Río, Venezuela