Endangered, Precious, and Heroes - Conservationists of Latin America

Beautiful magnificent frigate bird soaring over the keys of Belize.  Birds, like her, help our hearts soar.

     This past week I attended the Mesoamerican Society of Biology and Conservation in Belize City, Belize.  One full day was given to parrot conservation.  We heard many exciting updates!

  • There are Central American scarlet macaws on Coiba Island, Panama, and they may not be experiencing much poaching pressure - thanks to Dr. Mark McReynolds et al for this work!

  • There was no poaching of Belize scarlet macaws in 2015 and 2016 - thanks to Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Boris Arevalo, et al for this work!

  • There are about 115 yellow-headed parrots in Honduras in the Cuyamel area, and  only 2 of 12 nests were poached - thanks to Roger Flores et al for this work!

  • There are many active nests of yellow-headed parrots in Belize that produced 58 chicks - thanks to Charles Britt et al for this work!

  • Wild yellow-naped amazons used nest boxes in Nicaragua - thanks to Martin Lezama et al for this work!

     There were other presenters and many informal discussions that motivated us to plan how we can together improve the well being of parrots in Central America. Perhaps the best thing about this meeting was the excitement and support we offer one another, which is an important part of conservation work, especially in Latin America where the challenges and risks can be great.  For instance, in a recent Global Witness report, two-thirds of the 185 environmental activists murdered in the world were from Latin America.  Most often these activists work with little to no governmental support, and it is not unusual that  the government even counters or endangers environmentalists.  Writes Billy Kyte, author of this report, " Up to now the government sees these people (environmentalists) as opposing development. What really needs to happen is that these people need to be treated as heroes."

Heroes of Central America (presenters and attendees of the parrot symposium in Belize)

     These parrot conservationists of Mesoamerica are my heroes, working under threats and challenges, with very little resources, and often using their own funds to cover their expenses.  Thank you all for what you do, and for being in solidarity and resistance with me as we build a more beautiful world, fighting the poaching and habitat loss that is rampant in the area.  Together we won't le the sun go down on these birds!

Sunrise on Caye Caulker right before the symposium

Conservation: Attaining the Good You Will Not Attain

            Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it. Grace keeps fashioning and shaping our deeds, long after any hopes we had for them have expired. We’d like to have an energizing hope, for our burdens are so great.  The headlines will not leave us alone.
How many were blown up or shot yesterday? What species is slipping further towards extinction?  In this global lotto, odds are that everyone feels a loser.  Many days it seems as if we have no hope.  I think the risk is to not that we could give up on hope, or even faith.  The real danger is that we falter, don't take the next step, or quit, thus diminishing the chance for inviting grace and unpredictable positive outcomes even when all seems lost.

Honduras during the constitutional crisis in 2009

            Many would say that conservation in Central America is a lost cause. Honduras is just about one of the toughest places with rampant gangs, one of the highest murder rates in the world, high government corruption, which diminishes government efficacy, letting the powerful, moneyed, and drug traffickers rule the day.  Some experts say it’s the closest to a failed state anywhere in Latin America. That’s where I work.

            Beginning in 2010 I stuck my nose in, really just to see what was going on and to at least document and witness the disappearance of parrots, most notably the macaws, from the country. Scarlet macaws used to be all over the country, but now are only found in one wild, isolated place, La Moskitia.  There, over the years I have witnessed firsthand the hopeless of the cause. The indigenous people keep losing their land to corruption and land invaders and the poaching of macaws approaches the 100% mark. In 2014 not one macaw from our study area escaped the illegal wildlife trade. In 2015 drug traffickers had taken even more land and were buying off indigenous and governmental leaders. I just couldn’t stand it not trying harder, or at least documenting it all, so I went for two months this past spring of 2016. It was like every day there was some news that landed on me like getting kicked in the gut. Even more land was lost and now it seemed that everyone was coming into this territory to convince the indigenous to sell their land and extract the timber, oil, and ore. Gold miners were flanking both sides of the nearby Coco River, contaminating it with mercury.  One of our nests was poached by one of the local community people we had hired to protect that nest.  Then grace stepped in.

At the base of poached nest, deciding what to do

            We were gathered at the bottom of the nest tree reflecting and sharing what we felt, when one member of our team said, "Doctora, it is sad, but this is not the time for tears."  He was right. We wanted our two parrot chicks back, and would have to act, now.  But recovering chicks had never happened before.  Once they were gone, they were long gone: to the cities, to other countries, all the way to the Middle East and Japan.  It was hopeless. But that didn’t matter.  People went out on bikes and motorcycles to try to track down the poachers and to get any hints of where they had gone.  I borrowed a phone, climbed a hill, got a cell phone signal from Nicaragua, and started calling people.  Several days later I had not heard any news when I had to go to the nearest town, Pt. Lempira, a 4-hour drive away.   I was there to put my spouse Meredith on a plane the next day.  I called the forestry service to ask them if they had any news, and they said they had 4 confiscated parrots. When they brought them to me to take care of they casually mentioned that two of them had bands. A thrill went through me. They were our chicks!  We got them back against all odds. They went directly to our Rescue and Liberation Center in the village of Mabita, and are now flying free!  Not only that, not one chick from 2016 entered the illegal wildlife trade. I never saw that coming.

Rescued chick being fed

            I should be happy, shouldn’t I?  But I keep repeating the incantations, it is not about happiness. attaining the good of keeping those birds and people safe. It could go at anytime, and it’s not looking good for the long haul. Yet, I’ve never been in a place so powerful to stave that off. Holding that failure and possible success has made a watcher out of me, trying to stay present to it all. Sometimes I wonder if trying to hold it all leaves me, personally, with less. So I remember Zbigniew Herbert's poem where he who tells me to beware of dryness of heart. See the beauty and love the bird with an unknown name and an unknown future.

            Lest we should rest on our laurels for a spectacular conservation year of 2016, I heed Herbert's warning, "Beware of unnecessary pride. Keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror. Repeat, I was called, weren’t there better ones than I?" So I juggle fumbling and bumbling all the time, a clown through and through. I juggle many other balls though:  beauty, resistance, witness, and solidarity. We must give testimony, testimony to the startling beauty and wonder of life. I seek to be motivated by these, even when I think we are losing, because we are always losing.

            At one time I thought I had lost too much.  I went to divinity school to find a way to save the world that might help save me.  I was not looking for a life partner and I was not looking for a career, especially as a parish minister, and later a community minister. And then grace stepped in.  My mother always told me that the place to meet a man was in church.  During Divinity school I attended the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, not to meet anyone, but to investigate who I was in the world. There I met Meredith, my current spouse.

The Reverends Beth Johnson, Meredith Garmon, and LoraKim Joyner heading off to the New York Climate March, 2014

            Early in our relationship I helped him move, tempting our new and fragile relationship with disaster. But then grace stepped in. We were getting ready to lift his long, five-drawer, metal file cabinet into a truck when we paused for him to show me all the mementos he had taped to it over the years. That’s the first time I saw Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito".  As he read it I stared over his shoulder, and cried.  He did too. We groked each other.  So soon there was an engagement, and happily I called my mother to say that her advice was correct: church IS a great place to meet people. My mother, a lifelong Methodist replied, “But I didn’t mean that church.” Now when I counsel people who wish to get married  I don’t come right out and say that marriage is about attaining the good we will  not attain.  But it is. And it’s worked pretty well for us.

       Conservation is like that too.  Attaining the good I do not attain, but that you, and you, and we together attain.


The Lives of Parrots and People - Part III

Traditional house in Valle, Honduras

Today we continue our journey through the Valle Department of Southern Honduras. Last week we visited Tio's (Uncle's house) and this week we visit three other homes with parrots.The first house as two little parakeets sharing a cage (orange-fronted and orange-chinned parakeets). The owners seem proud of their birds, whom they report do not have clipped wings and eat everything that the humans do. They also never get out of their cage. I asked the husband how the birds came to be in his home, and he said he shot them down with a slingshot and gave them as presents to his wife.

 Cage of mixed parakeets

The next house has two siblings that came to the home as young chicks. Their diet is more restricted: mango, rice, and corn mush. Like the previous house they do not have clipped wings and never leave their cage.

 Sibling orange-fronted parakeets

Our last house has two parrots - an endangered yellow-naped amazon and an orange-fronted parakeet. The amazon has severe feather damage brought on most likely from stress, boredom, and malnutrition, although we cannot rule out disease just by looking at the bird. This household also engages in poultry production, and I suggest to the owner that she can improve the diet of her parrots by feeding them high quality chicken concentrate feed.

 Self inflicted feather damage for this yellow-naped amazon parrot

At these homes we make suggestions on improving the welfare of their parrot companions, and also deliver a conservation message.All these birds need more diversion, better food, exercise, company, better sanitation, and access to clean water. The humans who share their lives with these parrots seem open to ideas, and mostly treat their birds badly because they do not know differently.

As we drive away I think how little money and resources it would take to vastly improve the lives of the parrots here, as well as to protect them in the wild from the rampant poaching. I vow, along with my companions, to return, and do just that.

 Chicken with beak clipped to curtail destructive behavior

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Parrots and People of Latin America

Counting parrots in Valle, Honduras - looking towards the mangrove swamps

Counting parrots in Valle, Honduras - looking towards the mangrove swamps 

Today we journey to the Valle Department of Southern Honduras.  We wind through sandy beaches and mangrove canals to get to where the last yellow-naped amazons are on the Pacific coast of Honduras. We have just finished two parrot counts over the last 24 hours, and on our way out we visit families with homed parrots.

   Orange-fronted parakeet on floor next to stove

Orange-fronted parakeet on floor next to stove

One of first stops is Tio's (Uncle's House).  We interrupt his television soccer game, which he doesn't seem to mind as he walks us to a sparsely furnished kitchen where there are 3 parrots; 1 orange-fronted parakeet in a cage on the floor, and two yellow-naped amazons perched atop a cage.  Tio tells me that they eat everything that the humans do. He can handle the larger parrots, even though they also both have unclipped wings, which seems to be true for the other parrots we visit in this region; instead parrots are kept in cages.  Both of these birds, which he has had for 13 years, can fly around the house, and everyone once in a while get out. One of the amazons has a damaged foot from when he got out before and got caught in a hammock.  One of the toes is frozen and necrotic.  "I tried to cut the damaged toe off one day but it bled too much," Tio told me.

Tio with pair of yellow-naped amazons in kitchen
Tio with pair of yellow-naped amazons in kitchen

 "Because his foot doesn't work too well he can't mount the female and have chicks."  I look around at the environment and suspect that there are other reasons why the birds might not be reproducing, such as the pair actually being two males or two females.  Most homes I visit assure me that they know the sexes of the birds; They tell me that males are supposedly larger, brighter, and more vocal.

Damaged foot with missing toe, short toe, and necrotic toe
Damaged foot with missing toe, short toe, and necrotic toe

 I asked Tio why he had parrots and he says it is because of tradition, "Todos los tienen"  (Everyone has them).  I then asked what he liked about having birds. He paused for several seconds and then said, "My wife likes them."  I ask Tio if I can give advice on caring for the birds and he agrees: we speak about diet, the dangers of keeping parrots in a kitchen, and how they need toys, cleanliness, and potable water.
Yellow-naped amazon in kitchen
Yellow-naped amazon in kitchen

 After leaving Tio's home my biologist companions suggest that perhaps it is the women who drive the illegal wildlife trade here.  "They want company in the kitchen. The men like to give the parrots as presents to their wives, parents, and children."   There must be a lot of gifts given here because parrots are in many  homes. No wonder we counted so few this morning.