By taking a trip to the Peruvian Amazon or the Colonche Hills in Western Ecuador you could be safe guarding the future of the Scarlett Macaw or the Esmeraldas Woodstar. This was the message that came from the free Earthwatch Lecture "South American Forest Birds, Ecotourism, Extinction and Enterprise" on 23rd June in London.
Thanks to pioneering work in Ecuador, Earthwatch-supported scientist Dr Dusti Becker and over 300 Earthwatch volunteers have demonstrated to the local community that cloud forests not only provide surrounding villages with essential water resources, but they also serve as an oasis for vulnerable bird species including the Amazilia Hummingbird and the Henna-hooded Foliage Gleaner. As a result, the community has resolved to protect 3000 hectares of tropical forest and designate it an Important Bird Area (IBA), an internationally recognized conservation status determined by Birdlife International.
It is Becker's belief that this Hummingbird haven could generate income via nature tourism. "We want to get the tourists off the beaches and into the hills", says Becker. "The people are ready for it, they welcome visitors to their villages, and already 10% of the local people have re-trained as nature guides to accommodate a growing interest in the area. We have to find a way to look after both biodiversity and people, and this could be the answer."
Meanwhile, Dr Donald Brightsmith has grave concerns for the twenty parrot species, including six macaw species, which inhabit the Madre de Dìos region in Peru. These birds are currently not endangered, unlike their cousins across South America, allowing Brightsmith and Earthwatch volunteers to use the area as a ‘laboratory' to study macaw breeding activities and thus influence conservation plans across the continent.
However, the proposal for a new road that will join the near by town of Puerto Maldonado to Brazil will inadvertently open the doors to agricultural expansion and illegal poachers, who will cut down nesting trees for chicks and lurk at clay licks, where macaws and parrots congregate by the hundreds. The race is now on to nail down the protected areas, but with endangered macaws fetching as much as £10,000 - £15,000 abroad, there is a challenge ahead.
Ecotourism has again been proposed as a means of insuring protection and providing alternative revenue sources, but will it disturb a species that requires century-old trees for nesting and has a slow reproductive rate? A long-term study lead by Earthwatch teams discovered that the number of macaws nesting, and gathering at the clay lick, is not affected by the number of tourists present, suggesting that this is a viable way forward.
"We have to rely on tourist companies being truly green" says Brightsmith, "and bear in mind that we are studying birds that have not yet come to associate people with capture, meaning that this model might not work in other parts of the world. One thing is certain; we are paving the way for an eco-tourism experiment at the very least and it will be closely monitored by all involved".
Join Dr Brightsmith on The Macaws of the Peruvian project.
For more information about Earthwatch events and volunteering opportunities visit http://www.earthwatch.org/ or call 01865 318838.
Photo credits (top to bottom): © Dr Donald Brightsmith; © Andre Santos