The once ubiquitous screeches of Cuban Amazons are gone from all but a few isolated patches on Cuba, but conservation efforts there are helping the birds.
By Rex Graham
Of course, parrots, are threatened worldwide more than any other bird family. Poaching and trapping for the pet trade and habitat destruction are dooming many species.
In the wild, Cuban Amazons nest in limestone caves and in cavities in dead palm trees that have been excavated by Fernandina’s Flickers and other woodpeckers. Unfortunately, the palm trees are sometimes cut down by chick-stealing poachers or wiped out by big storms. Hurricane Wilma, a 2005 Category-5 storm and the most intense Atlantic hurricane yet recorded, destroyed many palms used as parrot and woodpecker nest trees.
Cuban and international laws protect the Cuban Amazon, but poachers and trappers still sell them through the lively pet-trade industry. About 60% of captured parrots die before they can be sold. The survivors are marketed in East European countries, and dozens smuggled into the U.S. are occasionally confiscated in single incidents.
Crimes against parrots
The reason for the organized crime against parrots is easy to understand. They sell for as much as $3,500 each in the U.S. The more rare or endangered any given parrot species, the higher prices it fetches from people who want them as pets. The booming aviculture industry breeds many threatened and endangered species in captivity, but those birds can’t survive in the wild.
Who should be responsible for the conservation of exploited species like the Cuban Amazon? “The many millions of owners that keep parrots as pet or companion animals, or for breeding for the pet trade, should be urged to accept more responsibility for the survival of parrots in the wild and the welfare of existing captive parrots,” said Michael Reynolds, Director of the World Parrot Trust, in the book Parrots: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2000-2004.
Wild-caught and confiscated parrots in Cuba are housed in three captive-breeding populations (Zapata Swamp, Managua and the National Zoo). Zoos and other captive-breeding programs for many bird species operate to supposedly boost wild populations and create “insurance colonies” against extinction. However, researchers say that most captive-breeding operations don’t have strategies to minimize inbreeding (more precisely called “mean kinship”). As a result they “are not likely to achieve their conservation goals,” according to a report in Journal of Heredity written by Cuban and Canadian researchers.
Captive-breeding saved the California Condor from extinction, and while released condors reproduce in the wild, chick survival is very low. Captive-breeding doesn’t seem to work on migratory species such as Whooping Cranes and sea turtles. Re-establishing wild parrot populations from captive-bred individuals is “especially daunting,” according to the Conservation Action Plan. For example, the re-introduction of captive-bred Thick-billed Parrots in Mexico was unsuccessful. Properly run captive-breeding programs are expensive and end up accomplishing much less than proven habitat conservation projects.
Smart, sustainable efforts
Cuban wildlife authorities are restoring some Cuban Amazon habitat and providing dead palm trees with nesting cavities in ecological reserves. This kind of smart, low-cost, proven approach can pay dividends quickly. Congregations of many wild parrots offer significant ecotourism benefits to local communities. Peru’s clay-lick spectacles produce significant local income and instill a long-term conservation ethic. Visitor fees to protected areas have the potential to help expand conservation projects. Indeed, ecotourism not only counters exploitation and corruption, but it also is one of the most sustainable conservation options for many threatened and endangered birds.
Organized crime is now a much bigger threat to the world’s wildlife than climate change, and parrots are one of the most decimated of all animal orders.
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