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Parrots of the Caribbean: Birding tourism offers hope for threatened species

  • Four species of parrots endemic to Caribbean islands in the Lesser Antilles — St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Dominica — are clinging to existence amid a volley of hurricanes and volcanic eruptions that have decimated their populations and habitats.
  • Efforts by state agencies, NGOs, volunteers and entrepreneurs are trying to ensure that none of them slips into extinction.
  • Ecotourism is seen by most people directly involved as being the best route forward for the parrots’ protection and for sustainable community development.

JENNINGS MOUNTAIN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — The destruction was terrible, but the silence was even worse. Yvette Pereira had just walked up the road to the farm she owned on St. Vincent, an island located between St. Lucia, Grenada and Barbados in the Lesser Antilles.

“It was like in a nightmare. It was all gray and no green. I heard nothing,” Pereira recounted.

A couple of days before, on April 9, 2021, a volcano named La Soufrière erupted and blanketed much of the island in ash. The small river that normally gurgled through Pereira’s property ceased to flow, trees were snapped in two, and several of her farm animals were killed. But it was the parrots that worried Pereira the most.

“Normally I drive up, open my door, and am hearing parrots. I thought, where are the parrots?”

Pereira had cause for concern. The parrots that she was so accustomed to seeing weren’t the kind of parrots found at the pet shop, or even in most zoos. These were St. Vincent parrots (Amazona guildingii), a dazzling species with colors like a sunset. The species, endemic to this island that measures just 29 kilometers long and 18 across (18 by 11 miles), is one of four parrot species restricted to only one island in the string of islands known as the Lesser Antilles. All are considered threatened species on the IUCN Red List (three are vulnerable and one is critically-endangered).

A St. Vincent parrot perches in a tree above Amazona Nest, an ecolodge. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Parrots of the Caribbean

Extinction is a very real threat for the parrots of the Caribbean: of the 34 or so unique species that once occurred in the region, only 15 remain today.

Parrots have a lot working against them: they generally nest in tree cavities, a habitat feature most common in mature forests that are vulnerable to both natural disasters and deforestation. Most parrot species take several years to become sexually mature, and when they do, they usually raise only one or two chicks per year. Their intelligence and stunning colors make them desirable for the illegal pet trade. And, according to early explorers, they even taste good.

The four species of parrots confined to the Lesser Antilles somehow passed through the other side of this threat gauntlet to survive into the present day. The St. Vincent parrot and St. Lucia parrot (Amazona versicolor) each occur only on their namesake islands, while the red-necked parrot (Amazona arausiaca) and imperial parrot (Amazona imperialis) each call Dominica their exclusive home. All three islands host spectacular parrot species, but all are vulnerable to natural disasters.

Each island owes its existence to volcanoes, and all sit squarely within the crosshairs of hurricanes crossing either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. Just three and a half years before the eruption of La Soufrière, Hurricane Maria tore through Dominica. The Category 5 storm damaged 90% of the homes and buildings on the island and, like a giant lawnmower, sliced the tops off thousands of trees.

Yvette Pereira, owner of a sustainable farm and ecolodge in St. Vincent known as Amazona Nest, with a coffee plant growing on the property. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Hope in disaster’s wake

Both forms of damage impacted Bertrand Jno-Baptiste, who lost his home in the storm and, as an ornithologist who spent 34 years working with the Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division of Dominica, temporarily lost optimism about the future of the parrots he loved so much.

Jno-Baptiste began his career in the immediate wake of Hurricane David, another Category 5 storm that devastated Dominica in 1979. At that time, approximately 1,000 red-necked parrots and 50 imperial parrots survived in the wild. By the time Hurricane Maria blew onto the scene, the populations of both had increased to 3,500 and 450, respectively.

Two weeks after Maria hit, Jno-Baptiste took a walk to his prime parrot-watching spot and wondered whether any parrots had made it through the storm. The forest would recover, he knew. Left alone, the native trees and vegetation that had adapted over millennia to the impact of violent natural disturbances would bounce back. However, for wildlife species already vulnerable to extinction, recovery was less certain. Questions filled his mind, but before he even reached his destination, he looked ahead and saw a sight he said he will never forget.

“I saw four imperials, and I had not seen four together since long before the hurricane.”

Jno-Baptiste said he thinks the numbers rebounded after the storm, based on his observations. But he qualified this by saying that, “Unfortunately, almost nothing has been done in terms of proper counts of parrots after the hurricane.”

The same was true on St. Vincent. Following the volcanic eruption last year, nobody really knew how the parrots were faring.

“After the volcano erupted, we realized that this was, potentially, a very damaging event to the parrot’s population,” said Lisa Sorenson, executive director of BirdsCaribbean, an NGO that has helped conserve parrots on several Caribbean islands. “We really had no idea how bad the impacts to the parrots were.”

Bertrand Jno-Baptiste, a full-time birding guide in Dominica, stands at a viewpoint in Morne Diablotin National Park where he has shown thousands of birders their first imperial parrots. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Dealing with data deficiency

Nobody knew how the St. Vincent parrot was doing after the eruption because nobody could really say before: the last full population census was completed in 2010. The situation there and on Dominica, coupled with the threatened status of the birds, begs the question: Why had so little been done?

Many of those familiar with parrot conservation on the islands sum up the answer with four letters: ACTP, or the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots, which has exported at least 27 parrots over the last 11 years from St. Vincent and Dominica. The nonprofit’s website says the exports are needed to “establish a safety net population in case of natural disasters.” Reports from Audubon Magazine and The Guardian alleging questionable export documents, government corruption, and threats from the ACTP’s director have created a great deal of skepticism, which has led to distrust between those tasked with conserving the parrots on the ground and the government entities that approved the ACTP’s activities. The result, some say, is the stagnation of necessary parrot conservation programs.

Glenroy “Peewee” Gaymes worked for more than two decades as an officer with St. Vincent’s Forestry Department. He was suspended for three years after writing a letter directly to the prime minister expressing his concerns about what the department was, and wasn’t, doing. Though recently reinstated as a “floating officer,” he still questions why the ACTP has influenced forestry activities to the extent that it has.

“My thing is, what is the benefit to us?” Gaymes said in an interview with Mongabay. “I’m sad to say that I don’t think we know what we want out of it.”

Sorenson said the problem may be even simpler.

“[Forestry staff] may feel like they don’t have the skills,” she said. “That’s what I hear, is that ‘we don’t really know how to go out and do counts.’ I would say that there’s just a real need to develop the capacity to do the work, more than anything.”

In a complaint letter sent to Mongabay on July 26, 2022, legal representatives of ACTP cited their breeding program, financial support to St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Forestry Department, and educational campaigns as examples of ACTP’s contributions to the country’s parrot conservation.

A young birder from the United States, Heather Levy, scanning for imperial parrots at a viewpoint in Dominica’s Morne Diablotin National Park. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Tourism: the winning ticket?

And while not everyone agrees on the problems, the same solution came up in every conversation Mongabay had with those working to conserve the Lesser Antillean parrots: birding tourism.

“We’re seeing [ecotourism] as the major sector in St. Vincent,” Gaymes said. “All of the other countries surrounding us are doing the same thing. Gone are the days when you have just the ‘sea and sun’ tourism. You have to have something unique.”

BirdsCaribbean, recognizing this, created the Caribbean Birding Trail to promote birding opportunities, sustainable accommodations, and local guides.

“We firmly believe that bird and nature tourism is a huge part of the solution,” Sorenson said. “Because, of course, if you’re saving the habitats and the birds that the visitors are coming to see, instead of destroying it to build another all-inclusive hotel, then you’re helping the economy, you’re providing jobs, and all of that.”

Following La Soufrière’s eruption, Yvette Pereira’s ecolodge, Amazona Nest, literally rose from the ashes. She and the five locals she employs have observed a steady uptick in visitors searching for an authentic experience. And, of course, searching for the parrots.

An interpretive sign at the Nicholls Wildlife Complex on St. Vincent describes the captive breeding program that takes place on site. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

As a parrot gave its raucous cry in the background, Pereira gestured behind her and said, “The parrots, I think, are one of the biggest attractions. For my business, I need them around.”

Birding tourists to the Lesser Antilles, especially those with limited time, employ guides to help them find their “target” birds. Guides must know the native birds by sight and sound, and are paid a premium to share this knowledge with visitors. Gaymes supplements his Forestry Department income by leading birding tours. Jno-Baptiste, now retired from the department, guides full time.

“I worked all my life for the Forestry and Parks Division but I made more money guiding in the past six years than I ever made with them,” he said.

Sorenson said getting more forestry staff affiliated with guiding could aid them financially while helping to build capacity to conduct parrot surveys and associated conservation actions. As a result, BirdsCaribbean plans to hold a five-day workshop in St. Vincent at the end of this year to train forestry staffers from various islands in bird identification, field methodology, and interpretation.

The increased supply of qualified guides would also help to meet the ever-rising demand for birding and nature tourism on the islands. Tourism visits to St. Vincent doubled between 1998 and 2019, and in a 2009 survey, 100% of 264 Dominicans polled said they felt nature was the main reason that tourists visit the islands; 86% of the same respondents said they felt the government could do more to conserve the natural environment for tourism.

Three endemic red-necked parrots over intact, primary forest protected within Morne Diablotin National Park in Dominica. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Jno-Baptiste said he feels strongly that the way to change the political mindset around conservation on his island, and others, involves showing the link between this increased demand and the economic benefits it brings.

“If the forest and parrots can bring in millions, let’s do it,” he said emphatically. “We have what it takes.”

Gaymes agreed. “These are the things that our policymakers need to see,” he said. “[We need to] tell our policymakers this is unique, this is what’s going to bring money into the country, this is what we need to save. And then we’re all happy at the end of the day.”

Guides lead the way

The data supports this point of view. The 2009 study found that the average ecotourist in Dominica spent nearly twice as much per trip than a tourist on a general vacation. That extra money supports people like Jno-Baptiste and Gaymes, who played central roles in strengthening knowledge about the parrots found on their respective islands. The money also reduces the dependence on outside players who may not always have the best interests of the islands — and their birds — in mind.

And, while government officials may require some reminders about the importance of the parrots and their habitats, most on the islands seem to possess a deep sense of pride regarding the birds.

“The color of the St. Vincent parrot happens to be the color of our national flag,” Gaymes said. “That speaks volumes.”

Dominica takes its own flag a step further: an image of an imperial parrot sits squarely in the center. These birds are literally woven into the national identity, but acceptance of the parrots as national treasures deserving of protection was extra palpable at the Calvin Nicholls Wildlife Complex on St. Vincent.

Glenroy “Peewee” Gaymes leads birding tourists down a trail on the flanks of La Soufriére, where sightings of several endemic bird species are possible. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.

Fabian Young was looking up at a splendid St. Vincent parrot, bedecked in a cascade of color that looked impossibly gaudy for the animal kingdom. He put his hand out and stroked the forehead of this bird that had obviously bonded with him. Young, only 26 years old and one of the caretakers of this 31-strong captive breeding colony of St. Vincent parrots, seemed optimistic, even enthusiastic, about the future of the birds.

Young was familiar with the ACTP controversy that involved the questionable export of parrots from the complex. And, yes, he knew that the colony of parrots he tended was a drop in the bucket compared to the 800-1,000 fending for themselves in a wild full of natural and human-induced threats.

But he also knew about the local farmers who donated fruit twice per week to help feed these birds. He has seen the smiles of visitors, ranging from local schoolchildren to tourists to the prime minister of India, when they first viewed a St. Vincent parrot in the flesh. Even at his age, he saw the potential the species held for his island nation.

Young gestured to the cage behind him, then turned back around. “We are blessed to have these birds. The parrots represent everything.”

Update: On August 3, 2022, Mongabay updated this article to clearly identify multiple sources for allegations relevant to ACTP and include a comment from ACTP’s legal representatives in response to questions raised in direct quotes about their contribution to parrot conservation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ Forestry Department.

Peter Kleinhenz is a freelance writer and host of the online video series Wild Wander.

Citation:

Slinger-Friedman, V. (2009). Ecotourism in Dominica: Studying the potential for economic development, environmental protection and cultural conservation. Island Studies Journal, 4(1), 3-24. doi:10.24043/isj.225

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Award-winning science writer Sy Montgomery discusses why birds deserve your care and attention, plus we share news of recent research on avian biology and their conservation, listen here:

Fabian Young, a caretaker of the St. Vincent parrots at the Nicholls Wildlife Complex, with one of the 31 birds under his care. Image by Peter Kleinhenz for Mongabay.