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The bird cliffs November 2nd, 2014 by

The red-fronted macaw is found nowhere but in the sandstone canyons of central Bolivia. There may be less than 1000 individuals alive.

The bird fills a niche, literally, nesting in small holes high in the cliff side. While this may have been an evolutionary breakthrough, freeing the bird from the predations of pumas and foxes, the stone alcoves eventually became death traps as we will see below.

Fortunately for this endangered species, a group of conservationists bought its largest nesting site, in San Carlos, Omereque, and built a visitors’ lodge near the food of the cliff, and taught local people to run the guest house, to keep the money and split it once a year between the three nearest communities.

It was a shrewd move because the macaw’s worst natural enemy is the human being. Once a year, just before the young birds are old enough to leave the nest, young men lower themselves over the top of the cliff-face on ropes and capture fledgling chicks to sell for $20 or more to people who cage them and teach them to imitate human speech, especially the sillier versions of it, such as football slogans and strings of cuss words.

Kidnapping macaw chicks is an easy traffic to stop, if a community wants to, because the nesting cliffs are in full view of the village, and the hunting season is just once a year: easy to anticipate and police. At least two other bird species, the Bolivian blackbird and the cliff parakeet also live in the cliffs, and while not quite as appealing as a brilliant, emerald and vermillion macaw, the other birds are also protected.

Not every endangered species can be protected by buying 50 hectares of land and putting up a comfortable lodge. Some animals range over vast forests and can be hunted in secret. But for some species, this is a model. The nifty part is that the donors who buy the land don’t need to make a profit. They are investing money to keep a species alive. The project generates small amounts of money that can be given to nearby communities, to spend on schools and potable water, and encourage people to protect the wildlife.

Since 2006, people from the Bolivian NGO Armonía have spent a lot of time teaching the local people about the value of the macaw. Farmers noticed the birds scrounging for peanuts in the soil or eating the occasional ear of corn, and assumed that the macaws were pests. Guido Saldaña of Armonía explained to the people that this damage was minimal, more unsightly than economically important.

Still, relatively few visitors come, because Omereque is so remote, a six to eight hour drive from the nearest airport (about equidistant from either Santa Cruz or Cochabamba).

A Bolivian newspaper article reports that the three neighboring villages received about $7000 last year. And the villagers earned money from agricultural projects with ArmonĂ­a, such as growing papaya.

Local people say that the youth who once robbed the nests still do so, they just go further into the canyons, in places where the birds are unprotected. I don’t say this as a criticism of the youth, the communities or any of the organizations that are involved. Villagers often protect a common resource and set up rules about how to use it, to conserve it. In Omereque, with the help of sympathetic outsiders, the villagers have turned the cliff-face into a formal, organized common, with rules that prohibit the extraction of birds. The village youth are still happy to risk their necks dangling over other cliffs to filch baby birds, but now the boys go outside the regulated common. The youth are free-riders, not apparently convinced of the conservation ethic, but benefitting from the increased supply of breeding pairs of macaws, thanks to the protected site. No solution is perfect.

At least we know that their nesting sites can be protected, one haven at a time.

Scientific names:

Red-fronted macaw, Ara rubrogenys (Spanish: paraba frente roja)

Cliff parakeet, Myiopsitta luchsi, (Spanish: cotorra boliviana)

Bolivian blackbird, Oreopsar bolivianus (Spanish: tordo boliviano)

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