Mabita, La Moskitia, Honduras May 21, 2016
We had a car load of people heading out to the field. There were the climbers, my spouse Meredith Garmon, the parrot patrollers for the day, our our most junior conservationists who are part of our education program. Everyone was to join us for the first climb of the day, and then the climb team would go one direction and the patrollers another. Our first nest of the day to review was nest #7. The chicks were 10 weeks old, which is the age we examine the chicks and take diagnostic samples. We want to understand their health as best as we can before they fledge at 12-13 weeks of age.
With that many people below a nest it’s hard not to have a party atmosphere. This quickly changed when the climber said, “chicks gone.” This seemed hard to believe as our parrot patrols pass by every day and there were no signs of others climbing the tree. Pine tree nests are climbed with “escalones” (climbing spikes) and they leave a fresh trail of gouges trailing up the tree. The only fresh marks were from our climb of the day, and the weeks before.
We fanned out looking to see if for some reason the chicks had left the nest very early or had been predated. What we found was a young pine tree that had been chopped down, the sap on the stump still sticky and fresh. Here was our answer to what happened to the chicks. The skinny pine was used as a pole to climb up the very low nest and take the chicks – they had been poached!
Under the nest we had a reflection time, which we often do and I asked how people felt. Sad, upset, and angry were the answers. I myself had hurt in my stomach and heart, but then was not the time to give into despair. One climber told me, “No lagrimas, tiempo para acción!” (no tears, time for action!). So we went into action to see if the other nearby nests were safe, and then we were going to try to get our chicks back. A quick survey and climbing of nearby nests showed us that only this one nest had been taken, probably the night before. After insuring that no other nests were poached, we went to a nearby town, Rus Rus, where I could borrow a phone to call Teguicgalpa (my phone had broken earlier in the day). I called colleagues in Tegucigalpa to help organize the communication we needed to let ICF (the Honduras Forest and Wildlife Department) know of our poached nest. I also relayed the names of the people who were suspected of taking the nest.
I knew there was no real chance we could ever get these chicks back. So many scarlet macaw chicks leave this area for the domestic and international illegal wildlife trade, reaching as far as the Mideast and Japan. Our chicks could be in any house, or already in the hands of the buyers to take them out of the country. Still we weren’t giving up as I was hoping that ICF would do a house inspection in the village of Mocoron, the most likely place the chicks would be. A few days went by with no response, so I went to Pt. Lempira to talk directly to ICF (and to drop of my spouse who had come to help out for a week). Ready to raise passion to get the chicks back, I was surprised to learn that ICF had already been to Moncoron and come back, with 4 confiscated scarlet macaws. They had taken with them 6 soldiers and approached a house of which that a tipster had told them. The officer didn’t say anything about the chicks having bands so I didn’t expect much as I waited for them to deliver the chicks to us so we could take care of them and bring them to the rescue center in Mabita.
We waited until after dark and then up drove the ICF truck. There were the 4 birds – 3 chicks from this year and one young adult – huddled together in the back of the truck, open to the air. Their heads were tucked into their chests, a sign of their strenuous trip and ordeal they had been under since taken from the wild and then transported. As I was grabbing them to put them into a box one of the ICF people casually mentioned that two of the birds had bands. “Que!?” I exclaimed, “They have bands?” Only birds that come into the rescue center and are liberated, and wild chicks are banded. “Si, tienen anillos, numeros 71 nd 72.” The man said it like it was nothing to him but it was the world for me. I felt my knees go weak, my heart open, and then a thrill. These were our two chicks from nest #7, five days after they had been poached!!
They would not end up in cages, but would fly free one day soon, perhaps even able to be recognized through their vocalizations by their parents.The suspected poacher himself was also to be liberated, though he spent one night in custody. When he eventually showed up in our area again, I was told that he brought his anger and threats to harm people for turning him in, and to take more nests of chicks. The village people didn’t exactly welcome him back, but they will work with him and others who are poaching birds, because most families here were poachers at one time or another. They know the draw to have a parrot in the house, or to sell it for quick cash. Nest #7 was a low nest and was just too much of a temptation. I can almost see myself in the poacher’s rubber boots, for indeed, as the leader of the indigenous federation told me a few weeks ago, we are all guilty and involved. We have all sold out to power, ease, comfort, and safety, causing harm where perhaps a more creative will could have benefited others more than harmed.
I don’t know if the poacher will take any more nests, but even if he doesn’t, there are many others like him. As I write this we have reports of 3 houses in our region where macaw chicks are being held. How many of them are weak, dehydrated, malnourished, lonely, cold and with the pain of broken wings which are common when chicks are taken at an older age? Can we take them back and return them to where they belong?
I don’t know if we can save others, or how many. The effort to rescue and liberate parrots is very hard work. At one time in the 1990s I was doing similar work in Guatemala, and couldn’t keep up the commitment due to the overwhelming challenges. For years afterwards I didn’t want to get involved and was holding back my commitment to the work here in La Moskita, Honduras. But this all changed a year ago, and it happened at nest #7. Me and #7 go way back.
Last year nest #7 was also an active nest, and the villagers decided that they did not have the resources to protect such a low nest near to a road. One Earth Conservation also didn’t have the resources and focus to mount an extensive patrol infrastructure that would basically mean a presence at the nest site and others 24/7. So the decision was made to take the chicks ourselves from their parents, avoiding the very high probability that they would be poached. We would take them to the rescue center where hopefully the rest of the liberated flock would accompany them into adulthood and teach them how to be macaws. The nest was too deep so we had to use a machete to hack open a lower entrance. Every whack of the machete cut into my heart, and the intense growling and squawking of the chicks were like salt on an open wound. Then and there I committed to the proposal to have a rescue and liberation center, and a structure of patrols, so we would find a way to keep birds in their nests with their wild parents, and not have to raise them ourselves.
We have been able to do this in 2016. It has taken two months of my time in country to manage the project and more money then was allotted in our budget, but it has been worth it. So far nest #7 is the only one to be poached of the 17 closely monitored nests that had chicks this year survive to fledging age. This means that 27 could fledge, and is an immense improvement from 2014 when no chicks fledged.
Maybe this is just a lucky year and nest #7 just got a lucky break. Deep down though I know that it is much more than luck. It is out of commitment and risk that comes the opening for miracles to occur. We don’t have to rely on the roll of dice to save the wild. Let us not simply rely on luck and say only “Come on #7,” but let us say, “Come on people, we can do this!”
Special thanks go to ICF, and Juan Carlos in Pt. Lempira who serves as the wildlife officer of ICF bringing the macaws home to where they belong.