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Feathering a nest in the windwards.

WE HAD BEEN WAITING near a small clearing in the rain forest of Saint Lucia for about three hours. Twenty meters away stood a large mahogany tree framed by the forested slopes of Mount Grand Magazin one kilometer to the south. The forest guide said they would come any minute and although he had repeated that assurance several times since we had arrived, I never doubted him. Suddenly, he grabbed my shoulder and pulled me lower. He beckoned me to remain still and pointed to the clearing. Scanning the trees on the far side for some kind of movement, I spotted them.

They glided effortlessly across the clearing and fluttered to a stop on an exposed branch of the large mahogany tree. Upon landing, they nuzzled close and started preening one another, oblivious to our presence. With camera poised, I waited for them to settle before rising just enough to get a better shot. But when they sensed an intrusion, they disappeared into the forest in a flurry of feathers.

As we headed back to the jeep the guide, aware of my disappointment, consoled me with the fact that I was fortunate to have seen them at all since there were only about 300 birds remaining in the wild. So although I did not get a picture, my brief encounter with a pair of Saint Lucian parrots (Amazona versicolor) will always be remembered.

It is amazing that the versicolor has managed to survive at all given the fact that the island is frequented by tropical storms that destroy large tracts of rain forest and prime nesting trees. Hurricane Allen in 1980 did extensive damage to the rain forests on Saint Lucia and the other Windward Islands. Illegal trading and hunting have also contributed to a reduction in the bird's population. However, the greatest threat currently facing the bird's future is deforestation. The demand for more living space, agricultural land and lumber has decimated the forests resulting in a dramatic loss of habitat for the birds. Although there is presently no estimate of the deforestation rate on Saint Lucia, studies on other Caribbean islands indicate that it is about one percent per year. At this rate the versicolor will disappear in about 40 years, long before the last tree falls.

It has long been accepted that birds are excellent environmental indicators. In fact many present-day ecological assessments are carried out by surveying the bird fauna, especially in fragile tropical island ecosystems. Extinction is simply nature's warning of impending danger. The versicolor or Jacquot, as it is known locally, shares its island refuge with 140,000 Saint Lucians. It is one of four amazone species remaining in the Lesser Antilles, all of which face extinction. Experts believe that 800 to 1000 birds are required to maintain a viable population on any one of these islands. Although these numbers may seem unattainable now, there are groups of dedicated conservationists who feel that these birds can be saved.

In 1974, two separate reports emphasizing the precarious situation of the versicolor, were submitted to the Saint Lucian Forestry Department--one by Holly Nichols of the U.S., the other by Dr. Tom Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At that time the parrot population was estimated at only about 100 birds. A year later, David Jeggo, of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (JWPT), carried out an intensive study which concluded that unless current trends were reversed, the bird would be extinct by the turn of the century. Jeggo received permission from the Saint Lucian government to start a captive breeding program for the versicolor, and in 1976 seven wild parrots were captured and flown to the Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands. Two captive birds from outside the island were also donated to the breeding stock.

Conservation efforts began to gain momentum after a study by a team of students and professors from North East London Polytechnic reconfirmed the threat of extinction. Led by Paul Butler, Caribbean representative for the conservation group RARE, the team made a number of recommendations including environmental education to build awareness, new wildlife legislation to stop the illegal traffic, and the designation of land as reserves to maintain a sustainable habitat. In 1978 Forestry Supervisor of the Saint Lucian Forestry Department, Gabriel Charles, invited Butler to assist him with the implementation of some of those recommendations. Later that year Saint Lucia gained full independence from Britain prompting Butler and Charles to press all levels of government to declare the parrot the national bird. Their persistence was rewarded in 1980 when Saint Lucia hosted a meeting of the International Council for Bird Preservation. In his opening address to the conference Mr. Peter Josie, Saint Lucia's Minister of Agriculture, held up a poster of the versicolor and officially declared the parrot Saint Lucia's national bird.

But Charles and Butler knew that the future of the bird was really in the hands of the people, especially the upcoming generation. "No meaningful level of success could be realized from a program of this nature, without the commitment of the local people," said Butler. "The level of their commitment depends on their ability to understand the situation, and education builds that understanding."

In an effort to recruit local support, they launched an island-wide education program. Forestry officials visited every school to explain the importance of saving the bird and the forest. Bumper stickers, badges, and posters, were distributed to thousands of school children with most of the funding coming from local merchants.

To expand the coverage, painted billboards were erected at strategic crossroads. They featured a picture of the parrot, its Latin name, and a simple message, "Save Our National Bird." Calypsonians and local entertainers flooded the airways with songs about the forest and parrot. Butler also assisted in the production of a monthly newsletter called Bush Talk, which was funded by Caribbean Islands Development Association (CIDA) and written by Maria Crech. National pride was soaring and attention was focused on the Jacquot and its forest home.

At the same time major revisions were made to Saint Lucia's Wildlife Protection Act of 1885. Records showed that only one charge had ever been handled down (in 1976) for the capture and sale of a Bananaguit. The penalty was EC$24 or US$10. The 1980 revisions increased fines for hunting, capture, and export to EC$5000 and/or three years in jail. New provisions gave forestry officials greater powers of search, seizure and the right to confiscate property used in an offence. The act also declared a closed season on all wildlife. The new legislation had such a positive effect that the forestry department was swamped with children turning in their slingshots.

Another provision of the act established a 1600 acre parrot reserve in the southern interior of the island. The sanctuary covered parts of the Edmond National Forest and the Quilesse Reserve including Mount Gimie. Nature trails were cut through some of the reserve to facilitate guided tourist walks. Over the years these intrusions have been monitored and there is no indication that it has had a negative effect on the birds. More importantly, the guided tours have contributed needed dollars to help finance the program. In 1990 alone, over US$30,000 was collected.

In 1982, Saint Lucia became one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES). Since then the four remaining Windward Island parrots have been placed on Appendix I, the category reserved for the most endangered species. That same year a versicolor chick was born in the Jersey Zoo. It marked the first successful captive birth of a Lesser Antillian parrot. Unfortunately, the baby died after only 18 months. Over the next five years, however, the Jersey Zoo refined their breeding programs. From the original breeding stock of nine birds the zoo successfully hatched and reared eleven chicks. In November 1989, two of the captive bred birds were returned to Saint Lucia to make their home at the Union Forest Nursery Mini Zoo. In future years more birds will be returned to Saint Lucia, with the Jersey Zoo maintaining a captive breeding stock of twenty birds. Zoo officials feel this is the minimum number necessary for sufficient genetic diversity. All birds, however, still remain the property of the people of Saint Lucia.

While the Saint Lucian project was in full swing Butler was busy refining and improving the program for export to Saint Vincent and Dominica. He first set up shop in Saint Vincent with the help of Calvin Nicholls, the deputy chief agricultural officer. Since 1901, it has been illegal to own or keep a Saint Vincent parrot in captivity without special permission. The law, however, was poorly enforced and by 1988, a large number of birds were in the hands of various individuals. With Butler's help the forestry department was given the authority to conduct a census program to register and band the captive birds. In conjunction, the government announced an amnesty program designed to protect the captive bird population on the island.

Owners who could prove they had the bird prior to 1984 were allowed custodianship as long as they met forestry guidelines for the birds (proper size and type of cage and proper diet) custodians were required to sign a declaration stating that the bird belonged to the state. After April 1, 1988, any individual found with a parrot, without a government leg band would be considered in breech of the amnesty and receive the maximum penalty by law. In all, 82 birds were registered and fitted with identification leg bands--a staggering number considering the estimated wild population at that time was less than 400. Since most owners had only one bird, this meant that about 20 percent of the total remaining birds were effectively removed from the breeding population.

Thanks to the ground work done in Saint Lucia, the Saint Vincent program took less than three years to implement and has met with great success. The forestry department has educated over 17,000 school children about the benefits of the forest. Local merchants, action groups and the people of Saint Vincent have all taken up the cause. The new legislation by the government has designated over 9000 acres (nearly 13 percent of the existing forest) a wildlife sanctuary and national forest. As for Amazona guildingii or "Vincie," recent surveys show wild populations are approaching 500 and the local captive breeding program boasts three new chicks. A program to return the chicks to the wild is presently underway.

Butler then moved on to Dominica in 1989 to assist in their ongoing efforts to save their endemic parrots, the Amazona imperialis (Sisserou) and the Amazona arausiaca (Jaco). Program guidelines were well formulated by this time and Butler had full support from Felix Gregoire, Dominica's director of forestry, and Charles Maynard, the minister of agriculture. The focus of the program was the preservation of the bird's prime feeding and nesting area, the Picard Valley. It was feared that the full scale logging occurring on the land bordering the valley, would soon extend into the valley. Gregoire recommended, in 1980, that the valley and surrounding land be purchased by international agencies as a start to his conservation program. Finally, in July 1990, enough money had been raised and the land secured. With a total of $119,000 ($7,000 of which was donated by school children) Project Sisserou went into high gear.

Today the imperialis (Dominica's national bird) numbers about 100 and the arausiaca abot 350. The population is stable and it is hoped that the next survey will show a small increase. The number of nest sites have already increased and the cessation of logging in the area promotes an optimistic feeling for the future.

The people of all three islands have recognized the value in preserving their forests and wildlife and Saint Lucia's program has been internationally recognized as one of the world's most successful. For his contribution to conservation, Gabriel Charles was honored as a Member of the British Empire (one step removed from a Knight) by the Queen and was a recent recipient of the prestigious Fred Packard award. Both Charles and Butler were nominated to the United Nation's 500 list of people who have made an outstanding contribution in the field of conservation. In April 1991 RARE and the UK-based World Parrot Trust provided their unit in Saint Lucia with a bus dubbed the "Jacquot Express." The bus has a portable generator for audio/visual equipment, a PA system, and interactive displays. The outside is decorated with a forest motif and the horn squawks like a parrot.

A recent biannual census showed the Jacquot population in Saint Lucia to be over 300 and healthy. More telling, however, were the results of a detailed questionnaire distributed throughout the island. It indicated that over 80 percent of the population felt that the Amazona versicolor is important enough to warrant a further investment of time and resources--a fitting tribute by the devoted people of Saint Lucia who helped bring these magnificent birds back from the brink of extinction.

Michael DeFreitas is a a Canadian writer and photographer. His work appears in such publications as Caribbean Travel and Life, International Living, Traveller and The Best Report.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:saving the Santa Lucian parrot
Author:Defreitas, Michael
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Previous Article:Everything is history.
Next Article:The magical whorls of Colombino.

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