Grassroots Tropical Conservation Through Ecotourism, Birders’ Exchange, and the Long-wattled Umbrellabird
by Nate Swick
Betty Petersen has sent me some more fantastic stories from grateful contributors and recipents of the ABA's Birders' Exchange program. This latest one comes from Scott Olmstead of Tucson, Arizona, a tour leader with Tropical Birding.
Take it away, Scott.
It’s fascinating to watch grassroots conservation movements evolve in developing countries, where the local inhabitants generally tend to be more concerned with basic needs like getting enough to eat than with conservation of natural resources for future generations. The idea of conserving habitats and resources at a large scale seems to be easier to grasp, accept, and especially prioritize if you’re not worried about your day-to-to day existence. But what if getting your daily bread actually depends on the existence of wild creatures, and not just for eating but for showing, alive, to other people? Suddenly conservation is not such an abstract concept.
Let’s look at an example of how ecotourism can encourage conservation and how Birders’ Exchange, a humble ABA program, can support all of the above. Birding tourism is well developed in Ecuador compared to most Latin American countries, and for many local operators it is viewed as an important way to make a living. I have found in my experience that most guides, lodge operators, and other professionals that rely on birding tourism for business quickly come to recognize the need to conserve the wild habitats that support the spectacular birds that visitors seek. It’s kind of a no-brainer: no habitat means no birds, and no birds will inevitably lead to no birders, which will leave the operator with no income.
It is exciting for me every time I encounter Ecuadorians who are just making this connection for themselves. They’re not becoming conservationists because they read about the need for conservation online, or heard a passionate presentation on the topic at school. They’re becoming conservationists through direct personal experience!
So to me it is logical that one way to further an agenda of conservation in developing countries like Ecuador is to encourage more people to become involved with birding – and wildlife observation in general – on an economic level. (I’d also like to see more Latin Americans involved with birding on a recreational level, but that’s another discussion.) While I was in Ecuador this summer I got to see this concept in progress.
In early July I finally visited a site that has been on my radar for a couple of years: Recinto 23 de Junio, a small village in the northwest that has already been profiled in several posts on the blog 10,000 Birds. 23 de Junio is famous for its healthy population of the bizarrely spectacular and enigmatically rare Long-wattled Umbrellabird, a species endemic to the wet Chocó bioregion of northwest Ecuador and southwest Colombia. I’ll let you read what others have already written about the origins of Recinto 23 de Junio on 10,000 Birds, but what I found was a local campesino, Luis Ajilla, who is experimenting with a new way of making a living that relies on maintaining the natural environment that surrounds his village rather than modifying or destroying it.
I arrived at 23 de Junio the way the locals do, riding the chiva from nearby San Miguel de los Bancos. (Think of a truck chassis with a wooden bus “cabin” fitted onto the back where a cargo bed might be more appropriate.) I stayed the night at Luis’ modest cabaña that he and his son Luis Jr. have constructed so independent birders can spend the night and they don’t have to drive an hour or more from wherever they might otherwise stay. The water wasn’t working properly during my visit (small detail!) but the cabin was clean and comfortable and I had no trouble sleeping in the peaceful setting. And I spent a whole day exploring the forest patches about the village with Luis. He showed me the lek site at the edge of a pasture where the male umbrellabirds gather at dawn to perform their strange mooing serenades that give them their Spanish name: el pájaro toro. He showed me his own forest patch farther up the mountain where we found more umbrellabirds, as well as other rarities such as Orange-breasted Fruiteaters and Black Solitaires. The terrain was steep and rugged, the forest was steamy, and the trails were poorly defined. I loved it!
Throughout the day Luis and I talked about the progress that he and his son were making in developing their business. We talked about the plans he had for the future, including how he might improve their services and facilities. But what struck me most was when Luis brought up the need to educate more people in the village about how to live more sustainably and less wastefully. He is now planning how he can have an impact on more people outside his family. He is excited that he has found a cause, and he wants to bring more people onboard! Perhaps the Ajillas will eventually be able to employ more local residents in their operations. These are exactly the sort of people that can make the greatest impact in conservation on a grassroots level. But in the short-term, they simply need to expand and improve their business. As the saying goes, money talks.
In order to grow as birding operators, and expand their economic presence, the Ajillas will need access to knowledge and information, and equipment. They already had a dog-eared copy of the Birds of Ecuador (published in Spanish in Ecuador a couple years back!) and presumably each time a birding tour leader brings a group to 23 de Junio, one of the Ajillas, through accompanying the group in the field, will be able to absorb some expert knowledge about identification, species distribution, etc. However there was one glaring thing Luis was missing: a pair of decent binoculars. As we set out in the morning, he sheepishly showed me what he referred to as his juguete (toy) – a pair of field glasses that seemed something in between a children’s toy and an antique pair of opera glasses. My Leica Ultravid HDs suddenly felt a bit heavier around my neck. The cost of a rugged pair of waterproof binoculars ($200) is still a prohibitively high investment for this family. This indispensible tool of the trade that most birders take for granted will make a huge difference in improving Luis’ birding abilities, and consequently his guiding abilities. And this is where Birders’ Exchange comes in.
Birders’ Exchange is in my opinion one of the most unique, exciting, and critical programs operated by the ABA. I would argue that the most dire need for conservation awareness and action exists in the biodiversity-rich tropical regions, and by outfitting local researchers, educators, and conservationists, the ABA is directly helping to promote conservation in the Latin American tropics. Many ecotourism professionals such as Luis Ajilla are also obvious conservationists and as such they are deserving of the support of Birders’ Exchange as well. As I was chatting with Luis in the Andes in July, I was already thinking about what a perfect fit his project seemed to be for Birders’ Exchange.
Once I returned home, I got in contact with Betty Petersen, Director of Birders’ Exchange. I learned that BEX has a small inventory of field optics on hand, and by corresponding with Luis we have identified a courier who will be visiting 23 de Junio on a birding trip this fall and has volunteered to take a couple of pairs of binoculars with her for the Ajillas! Being able to help make a connection like this is more satisfying for me than seeing 10 lifers or getting a sound recording of a rare species. Without the “people” element, birding would be missing something essential.
So here is an appeal to all of you who appreciate the “people” element of birding, all of you who enjoy traveling to look for birds in the tropics, and all of you who recognize the critical need for tropical conservation. (That should cover most of us, right?) Keep Birders’ Exchange in mind and do what you can to support this mission. Donate your old waterproof optics when you upgrade. I hope there is never a deserving project that can’t get the support of BEX because there are no donations on hand. Be on the lookout for potential recipients of donations as you travel, and get their contact information so you can link them with Betty at BEX. And remember that in order to advance conservation we need real live people to see the value of it for themselves.
Learn more about what you can do to help conservationists in Ecuador and throughout Latin America through Birder's Exchange here.