RSCF is dedicated to preserving biodiversity through hands-on conservation programs rooted in sound science. We employ the "Flagship Species" concept to identify and conserve high profile, priority species in order to leverage protection for the ecosystems they represent.
RSCF, along with over 40 national and international researchers, veterinarians, and conservation leaders are continuing to express grave concerns regarding the March 17, 2018 transfer of rare parrots from Dominica to Germany. In the link below, read the latest communication, including a link to questionable CITES documents, shared on May 1, 2018 with the Executive Director of the United Nations Programme as well as representatives within CITES, the government of Dominica, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the European Union.
RSCF is one of eleven signatory organizations expressing concern over the recent export of endemic parrots from Dominica to Germany. We include here a joint communication shared today, April 5, 2018, with the Executive Director of the United Nations Programme as well as representatives within CITES, the government of Dominica, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the European Union.
A Commentary on Dominica’s Parrots after Hurricane Maria
On behalf of RSCF and our international conservation partners, we extend our heartfelt thanks to the many caring supporters who share our deep concerns for the people and wildlife of Dominica. Living here in Florida, we are very familiar with hurricanes and appreciate both the devastation and resilience associated with them. The principal reason Dominica's parrots survived Maria is the progressive, continuous conservation investment made by Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division (FWD) and its committed conservation partners over the past 30+ years. Dominica has long been a model for in situ parrot conservation. The country's proud sovereignty and FWD’s governing authority over all wildlife matters, as specified in Dominica’s principal wildlife legislation, The Wildlife Act, and its role as Scientific Authority for CITES, have prevented Dominica's parrots from becoming embroiled in trade and collectors' tangles, which have sadly marginalized many genuine parrot-conservation efforts in the Caribbean and American tropics (Wright et al. 2001, Reillo, 2009).
Maria caused catastrophic damage to Dominica’s infrastructure and forests, significant loss of human life and wildlife, and is arguably the strongest cyclone to have hit the island in Dominica’s recorded history. Still, thanks to its healthy, pre-hurricane-Maria population size (>1200), the Red-necked or Jaco parrot, Amazona arausiaca, is now being sighted throughout Dominica, including villages and settlements, and is foraging on both natural and agricultural foodstuffs wherever they can be found. This species is social and gregarious, and with a clutch size of 2-3 and an early age of sexual maturity, exhibits a high reproductive rate. Even after substantial losses, the Jaco rebounded steadily following devastating Hurricane David in 1979, and we expect a similar recovery trend following Maria. Like the Imperial Parrot or Sisserou, A. imperialis, the Jaco is fully protected by Dominican law and is listed as CITES Appendix I.
The secretive and cryptic Sisserou likely numbered ~350-450 birds prior to Maria. Since the hurricane it has been confirmed with multiple sightings within the Northern and Central Forest Reserves, and in patches of habitat within and adjacent to the Morne Trois Pitons and Morne Diablotin National Parks. FWD’s parrot team, supported in part by a grant from ZGAP, a new 4WD field vehicle sponsored by the Loro Parque Fundacion and with additional support from RSCF and IFAW, has sighted approximately 20 Sisserous, with perhaps another 10-15 detected by vocalizations. Due to its protracted age of first reproduction and low reproductive rate—typically one chick fledged every other year—the Sisserou’s recovery is likely to be markedly slower than that for the Jaco. Even with Dominica’s strong forest-protection ethic and comprehensive conservation measures enacted following Hurricane David in 1979, nearly 25 years were required for the Sisserou to reestablish most of its former range and achieve pre-hurricane-David population densities (Reillo, 2001; Reillo et al., 2002). While much of Dominica’s primary parrot habitat is protected, Maria’s vast devastation will likely impose a similar, multi-generational recovery period.
Post-Maria Dominica is presently a fragile country, and its wildlife is vulnerable to exploitation. Presently, parrots are very food-limited, foraging widely in exposed areas to find whatever they can to eat. In our opinion, the widely advertised campaigns to provide food for Dominica’s parrots must be deliberated carefully. Provisioning wildlife with food on feeding stations may inadvertently encourage a proliferation of rodents and other pests, potentially facilitating the serious zoonotic pathogen Leptospirosis. Periodic outbreaks are well documented on Dominica. Wild parrots are foraging aggressively on agriculture, and a more practicable mitigation may be to financially compensate farmers for crop damage incurred by parrots and other wildlife. This should be considered an intermediate step to encouraging best-agricultural practices that enable farmers to utilize a greater fraction of crop yield (e.g., via local processing) and an adaptive approach to developing agriculture buffer zones to minimize financial losses from crop depredation.
The recent exportation of Dominica’s aviary parrots to Europe—under the guise of conservation—contradicts decades of scientifically sound, proven conservation practice with significant, tangible accomplishments, such as creation of the Morne Diablotin National Park (in 2001, with annexing of 7 additional properties thereafter), community-based conservation outreach (e.g., the annual Caribbean Endemic Birds Festival, ongoing, FWD-driven television and radio programs), model agro-processing in the village of Dublanc, and long-term capacity and infrastructure enhancements to the FWD (Wiley, et al. 2004; Reillo and Durand 2008; Reillo et al. 2011). Despite the seemingly apparent urgency to “rescue” the Sisserou from the challenges of a post-Maria Dominica, this parrot’s life history and behavior, its dependence upon old-growth forest, low fecundity, etc., preclude it from being a candidate for so-called “conservation breeding”, or “ex situ conservation”. There were only two A. imperialis in the aviary—both exported to Germany along with 10 A. arausiaca, the latter of which were undergoing rehabilitation after being found in the wild. Given the Imperial’s biology, initiating a sustainable captive population of A. imperialis under any conservation pretext would require collecting most or all of the wild population—something that is unethical, scientifically indefensible and unnecessary. The scientific justification for prioritizing Dominica’s in situ parrot conservation has long been established (Wiley, et al. 2004; Reillo and Durand 2006, 2008; Reillo, et al. 2011). Dominica’s parrots have survived hurricanes for millennia, and wild populations have rebounded thanks to broad-based, on-island conservation measures.
Despite promotional claims from ex situ facilities, conservation yield is greatest when conducted in situ, as per IUCN’s recommendations (Soorae, 2016). Safety-net captive populations for Caribbean Amazons can and should be accomplished in situ whenever possible, as has been proven on Puerto Rico with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s program for A. vittata (Earnhardt, et al., 2015; White, et al. 2014) and on Dominica with both Amazona species. These successful efforts were initiated over 30 years ago. In contrast, no ex situ captive population of any Caribbean parrot species has successfully recovered any native, wild-population. However, ex situ captive populations of Caribbean parrot species have been entangled with trade and collector issues in one way or another (Wright, et al., 2001, Reillo, 2009).
Our organization’s position is that genuine parrot conservation on Dominica starts with recognizing the island’s conservation history since hurricane David and the many holistic, practical and landscape-level protective measures that have enabled the parrots to recover naturally without being exploited, exported for breeding, captured or manipulated. FWD’s experienced field teams and ornithologists wisely assert that Dominica’s wild parrots should be kept on Dominica, and responsible NGO's should be mindful of the need to unconditionally support the country’s conservation needs in situ, including enhancing FWD’s professional capacity and physical infrastructure to enable Dominica to protect its wildlife on Dominica. Veteran Forest Officer Stephen Durand exemplifies this perspective better than anyone, having started his FWD career thanks to post-David funding from the World Wildlife Fund. As head of the parrot team for 37 years, his leadership and field expertise are unrivaled in the region.
Exporting wild birds from Caribbean islands to distant, foreign aviaries under the pretense of "saving species" contradicts the genuine conservation successes these range countries have strived for many years to achieve. Caribbean parrot-export histories are well-known—as is the lack of scientific scrutiny from credentialed conservation NGO's and agencies like IUCN. Historically, some such campaigns have extended grandiose promises of support for in-country programs without providing scientifically justified and vetted documentation or proposals, or unconditional, transparent and tangible support for the wildlife authorities themselves. Often nested in these arrangements is a veiled agenda to export wildlife in exchange for financial or material support, with little or no transparency regarding funding sources, terms and conditions attached to funding or exported wildlife, credentials of outside groups’ delegates, or scientifically-vetted justification for proposed activities.
Resources and funds used to create and sustain ex situ Caribbean parrot populations could establish sustainable in situ captive populations-- again, as needed-- that preserve island control over wildlife, thwart illegal trade, bolster pride and retain the species in the country of origin where they belong. As specified by IUCN (Soorae, 2016), when captive management or breeding is necessary, it should be prioritized in the country of origin. It bears emphasizing that all of the captive birds on Dominica and Puerto Rico survived Maria. Maintaining a safe haven for non-releasable parrots on Dominica should be the top priority for any captive birds. The Parrot Conservation and Research Centre, established in 1999, has long served as a protected home for non-releasable parrots and a rehabilitation center for birds to be returned to the wild.
Emergency post-Maria support has come from FWD’s dedicated personnel, RSCF, LPF, IFAW, ZGAP, Birds Caribbean, and private donors. IFAW mobilized emergency rehabilitation teams to help repair the aviary and rehabilitate injured and weak parrots for re-release. LPF provided significant rapid funds for a new FWD vehicle, and ZGAP deployed funds quickly to help launch parrot surveys to document the post-Maria status of the Jaco and Sisserou populations. Birds Caribbean and RSCF have sent multiple shipments of equipment and supplies to FWD—totaling tens of thousands of U.S. dollars—and include everything from aviary supplies to a complete replacement aviary, many chain and pole saws, tarps, boots, bird feeders and tools. Parrot surveys are mostly funded for the next year—but the parrot monitoring and recovery efforts must be financed for the long-term. FWD’s parrot team is conducting GPS-based surveys using proven methods (Reillo and Durand, 2008) and is utilizing Dominica’s seasoned parrot trackers, all of whom have decades of experience monitoring and surveying the parrots across Dominica’s challenging terrain.
Additional, sustained support is needed to ensure long-term wildlife and habitat health on Dominica. Maria inflicted unprecedented damage to the country’s physical and financial infrastructure and its natural and agricultural resources. As a resilient and proud nation, Dominica will forge a path of uncharted recovery as new and progressive energy, communications, water and transportation systems are developed. Similarly, nature’s rebound will be documented as never before, and Dominica’s wildlife must be given the fullest opportunity to recover on its own and within its sovereign borders.
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Inside the Struggle to Save North America's Most Endangered Bird
“We’re looking at imminent extinction of the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow in the wild in a year or two,” says Dr. Paul Reillo, the founder and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), whose Jurassic Park about 15 miles straight west of the current U.S. president’s winter White House is home to several dozen critically endangered Mountain Bongo Antelope, more than 80 endangered Red-browed Amazon Parrots, and one of the two sparrow captive-breeding efforts now underway. “This might be the last opportunity to build a platform for the future. This season we’re going to grab onto whatever is left on the table. We should save everything that has a chance of living, because this is the last gasp for this species.”
The September issue of Audubon Magazine features the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow on the cover, with an in-depth look at the heroic efforts of RSCF and the USFWS to save this critically endangered Florida endemic. Click here for the complete article, written by Audubon Vice President, Content Mark Jannot and featuring stunning photographs by Mac Stone.
For more information about the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Recovery Project, click here.