No Bird Is an Island

Conservationist Paul Reillo has waged a one-man campaign to save Dominica's parrots from extinction

This particular trip has added significance though. It is perhaps the culmination of almost two years of hazardous driving, parrot searching, bureaucrat coddling, and frantic fundraising. It could be the realization of a conservationist's dream: the creation of the nearly 10,000-acre Morne Diablotin National Park in Dominica. The 10,000 acres -- about 5 percent of Dominica's total land mass -- is the primary habitat of the sisserou parrot, as well as the island's other endemic parrot, the more bountiful jaco. It will also encompass Morne Diablotin, at 4747 feet the highest peak in the Caribbean. Without the protected status of a national park, the land would likely be swallowed up by farmers or sold off to logging and mining interests -- thus decimating one of the last tracts of pristine rain forest in the Caribbean.

The park was on the verge of being created six years ago when the Dominican government discovered that 1301 acres in the middle of the proposed area was owned by a private company. Until Reillo came along, the project was dormant. Since early last year, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation has scraped together $750,000 in donations and loans to help Dominica purchase this private tract of rain forest for the proposed park. But to do so, he has had to sacrifice his life's savings and place the foundation in a precarious financial position.

All to preserve the habitat of a country that most people have never heard of and to protect a bird that most people, even Dominicans, will never see up close in the wild. Depending on the political whims of the Dominican Cabinet, by the time Reillo returns to Loxahatchee three days from now, the park could be a reality.

Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' 20-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Paul Reillo
Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' 20-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Parrotmobile: The Sisserou Express awaits passengers at Dominica's Botanical Gardens
Paul Demko
Parrotmobile: The Sisserou Express awaits passengers at Dominica's Botanical Gardens

As we head toward Morne Diablotin in search of the sisserou, Reillo's pack mule for the expedition, Tony Sheets, bounces along in the bed of the pickup. Clad in a black cowboy hat and wraparound mirror shades, Sheets -- a former professional BMX racer from Daytona Beach -- does not resemble your average tree-hugger. But Sheets does have a high tolerance for pain and a keen eye for spotting parrots -- two invaluable assets when working in forests a couple thousand feet above sea level.

Our initial destination this morning is a dead carapite tree just outside the proposed national park that for years has been home to a pair of prolifically breeding jaco, or red-neck, parrots. The tree is only about 15 miles from Roseau, but the twisting drive takes an hour. As we snake northward, the Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles to our left. A car that has plunged off the road onto the edge of the Caribbean ably serves as a warning of the precariousness of Dominican driving. We pass by signs promising that "Guinness Works For You," a testament to Dominica's past as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire. A hand-painted billboard simply proclaims, "Save the Sisserou."

Turning inland from the more populated coastal areas and climbing toward Morne Diablotin, the road changes from blacktop to gravel. Guavas, tangerines, and -- most notably -- bananas, grow along the road on small farms and in the wild. Banana exports have long been the linchpin of Dominica's economy, accounting for more than half the country's employment and better than a third of its export income. But a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union is threatening the banana-based economies of Dominica and other eastern Caribbean countries. In a nation where the annual per capita income is already a paltry $2500, the financial future is bleak. The economic uncertainty adds urgency to the establishment of the national park: As the banana trade tanks, the pressure to embrace environmentally destructive policies, such as logging or mining, will undoubtedly increase.

For the last two years, Reillo and the three-person "parrot team" from the Dominican Forestry and Wildlife Division have monitored the jacos' breeding habits through a video camera at the carapite tree. The surveillance has yielded arcane but scientifically significant data, such as how many chicks the parrots can successfully raise in the wild and how much time the male and female jaco spend at the nest during the mating cycle.

Reillo is concerned that the tree is being infested by termites and that the fertile jacos will be driven out. To determine how much damage the termites have already done to the tree, Reillo intends to "probe" the nest cavity with a still camera to see what is going on inside. He has brought along an ad hoc contraption that consists primarily of yellow fiberglass tubes, one inside the other, that can be expanded outward like a telescope to 40 feet. Attached to the end of the tubes is part of a fishing pole with a tiny camera taped to it. The plan is to maneuver the camera into the nest cavity and snap a picture.

Reillo, who is six feet, four inches tall, holds the camera/fishing pole precariously over his head as Sheets provides geographical guidance. But Reillo is facing a pretty fundamental problem: The probe is too short. "We need the 50 foot," he says in irritation. "I was off by just enough to make this a pain in the neck."

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