No Bird Is an Island

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

Inside the compound are two nondescript trailers. One serves as the administrative offices of Rare Species, the other as Reillo's home, both of which he shares with his fellow wildlife biologist, Karen McGovern. The rest of the Rare Species staff consists of three part-timers, and the entire operation is run on a minuscule annual budget of about $100,000. Reillo himself takes no salary from the foundation.

It was under these financial strictures that Reillo told the Dominican government in early 1998 that he would attempt to raise $750,000 to help purchase 1301 acres from a private company, the Dominican Fruit Syndicate, and make possible the creation of the Morne Diablotin National Park. Reillo figured that finding a few hundred thousand dollars in Palm Beach County would be simple. "We have a constituency ten miles to our east that could easily fund this," he says. "I submit to individuals and to foundations, "If you want to invest in a conservation project, find one better.'"

Reillo's confidence aside, the fundraising campaign has been somewhat less than triumphant. Rare Species has cobbled together the money but only by going into serious debt. The group has raised $439,000 -- or about $311,000 less than its goal. To keep the national park project from collapsing, a $150,000 contribution that was slated to pay off the nonprofit group's mortgage was added to the Dominica fund with the donor's blessing. And Reillo has sacrificed his own personal savings -- although he won't say how much money that is. The group now has about 60 grant applications pending with private foundations and corporations.

Paul Reillo (left) and Tony Sheets attempt to gauge if termites have invaded the home of two prolifically breeding jaco parrots
Paul Demko
Paul Reillo (left) and Tony Sheets attempt to gauge if termites have invaded the home of two prolifically breeding jaco parrots

Rare Species' problems have been further compounded by the termination of a relationship with the Zoological Society of the Palm Beaches. The nonprofit group, which operates the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park, had for two years been providing operating support to Rare Species and the Dominica program, as well as a small salary for Reillo. But in July the zoological society decided to spend its resources elsewhere.

Reillo is diplomatic about the decision, but the separation clearly came at an inopportune time. "We're disappointed, but at the same time the door is open," he says. (Dr. Sal Zeitlin, director of the zoological society, did not return calls for comment.)

Even without the added onus of fundraising, the day-to-day grind at Rare Species is ceaseless. In mid-October a mama pygmy marmoset had three babies -- one more than she is capable of raising. Reillo removed one infant from the cage and nursed it himself, right down to wiping the animal's behind. Newborn pygmy marmosets -- furry little primates that were the basis for the critters in the movie Gremlins -- must be fed every two hours, around the clock. Despite this sleep-depriving schedule of care, the animal died from pneumonia in a week.

In addition to the work in Loxahatchee and Dominica, Rare Species is a technical adviser to the Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary in Christ Church, Barbados. When construction is completed, Graeme Hall will serve as an aviary for migratory birds as well as an education center. Rare Species also works closely with Tropical World de las Flores, in Veracruz, Mexico. The center propagates rare orchids, bromeliads, and other plants by collecting cell scrapings -- therefore eliminating the need to uproot plants from the wild.

Beyond the two trailers on the Loxahatchee property and past another barbed wire-topped, nursery cloth-draped fence is a private collection of animals that can be found almost nowhere else on earth. As Reillo pushes aside the fence one afternoon, we are immediately greeted with a cacophony of squawks. He would prefer not to have any animals here at all, devoting his efforts instead to preserving natural habitats. But the realities of environmental destruction make captive breeding inevitable if species are going to survive. "We're losing more than we're saving," Reillo says. He notes that, because of a few headline-grabbing victories, such as the resurgence of the bald eagle in the U.S., many people assume that efforts to preserve biodiversity are flourishing. "The truth is it couldn't be worse. We're in an extinction crisis."

In one cage are several red-browed Amazon parrots, a conservation success story -- at least in captivity. Only about 250 of the birds remain in the wild. Starting with a group of just 11 red-brows in 1992, Rare Species has seen its collection -- the only one in North America -- grow to 36. Reillo has now developed a manual for breeding red-brows -- essentially a parrot sex guide -- to help propagation efforts in other parts of the world.

But the Loxahatchee compound also offers plenty of symbols of the frustrations of protecting endangered species. In one cage sits a lone red-brow. The bird is missing all of the toes on its right foot and has been dubbed Peggy, short for "Peg Leg." Peggy is a victim of "poacher's tanglefoot," a sticky substance placed on tree limbs to immobilize the birds. "The poachers would come in with machetes and literally scrape the birds off the trees," Reillo says.

Behind another fence is the breeding ground for most of the foundation's East African bongos. The cowlike animals are caramel colored with thin white vertical stripes down their sides and large horns. Ailing melaleuca and Brazilian pepper trees attest to the bongos' herbivorous diet. The 20 animals have flourished since being brought to the property in 1990 and were slated to be part of a major reintroduction effort in their native Kenya about four years ago. But political and economic turmoil has repeatedly stalled the process.

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