No Bird Is an Island

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

A Brazilian hawk-headed parrot sits in Rare Species' administrative offices. She is recovering from an injury incurred when the animals were packed up to prepare for Hurricane Floyd. "How you doing, sweety?" Reillo greets the bird. There are no more than a dozen surviving hawk-heads in the United States, four of them here in Loxahatchee. Perhaps a dozen of the birds are thought to be alive in the wild. Reillo estimates that 100 eggs have been laid by Brazilian hawk-heads at the facility, but only two of those were fertile, and neither survived. "This is how extinction happens," he says.

Also in the office is the only known captive female Dominican sisserou parrot in the world. Unfortunately the bird is facedown in a formaldehyde-filled jar, its once splendid green feathers now a dismal black. The parrot died in June 1998 in Dominica while attempting to expel an egg. The would-be father is now mateless, residing in a cage at the Botanical Gardens in Roseau.


The only known living captive sisserou in the world may be mateless but is certainly not alone. In adjoining cages at the Botanical Gardens in Dominica are seven noisy jacos. Until early October the sisserou had eight red-neck neighbors, but a snake slithered into the cage through a drain pipe and attempted to inhale one of the birds. The snake was unsuccessful in actually digesting the jaco, but the bird died anyway.

Several times a week, the parrots are disturbed by more benign intruders -- people on vacation. From the port of Roseau, vans arrive at the Botanical Gardens filled with tourists. Cruise ship patrons lugging their recently purchased "Somebody Loves Me in Dominica" T-shirts file past the cages housing the sisserou and the jacos. They make parrot noises, snap pictures of the birds, and perhaps purchase a seashell that didn't even come from Dominica from a local entrepreneur. The naturally reclusive sisserou cowers at the back of his cage, apparently having little interest in bolstering the tourism trade.

If bananas are an emblem of the Dominican economy of the past, cruise ship patrons gawking at the mateless sisserou are an apt symbol of what the government is banking on for the future.

Because of its status as a former British colony, Dominica has long enjoyed a favored trade status with Great Britain and now the European Union (EU) -- in particular with regard to banana exports. Dominican bananas are grown on small family farms rather than large plantations such as the ones run by U.S. corporate behemoths Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte in Central and South America, and it is therefore impossible for them to compete costwise on the open market.

Since 1997 the U.S. has successfully argued to the World Trade Organization that the EU's policy of setting aside a portion of its market -- about 7 percent -- for bananas exported from the eastern Caribbean is a violation of free-trade rules. The American government has also retaliated by levying stiff tariffs on some EU exports. The European countries are expected to cave in to the economic pressure and drop the banana subsidy eventually.

In response to the looming banana crisis, Dominica has attempted to diversify its economy. It has encouraged cultivation of other crops, such as coffee and dasheen (a plant with a tuberous root, similar to a potato), and pursued the cut-flower trade and offshore banking opportunities.

But Dominica's primary economic hope is to capitalize on its status as the "nature island of the Caribbean," to attract tourists. "For years we have been saying "ecotourism,'" notes David Williams, Dominica's superintendent of national parks, "but bananas were king."

The island boasts none of the white sand beaches (or lavish casinos, for that matter) that make other Caribbean islands popular destinations for well-heeled tourists. What it does have is the only unblemished tropical rain forest in the region. There are more than 1000 species of flowering plants on the island, including 74 known types of orchids. In some parts of Dominica, primarily the area around Morne Diablotin, tracts of land smaller than three acres are home to more than 60 unique plant and animal species. If the Morne Diablotin National Park is approved, more than a third of the country's land will be permanently sealed off from development by authority of the Dominican constitution. Dominica hopes to distinguish itself as theCaribbean destination for ecofriendly travelers, much as Costa Rica has done in Central America.

Williams says that the country's citizens are beginning to make adjustments to the new economic realities. Many of the Dominican citizens who once tended crops, he notes, now ferry tourists around the island in vans. "Those guys were banana farmers not too long ago," he says.

A few blocks from the sisserou's home at the Botanical Gardens is the seat of the Dominican government. It is a drab concrete bunker of a building, noteworthy for its hurricane resistance rather than any redeeming aesthetic qualities. When not studying the nests of rare parrots in the bush, Reillo spends much of his time within this building as a sort of single-issue lobbyist. This afternoon he has exchanged his hiking boots and shorts for loafers and olive green slacks.

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