No Bird Is an Island

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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.

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.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko