What it takes to save a species from pet-trade poachers

Photo of Bethan John
By Bethan John, Wildlands Creative

In the dry forests of Margarita Island, Venezuela, the yellow-shouldered parrot (Amazona barbadensis) is clinging on to survival. There are thought to be less than 10,000 left in the wild, with the island being the population’s stronghold. Bethan John meets ranger Pablo Antonio Millán, who risks his life to safeguard the parrot.

Yellow Shouldered Parrots

Ranger Pablo finishes rolling his tobacco into a thin cigar, gets up from the great rock we’ve climbed, and disappears into the trees and towering cacti to see what he can find. The rock overlooks Margarita Island’s dry forest that stretches to the crystal blue sea.

As the rest of us relax in shade to avoid the sweltering midday heat, Pablo returns with a handful of bones and takes delight in showing us how the deer’s skeleton fits together.

Pablo’s a born nature enthusiast and he enjoys nothing more than revealing the secrets of the forest, having already gently poked a tarantula out of its webbed pocket, grinning broadly as we snap photos of this notorious creature.

For more than 20 years, he has worked with local conservationists from Asociación Civil Provita and together they face a great struggle; wildlife poachers descend on the nesting-sites every breeding season to sell the yellow-shouldered chicks to the illegal pet trade, while sand mining to supply the construction industry is destroying the parrots’ habitat.

Threats: from poaching to mining

Spread out below our rock is an area called La Chica, on the island’s western peninsula of Macanao. It’s the prime breeding ground for the parrots and home to more than 60 nests.

Map of La Chica, Macanao peninsula, Venezuela

During the breeding season, Pablo spends his days and nights camped out here for three months with a team of seven rangers; day and night they watch the nests to prevent poachers from stealing the chicks. It’s an ongoing struggle, as Pablo says…

Poachers see us doing surveillance but they still get in. We’re too few people working on this project and there are too many poachers.

Sometimes I’m protecting two nests in an area and five criminals get in, but what can I do? I have no weapon and it’s a crime to hurt someone – we don’t want to hurt anyone. But how can I prevent five men taking the chicks out of the nests?

They have threatened to kill me, they have threatened to stab me, they have threatened to shoot me. But thanks to God, who knows I am doing something good, I am still here on Earth so that I can keep conserving the species. And not only the yellow-shouldered parrot, but also the other species on the planet – the trees and the plants. That’s the job. That’s the job of surveillance.

La Chica is not a protected area and sadly poaching is far from the only threat to the parrot. To reach the viewpoint on the rock, we first had to walk through a sand mining site, and amid the destruction of this habitat we saw many pairs of parrots, squawking loudly as they survey their potential nests for the up-coming season.

People power

With the threats that face the yellow-shouldered parrot it can be hard to stay positive, but the following day Pablo takes us on an eleven-hour hike to show what can be achieved by a small group of committed people working together.

By the time we reach the peak of Macanao Mountain, every bare patch of skin is crawling with ticks, we’ve met a rattle snake basking in the sun along the way, and dodged a tarantula dangling mid-trail.

On the last leg, Pablo takes a moment to conquer his vertigo before we emerge from the forest; a breath-taking panorama of the island opens up below us. We’re overlooking a 1,809 acre protected area – a safe haven for the yellow-shouldered parrots.

The Chacaracual Community Conservation Area provides an important lifeline for the endangered parrots and for years the local fishing community of El Horcón fought to save this land from destruction.

A mining company wanted to take over the community’s land and when the pressure became too much residents turned to Provita for help.

In 2009, with support from international conservation charity, the World Land Trust, Provita was able to turn the community’s land into a protected area. Now, Provita are working tirelessly to creat a green movement within Macanao, helping create social and environmental change within extremely poor communities, where illiteracy is high and environmental education non-existent.

Provita provides support for El Horcón, such as giving them the skills and equipment to grow their own produce in their back gardens, while showing them how they can sustainably use local species, such as the fruits, seeds and sap that can be taken from the reserve. They have also created hiking and bird watching routes through the reserve and are running workshops to train local people as tourist guides.

By providing an alternative income and showing how natural resources can be used sustainably, it’s hoped that local people will turn away from poaching the endangered parrots and instead see them as vital to their livelihood – and eventually, a treasure in their own right.

This is starting to show signs of great success; the yellow-shouldered parrot is becoming so important to the islanders’ culture that every year they throw a festival in their honour. The celebration is a beautiful symbol of a changing mindset, hopefully sparking a brighter future for the island’s people and parrots.

Pablo says…

Thanks to Provita, the yellow-shouldered parrot still exists today. When we started working, there were about 700 parrots left in the wild [on Margarita Island]. But now there are more than 2,000 yellow-shouldered parrots living free.