In a Colombian sanctuary, once-trafficked birds fly again

  • Colombia is home to the most important aviary in South America, a sanctuary containing almost 2,000 birds.
  • The privately run National Aviary of Colombia serves as a refuge in which birds representing 165 different species have a second chance at life after escaping the hands of illegal wildlife traffickers.
  • So far in 2018, Colombian authorities have rescued nearly 4,000 birds — victims of a trafficking industry that has become the third-largest illicit economy in the country.

BARU PENINSULA, Colombia — A 50-minute drive from Cartagena, the most important tourist city in Colombia, is a place that preserves the colors and sounds of biodiversity. A two-hour stroll through the 7 hectares (17 acres) of the National Aviary of Colombia takes visitors through a recreation of the remotest and most difficult-to-access wildernesses of this country. There are no cars honking or street vendors yelling here. The stress of the day dissipates amid the chorus of the nearly 2,000 birds that live here and have, for two and a half years, been part of the largest aviary in South America.

The tour through the aviary starts with an immersion in nature, proceeding through three ecosystems and 21 exhibits. An intense heat can be felt in the forest, but it diminishes at times with the spray from the waterfalls. The humid tropical forest of the Chocó region and the Amazon is the first stop: visitors enter an immense cage to see 60 species of birds, including the blue-billed curassow (Crax alberti), endemic to Colombia and critically endangered; the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus); and the collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus).

“The idea is that they inhabit very large spaces and that people have to find them. Here the sense of enclosure is lost,” says Martín Pescador Vieira, while pointing out a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the bird he was named after (pescador means “fisherman” in Spanish). Vieira, 24, is the son of Rafael Vieira and Silvana Obregón, a couple who turned their passion for birds into an opportunity to protect them. Over more than 12 years, they and a handful of friends have worked on this ambitious private project. It seeks to show the world the biodiversity of the country and to preserve the birdlife that is threatened — which is the case for almost 80 percent of the 165 species that call the aviary home.

At the edge of the humid tropical forest, in another immense cage, lives the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), one of the most powerful raptors in the world and a main predator in this ecosystem. Even the enclosure cannot hide its nature. Its flight is imposing, menacing and confident. It is one of only four harpy eagles in captivity in the country; the other three live in the coastal city of Barranquilla and in a reserve in the municipality of Cota, in the department of Cundinamarca. All four ended up in captivity after losing their habitat, an increasingly common occurrence for Colombia’s wildlife. Fewer than 10,000 individuals of the species are estimated to remain in the country, where it has lost 26.4 percent of its historical habitat, according to the Red Book of Birds of Colombia by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources. For this reason, says Martín Vieira, it is important to protect and breed them.

A harpy eagle. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

Rescued from abuse

The harpy eagle is not the only threatened species here. Veterinarian Jonnathan Lugo, who has worked at the aviary for a year and a half, says nearly 80 percent of the birds have been rescued, most of them brought by local wildlife authorities known as Regional Autonomous Corporations (CAR). These agencies carry out operations with the police and military to combat wildlife trafficking. For the seized birds, the aviary is a sanctuary where they get a second chance at life.

“They have given us parrots with dyed hair and burned nails,” Lugo says. “Barn owls and true owls have also arrived in very bad condition, often with the wings and claws fractured. On one occasion I received an owl with a very serious infection. A wing was broken, rotten and full of maggots. In the end, we couldn’t save it.” For Laura Saavedra, the aviary zootechnician — an expert in managing domestic or captive animals — the cases of the owls are the most painful, because in this region of Colombia these animals are associated with witchcraft and esotericism, and this is how they end up stoned, beaten and even shot in their small bodies.

Ideally the birds should be allowed to live in complete freedom, but this isn’t possible for stigmatized species, those under some degree of threat and with a small population, or those that simply wouldn’t survive in their natural habitat, according to Vieira. “Many cannot be released because they would be hunted,” he says. “It is one of the dangers to which they are exposed. We try to educate people but it is a process that takes a long time.”

A white-throated toucan (Ramphastos tucanus). The species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

Hunting isn’t the only risk. Henry Perez, head of the planning office of the Directorate of Protection of the National Police, tells Mongabay that wildlife trafficking has become the third-largest illegal economy in Colombia, after drug trafficking and the black market for weapons. Between January and August this year, he says, more than 3,860 birds were seized from traffickers. The most targeted birds are canaries (like Sicalis flaveola), true parrots of the superfamily Psittacoidea, macaws of the genus Ara, and the yellow-crowned parrot (Amazona ochrocephala).

“Most likely, by the end of 2018, this number will reach 5,000 or 6,000 individuals,” Perez says. “It is a business in which the villagers who capture [the birds] do not profit, only the traffickers.”

He says the trappers get 50,000 to 100,000 pesos ($17 to $34) for catching a macaw in the wild, while the trafficker can sell it abroad for up to 5 million pesos ($1,670). Perez adds that the Colombian areas of major concern are the cities of Santa Marta and Medellín, and the regions of La Guajira and Urabá.

A home to which they always return

The second major ecosystem of the aviary is the coastline, distinguished by its extensive mangroves. There, most of the birds live freely, such as the black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) and the black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), which arrive to breed. “The beauty of this ecosystem is that there are times you find many birds and then suddenly only a few,” Vieira says. “They return because they want to. They feel safe because they know that nothing bad will happen to them here. Last year there were at least 300 or 400 nests of night herons that came to have their chicks.”

The jabiru stork (Jabiru mycteria) also inhabits this area. The highly territorial male bird finds it difficult to coexist with the aviary’s two females, so the three individuals must be kept in different environments. Further down are the flamingoes (Phoenicopterus ruber), which grew from a population of fewer than 20 individuals to about 145 in just seven years. Lugo says that to achieve an effective breeding program they had to modify the soil and build some nests. “This is how they got stimulated to start building [the nests] themselves,” he says. “It also provided the birds with a balanced diet.”

Also present here, among others: the black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata), scarlet ibis (Eudocimus ruber), roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), striped owl (Pseudoscops clamator), spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata), great blue heron (Ardea herodias), great white egret (Ardea alba) and white ibis (Eudocimus albus), which this year produced 16 chicks.

A white egret, right, and a black-crowned night heron. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

Deeper into the aviary, the Barú heat becomes more intense. The land becomes arid as the ecosystem shifts to desert. The soundtrack here is the melodic song of the Venezuelan troupial (Icterus icterus) and the vermilion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus). Later, stone-curlews (genus Burhinus), parrots and woodpeckers (family Picidae) appear. Lugo says one of the saddest moments at the aviary was when a group of 35 parakeets arrived; two of them were already dead and another four died shortly after. “We fed the others with a probe for a month and they were saved,” he says.

As soon as the desert ends, a special atmosphere takes over: that of the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), the emblematic bird of Colombia, which, despite sitting atop the country’s coat of arms and being a source of national pride, is in danger due to the loss of its habitat. According to the Humboldt Institute, it is estimated there are fewer than 130 condors left in the country, distributed between the ranges of Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Serrania del Perijá, Páramo de Cáchira, Macizo de Santurbán, Páramo del Almorzadero and Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.

“The condor is a scavenger animal, it eats only dead animals,” Vieira says. “However, many villagers think that condors are the ones that kill [their] cattle and therefore they kill them … To save them requires education and the preservation of their territory.”

A male Andean condor. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

The Humboldt Institute, in its Red Book of Birds, says conservation measures should not only include the protection and reintroduction of the species, but also the recovery of their habitat, especially at a time when deforestation has spiked. Last year alone more than 2,200 square kilometers (850 square miles) of forest were cleared in Colombia, according to the environment ministry.

The condor’s situation is so worrying that most of the aviary’s efforts are focused on getting it to breed. For more than a year, a male and a female have been left alone to try and mate. The process depends entirely on the chemistry and attraction between the two birds. These two have gotten along well, and both are of reproductive age. But the effort has to yield any chicks.

Even though saving species and educating the public is a joint effort, it is a slow process. Luis Eduardo Pérez, from the Regional Autonomous Corporation that has jurisdiction over the Cartagena area, says the operations they have carried out against wildlife trafficking have served to discourage the possession of wild species. “[Twenty] to 30 percent of the animals that come to us are brought in voluntarily. This did not happen before,” he says.

A passion inherited

For as long as Martín Pescador Vieira can remember he has been surrounded by birds. When he was 2 years old, he watched his father carry pigeons and roosters to a small piece of land they had in El Palmar, in the Rosario Islands, a tiny archipelago that is part of the island zone of Cartagena. This wasn’t just a getaway for the Vieira Obregón family, but also the place where Martín’s father, Rafael, began to channel his passion for birds.

The elder Vieira studied taxidermy in the U.K., his son says, but his interest has always been living animals.

“That place was filled little by little with exotic species that my father’s friends brought. They did it for different reasons … because they found them wounded or because they simply did not want to have them in their homes anymore,” Martín says. “Then, if some acquaintance found, for example, a frigatebird [genus Fregata] with a broken wing, he gave it to my parents to rehabilitate it. If it could be released, it was released. If it could not fly, it stayed with us. And that’s how this started.”

A ringed kingfisher. Image by Maria Fernanda Lizcano for Mongabay.

Along with three friends, Rafael Vieira turned what was a hobby into a vision to ​​create a place that would gather much of the country’s biodiversity of birds. Getting started wasn’t easy, however, and El Palmar didn’t have even a hectare of land for such a project. They decided that a site on the Barú mainland was the best option, and construction began in 2006. In February 2016, they finally welcomed the public to the largest aviary in South America.

“It was a private project that required a large investment of capital and time, so we opted to work on it calmly,” says Alba Lucía Gómez, one of the four founders and now the manager of the aviary. The hope is to one day have 34 exhibits and a veterinary clinic specializing in birds. Gómez says there are currently there only 24 people working in the entire aviary, but they do their utmost to rehabilitate the birds that arrive in serious health conditions and, above all, strive for the conservation and breeding of at-risk species such as the Andean condor, blue-billed curassow and harpy eagle.

The dreams for the aviary haven’t stopped. Martín returned home to continue working with the birds after finishing his architecture studies at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá. “Next year my goal will be to gain experience and apply what I learn in the second stage of the aviary construction,” he says, adding that he sees his life revolving around caring for the birds.

His father, meanwhile, has dedicated himself to another project, the Oceanarium Rosario Islands, a site he also founded with the aim of exhibiting, protecting and breeding the marine fauna and flora of the Colombian Caribbean.

Back at the aviary, the tour isn’t over yet. Just as visitors start to feel they’ve seen everything, a team of caretakers, veterinarians and zootechnicians puts on the “Birds on the Fly” show: a half-hour spectacle in which 32 species show the public how high they can fly. The workers use this opportunity to teach visitors about the importance of each species.

At the end of the exhibition and continuing down the road, a lake appears in the distance, a pit stop for free-flying migratory birds. The aviary ends at the lake, with a huge showcase of macaws and parrots in search of food. Even though they’re free to come and go, they don’t leave.

This is their home now.

Banner: An Andean condor. Image by Nathan Rupert/Flickr.

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Article published by Philip Jacobson

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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