THE WILD PARROT TRADE

The other day there was an unusual story (well - maybe not too unusual for South Florida) covered by the local TV station. Seems a guy almost got electrocuted trying to snatch some baby parrots out of their nest. The nest was built by Quaker Parrots up in the heavy steel girders over a power company substation and the fellow slipped and landed on a transformer - burning some of his tail feathers in the process.

It wasn't but a week before that one of my customers for herps up in the Northeast had asked if I knew anyone collecting wild baby parrots from nests in this area. I told him that I had heard about people collecting birds around here, since so many psittaciformes species are loose and breeding in South Florida - but I did not have a collector's name. Well, if the guy who survived the substation shock is still in the business, I can now supply a name!

Twenty five years ago a wild animal dealer named Charlie MacGowan handed me a bag of money, a sawed-off double barrel shotgun, and a beat up old Jeep to help him in the parrot business. I had been trying to get an eco-tourism business going in La Ceiba, Honduras, when the country got hit by a big killer hurricane called 'Fifi'. That hurricane blew away my efforts and chances in the tourist business. Considering my options (like going real hungry) and my love of adventure - I jumped at the parrot collecting deal.

The way the parrot export business worked in those days, you either got baby birds from the nests during the short hatching/rearing season (with native help) or trudged around during the rest of the year to all the little villages buying pet parrots from the native inhabitants. Seventy five percent of the population lived in rural areas and most of the people subsisted on what they could produce on small plots of land. Their only cash income was from occasional work cutting sugar cane or clearing land with a machete (at $1.50 per day), or selling wild animals to us.

So selling wild birds and lizards allowed the poor to purchase medicine, shoes and food - stuff they could not grow for themselves. At one time there was at least one hundred and fifty families relying on us as their sole source of cash income. Like many of the poorest nations, there is no public assistance and little charitable help for the desperate needy living in the countryside. When the Honduran government in '76 refused to issue anymore permits for iguana exports, I asked; "Why?". The Minister replied; "The poor need them for food." Failing to make my case that the lizards had greater value when turned to cash by the poor, I offered to exchange ground beef, pound for pound for the iguanas. I was quietly shown from his office - no room for debate on the issue. I doubt he would understand that cattle ranching is much harder on the environment then iguana farming.

Going into the most remote areas of the country where people are aware that you are carrying a lot of cash for buying birds can be a little hairy. One trip into the wildest (and that applies to every meaning of the word including 'lawless') mountain areas of Honduras called Olancho, I stopped because of a large crowd in a village square. Going in for a closer look I found several bodies slung over burros, solders shot by bandits. I asked which road they arrived on so as to be sure I was on a road going the other direction. No one ever attempted to rob me - everyone saw the gun. Sure, I could have easily been ambushed - but they had to consider the possibility that it would cost them in the process. I would lose some sleep on those trips but it was a darn interesting way to earn a living!

As common as parrots are down in Central America it is easy to see how so many dirt poor people could have them for pets. The peasants grow as attached to their 'Juanita' as anyone elsewhere in the world would bond to their 'Poly'. So after much bartering and maybe a return trip to let them re-consider, I would purchase their pet bird and promptly get instructions from the former owner on 'Juanita's' diet, habits, and vocabulary. I could not count the times I was told; "Give her coffee and half a corn tortilla for breakfast". I would assure them that the departing member of the family would receive great care and would accomplish what everyone hoped to do - go to the good life in the United States! Their pets are getting passports!

The most intelligent of the birds from Central America (and maybe the world) is the Yellow Nape Amazon - suppose to have the capacity for a vocabulary greater then 500 words. That is better then a lot of people I know if you subtract all the four letter words they use. Sometimes I would wonder what kind of reaction these adult birds got when they 'showed their stuff', the little dances and songs in Spanish, to the new family in the States. Some had picked up annoying sounds too from their former residence, like barking/whining dog noises, and in one case the imitation of a persistent cough that sounded like TB. There must have been several parrots upset about no coffee and corn tortillas for breakfast.

It was about this time that the new international laws came out governing the trade in wild animals. The CITES treaty had been signed by several countries, including the United States, to monitor the trade and help install various levels of protection to insure survival of those species most threatened with extinction. CITES took a keen interest in Psittaciformes the world over since it was apparent these species had come under serious exploitation by the pet trade. The problem here is that when the U.S. government gets the call to save something it can be very destructive in the effort. Lately the government started fires in New Mexico to protect the forests - and burned up a few hundred thousand acres. The 'War on Drugs' has been a forever ongoing disaster for this hemisphere - corruption everywhere at every level, destabilization of democratic governments in Latin America, and is responsible for this country's distinction of having the largest prison population in the world. In Vietnam we found the surest way to save the Vietnamese from Communism was to kill them. So the U.S. government response to saving wildlife in the poor third world countries has often amounted to an approach were many of those species are condemned to extinction in their countries of origin. With out the opportunity to export the birds (and other animals) to those individuals who value them and will breed them in sufficient numbers to maintain a healthy gene pool, the species go into decline from the pressures of habitat loss and pest elimination (the bird/animal being considered a pest by the native population). It was obvious 25 years ago and even more obvious today to anyone taking more then a passing look that the world's wildlife suffers from activities supported by the governments of the world - logging, dams, industrialization, agricultural expansion, etc.

The opportunity to develop new government agencies and further bloat the bureaucracy was not lost on the Honduran Government. They had been offered help from the U.S. in the form of Peace Corp. volunteers to do a survey of the parrot population of the country. I ran into the 'Gringos Especiales' several times, but never in the bush. Being a single guy on the road in Latin America, I did the normal thing and frequented the gentleman's sporting clubs. You guessed it. I was always running into those guys - seeing them with a few bottles on the their table and at least one girl per lap. The way they were spending money on the booze and the girls there was no way they could have bought the gasoline needed to cover the countryside for the survey. So when the Honduran Minister of Natural Resources asked about the parrot population of Honduras I am sure they said; "What parrots?". Like most government positions around the world - your title/job does not reflect your qualifications, only your loyalties. The government stopped the export of live parrots. So, just as the Australians have done, the Hondurans condemned the birds to treatment as pests by the agricultural sector - which systematically poisoned or shot the parrots to be rid of them. Not much use in telling the poor to eat the birds - I tried several varieties myself and found them to be tough! On one trip traveling along the Honduran Mosquito Coast I ate a Scarlet Macaw with the Indian that shot the bird. It is doubtful that he saw more then $100.00 cash money in a year, selling dried fish for 'Semana Santa' (Easter Week). I should have tested his reaction by telling him we were having a meal worth $1,500.00.

I believe all things eventually evolve to their respective destinies. It sometimes annoys and often amuses me that so many things in life, and especially at the political level, have to be done the hard way because emotionalism is still a stronger force in the world then rationalism. But that is probably changing too - the eternal swing of the universe's pendulum. The conservation movements that are legitimate (many are scams or ineffectual) have learned the hard reality that impoverished people have to be shown a direct monetary benefit for protecting their wildlife. This is the only way the natives will cooperate with the conservationists to save wildlife and their habitats. The sophistication we now have for the propagation of exotics, developed mostly by the hobbyist breeding groups in countries like the U.S., may have come much later if the conservation laws had not been so hard on the wildlife trade and severely restricted exotic animal imports. This body of knowledge can now be applied to 'breeding/ranching' efforts in many of the countries where the exotics are endemic and put us on a realistic path to the goal of preserving species.

So I gave up collecting parrots a couple decades ago, when I thought it was really wild, woolly and romantic. Now it seems to be just outright dangerous - especially here in Florida. If you aren't falling on electrical transformers you are getting your butt chewed off by some yard dog, or an irate home owner wants to shoot because he thinks you are in his tree going for the Mangoes!