The roost site in 2009
In the years 1991-1995 we monitored the numbers of yellow-naped parrots roosting in a set of towering ceiba trees on the southern coast of Guatemala. We named this area El Paraíso (Paradise), because hundreds of parrot nested in these trees. In 1995 the ranch, Ilusiones (Illusions) converted even more of its land to sugar cane monoculture, and we had to fight to protect nest and roost trees, and literally throw ourselves in front of tractors.
A ceiba tree being torn down in 1995
The owner promised to leave the roost trees standing, even though burning the sugar cane killed two of the roost trees. We started counting the birds again in 2009, and where once there were over 250 birds, now there were only 12 spending the night. We continued to monitor this site until 2013, and the last count only yielded 2 parrots. The reasons for this tremendous decline has much to do with the nearly 100% poaching rate for the last several decades in this area, with people taking young chicks from their families to sell them into the illegal wildlife trade.
I returned after nearly a four year absence in January 2017 hoping that the trees were still standing, because with our recent efforts in Guatemala we thought that this species could make a comeback. I was devastated by what we found, and this video was filmed on site.
Video taken upon visit to roost site in 2017
I found out that the ranch had been sold to a sugar cane company. At this point, the farming intensified, and the new owners started to install cement ditches and clear the way for irrigation systems, and so they cut down many, many trees.
Roost site in 2017
I am under no illusions that the way forward will be easy. We face the fallout of corruption and violence, for when I was in Guatemala in early 2017, the neighboring ranch, Caobanal, where I used to live, experienced a tragedy. The hired security forces robbed and killed two accountants on ranch property. They killed the very ones they were charged to protect. I wonder, aren't we other humans doing the same to the trees and birds - killing what is ours to cherish and protect?
Even if we can diminish poaching, where will the birds sleep? Eat? Nest? We don't plan on waiting around for an answer to this. We will work with this sugar cane company to restore what was lost, but it will take generations to grow such towering trees again.
Some of the last parrots to roost at the site
For now, let us keep the birds in our hearts, witness their loss and ours, and resist what seems like the inevitable. We will not leave and allow these birds to remain silenced, but instead will stand in solidarity with them, and the people, too, who suffer from the advances of intensive agricultural practices and monocultures. Guatemala is the third largest exporter of sugar and ethanol in the world, and such production results in the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water over use and depletion, water and air pollution from the burning, displacement of sustainable small-scale agricultural practices, and marginalization of rural communities.
Video of burning sugar cane in Caobanal, Guatemala
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Once the tallest ceiba seen for miles, is no more