Pair of wild scarlet macaw chicks - coveted around the world, and so the poachers take them, and so the conservationists protect them
It began in 2014 when a man died climbing a scarlet macaw nest in the Moskitia region of Honduras, and I beheld the grieving family and village members as they wept beneath the tree from which he had fallen. Seeing their love and memory of this man naked before me, it opened up a deeper understanding of the ways of poachers. The poachers surviving family came to me with the remaining macaw nestling (one had died at the base of the tree with the man) and asked me to examine the chick and make recommendations for its health. I did this despite knowing that the bird was doomed to captivity and the illegal wildlife trade. That year I visited several village homes where parrots lived that had been snatched from the wild. I spoke with these people, who loved their birds, though they did not treat them very well, due to ignorance and cultural traditions.
In the following years more and more villages have quit poaching parrots and more and more of them have confessed to me that they were once robbers of nests. These are the same people who are working with me for the conservation of their endangered scarlet and great green macaw, and yellow-naped amazon. Some tell me that they don’t need to take a nest or two every year because they receive stipends for their conservation work as nest and population monitors and rangers. The son of the man who died told me that working for conservation “allows me to love the birds.”
Now it is 2017 and I find less and less difference between myself and poachers. Yes, some poachers and their extended poaching families do so as a business, hardened to the needs of the parrots and other wildlife, and to their own village community who asks them to desist, but they won’t. One family can literally take out hundreds of endangered parrots in an area in a year, causing much damage. But people do not poach just for monetary gain. There are a host of other needs they meet when they tear apart avian families, and sometimes burn or chop down trees to gain access to the towering nests.
The work of this conservationist is not so different from that of a poacher (notice the multiple artificial entrances to the nest made by poachers with hatchets so they can extract chicks from deep nests)
Understanding their needs helps us have choice on how to connect with them and develop conservation strategies that have greater chances of success as we seek to value the needs of all involved. Understanding the needs of others, helps us understand and accept not just ourselves, but all of humanity. We need this understanding and acceptance for the long haul of nurturing ourselves and all of nature.
People who poach are also meeting their needs, for:
Respect – climbing trees is a difficult and dangerous task, and the climbers are admired. They also gain respect from their families who appreciate the income.
Meaning – poachers are making a living, or supplementing their living, and find meaning and purpose in the goals of hunting wildlife. In some instances, they are carrying on a multigenerational family tradition, as well as thousands of years of a culture that has always had parrots and their feathers in trade, as well as in the cooking pot and adorning their clothes and headdresses.
Flow – poachers spend a lot of time attuned to wildlife and nature as a whole, and such a focus allows one to flow with the pursuit of doing something you are good at, and which has meaning. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as the "state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter."
Kinesthetic joy – using one’s body to move through the forests and savannas, often hiking many miles in one day, climbing trees, and sometimes running from rangers brings one into full use of one’s body interacting with the world
Connection – trading in wildlife gives you something to talk about with and connect to prospective buyers and other poachers. Some, but not all poachers, also connect, if not consciously then in an embodied way, to the birds they must handle and feed. It is not often an empathetic connection that considers the needs of the animal, but it a connection none-the-less. Touching, listening to, talking to and feeding these birds is all part of the connecting experience.
This family rescued this green parakeet from a wildfire. Multiple needs of theirs is met by rescuing and then liberating the small parrot, much the same as if they had poached the chick to be a pet.
Nurture - though poachers do not always nurture their birds, they must feed them, which meets the need to nurture the birds. They realize that the people who will take care of the young birds, their families at home, potential buyers, or others to whom they gift a bird, will also enjoy caring for the bird. They are also nurturing their family by having an income.
Beauty – there is nothing like a flying scarlet macaw, whose long tail continues rainbow colors beyond reckoning. How can there be that much beauty in one bird? The poachers, I believe, are hunters of beauty made incarnate in flesh.
Three eggs in a scarlet macaw nest. What is more beautiful than this?
Stimulation, fun, entertainment – there is a thrill to hunting and interacting with the unknown and mysterious world of wildlife.
Contribution and efficiency – poachers earn income for their family and are pleased with how many birds they can take in a season.
Looking over this list of needs I see that it is not so very different from those of bird owners, veterinarians, and conservationists. The pursuit of wildlife, either to protect or to ravage, meets similar universal needs that exist in all of us.
So it should have been of no surprise to me when one of the local fire fighters told me of a low nest that is easily climbable, which they did, and how he and the other wildfire patrollers commented that they wanted to take the birds and have them in their home, I exclaimed, “So do I!” (and quickly added that I could not because it is not good for the birds). Someone did end up taking those chicks a few weeks later, and I mourn for them, and for all of us. For when I see pictures of chicks in nests, especially young yellow-naped amazons, I find myself wanting to hold them and have them around, all the time, and that desire has dangerous consequences.
Two sibling yellow-naped amazon chicks in a nest. What is more beautiful than this?
Understanding our needs and the strategies we take to meet these needs, as conservationist or poacher, helps us move on to choices where the needs of either need not trump the other, nor the birds with which we are so strongly entwined. Maybe there are other ways we can meet these needs in people, such as training them as conservationists, that might also mitigate their desire to poach. With different options, maybe they can, and us too, choose liberation, not just for themselves, but for the parrots they covet.