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Is the Devil in the Details?

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Parrot team in Guatemala, April 2021, with Dr. LoraKim Joyner

This week, One Earth Conservation teams up with Cuerpo de Conservación in Honduras and CONAP in Guatemala to conduct the first bi-national parrot population count in this Atlantic coast region. Our target species is the endangered yellow-headed amazon parrot, but we will count all the parrot species, because illegal trapping for the pet trade is high and all parrot populations in this area are under threat. We do this even knowing that counting parrots is notoriously imprecise. With training and repeated counts we can improve precision and grow our ability to analyze possible trends over the years, which would let us know if we are having success or not. This means painstakingly keeping to the same methodology between people and between years, and crunching the data long after the data is collected. I for one do not like this detail work, though I have come to learn that monitoring is an important and critical tool in conservation.

Parrot counts also yield a host of other information that we can use for other than assessing our success, such as locating parrot roosting, nesting, and foraging areas. The counting process also strengthens our teams, recruits new conservationists, supports people’s livelihoods through stipends given for participation, and grows commitment to the birds as we spend more time with them and understand them better. Likewise, we grow our commitment to one another. There is nothing like getting a vehicle unstuck in the mud or hunkering down under a tarp during storms to realize how much we wish to contribute to one another on our conservation team.

For the following reasons we emphasize parrot monitoring: to grow the chances for success, to see if we are having success, and to see if we need to change our activities to decrease harm and increase benefit. Conservation activities can in fact cause harm, sometimes greatly. In one project, Tasmania devils (photo above) were introduced onto Maria Island because of the need to establish populations that were free of the devil facial tumor disease, which has severely reduced health and populations in other regions. As predators, however, the introduced devils wiped out the little penguin colony there. Perhaps as many as 3,000 pairs of this penguin species are now gone from the island.

All conservationists make mistakes, and projects can take a negative direction or meander along with no evidence of positive impact. Ecology is complicated, and tweaking the few parameters that we can might have unintended consequences or lackluster results. Weighing against caution is the urgency we feel to do something, now, because of the dire state of so many species and biotic communities.

Alas, there is rarely enough money or time for monitoring, let alone the ability to do the analysis that could tell us what we could or should be doing. If we just counted the parrots in Guatemala and Honduras every year for the decades it might take to understand what is happening to the population, without conducting any other conservation activities, the birds would be gone. Population monitoring might also drain resources from the little we have, constraining our ability to actually do the needed conservation activities.

It’s a dilemma, because if don’t do the monitoring and analysis we don’t have the evidence to make informed decisions, and yet, I know of very few parrot conservation projects that have the resources to do the necessary monitoring. I am working with a group of parrot researchers around the world to try to discern if there are certain conservation activities or parameters of a project that can indicate success. We fear that we just won’t have that many projects that are able to do the ideal thorough and long term monitoring and analysis. The biggest result of this survey we are constructing might be that we don’t know what makes a successful parrot project, because we don’t have the evidence to prove it was successful. But I think that it is okay, for we would be looking hard at the deficits in parrot conservation. Learning from negative or unknown outcomes is a worthwhile pursuit, even if not an altogether satisfying one for our egos and hard work.

Nick Salafsky, founder of Pathways to Success, recently said during an interview with Mongabay

“Perhaps the most important predictor of success is the attitude of the people in an organization – whether they are ultimately interested in merely perpetuating their programs and their jobs versus being open and willing to critically examine and learn from their work."

People’s attitudes are also important in another aspect – in that we are there for each other, other beings, and this earth. If we can center this, and question with empathetic curiosity all we do and why we do it, then perhaps the exact details of how we know we are succeeding won’t matter as much, because in reality, we will be succeeding.

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