ST. LUCIA PARROT:
FROM NEAR EXTINCTION TO SAFETY
By Rosemary Low

 Perhaps no other island is so instantly identifiable as St Lucia. The image of  its landmark twin volcanic peaks, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, goes around the globe.  A World Heritage site (near the Soufriere volcano), the peaks are covered in lush vegetation. Steep and rugged, few climbers have attempted to scale their heights. The peaks are washed on one side by the warm, blue seas of the Caribbean. The picture looks idyllic -- but hurricanes often strike the island, destroying the peaceful scene and tearing a path through the rainforest.

St Lucia, which measures only 27 miles by 14 miles (43km x 22km), was once entirely covered in rainforest. Its endemic parrot is, at 17in( 43cm), one of the largest members of the genus, weighing about 600g. It is believed that prior to 1850 it was spread over most of  the island where  rainforest was undisturbed. By 1900 hunting it had become a serious problem and in 1949 it was reported that more than half of the forest had been destroyed by slash and burn techniques. Various estimates of the parrot’s population were made until the 1970s but in reality they were no better than guesses carried out by, at most, a handful of people. There was no doubt, however, that a very serious decline had occurred along with a contraction of its range.

              

In 1980 the St Lucia Parrot (Amazona versicolor) was considered to be the third or fourth rarest parrot of the neotropics and the 13th rarest bird in the world. St Lucia is one of the three islands of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean which has endemic species of Amazon parrots.  Because the three islands (the others are St Vincent and Dominica) are small, heavily populated and subject to regular hurricanes and occasional volcano eruptions, these parrots are of extreme conservation concern.

It is many years since the last eruption of Mount Soufriere, in the south of the island but the bubbling mud and the strong smell of sulphur are a constant reminder of its explosive past. Until the early years of this century vehicles were permitted to access the crater of this “drive-in volcano”. Every tour party went there -- until one guide decided to demonstrate to his group how soft was the sulphur crusting. He stamped on it -- and suddenly found himself immersed up to his waist. He was fortunate to be dragged out alive but with serious burns.

In April 1980 I visited St Lucia. Even though it is predominantly mountainous, much of the rainforest has been cleared and replaced by banana plantations (bananas formed 80% of the island’s exports) and crops which fed the 140,000 inhabitants.

Thirty years later, in March 2010, I made my second visit to this scenic island. The human population has increased to 170,000. Tourism is the most lucrative dollar-earner. The banana industry has declined because Europeans can import bananas more cheaply from South America.

I was fortunate to spend some time with Michael Bobb, Deputy Chief Forest Officer of the Department of Agriculture, and other members of the Forestry Department. They were very kind and helpful, provided a lot of information, as well as access to the only two captive St Lucia Parrots and accompanied me on my two trips into the rainforest reserves. 

So much has changed since 1980 -- nearly all for the better! Then I wrote: “The latest population estimate, made in 1979, suggests that only about one hundred parrots survive. However, this figure can only be a very approximate one because of the difficulties inherent in attempting to assess populations of canopy-dwelling birds in the montane rainforest. Equally alarming as this small population is the fact that it is declining rapidly. The long-term survival chances of this little-known parrot are slim, frighteningly so.”

I was not scare-mongering. The situation had been desperate. Parrots had been shot and eaten, or “wing-tipped” -- the barbaric practice of shooting to capture to sell.  Actually things were just starting to change in 1980. A new protection ordinance had already had its first reading in the House of Representatives. If it became law, the penalties for attempting to kill, catch or export parrots would be increased to the equivalent of US$1,000  -- a huge sum for the low-earning people of this island. The catalyst for change was Paul Butler.

Today few people on the island do not know his name. Paul was a young biology graduate from the London Polytechnic who was involved in trying to assess the parrot population in 1977. He made such an impression that the following year he was invited by the Forestry Division to return to work full-time on the conservation of the native parrot. 

Michael Bobb was then a young employee of the Forestry Department. He showed me the now derelict little house in the Central Forest Reserve where he and Paul spent five days a week, rising at 5am to watch and record what the parrots were doing and to report any illegal activities.

But Paul played a much more important role than that of observer. Far ahead of his time in promoting conservation education as the best method of protection, his ideas have since been copied in many islands and countries worldwide. He never ceased to emphasise that the massively escalating human population was the biggest threat to the survival of wildlife worldwide.

He took up the cause of the St Lucia Parrot with an enthusiasm that quickly spread over the island due to his trendy and innovative methods. His charismatic personality made it easy for him to initiate TV and radio programmes about the importance of conserving the parrot, he persuaded rap and rock artists to perform songs about it, had plays written and coerced local businesses to sponsor parrot conservation, often with brightly-coloured parrot logos. He visited the schools, initiated essay competitions, and ensured that information packs reached 20,000 schoolchildren. His “Pride” campaign, emphasising the parrot’s uniqueness, made such an impact that even today people will quote the parrot’s scientific name. I believe that this happens nowhere else on earth!

Soon the parrot protection law was passed. One man was prosecuted and spent one year in prison, and shooting and trapping stopped. In 1991 there was another boost to the education programme when  The World Parrot Trust and RARE funded an  eco-bus that toured schools and community halls for two years, telling people about the importance of the parrot and the preservation of the forest. 

When Paul started his campaign only about 150 parrots survived. A decade later there were an estimated 250. By the end of the century the population was believed to number at least 500 -- but these were only estimates.

In 2009 the first ever point count was made to try to obtain an accurate figure. During my 2010 stay I met Matthew Morton from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (based at Jersey Zoo) to find out about the point count . DWCT had been involved with the St Lucia Parrot from the late 1970s and is now concerned with other rare endemics, such as the White-breasted Thrasher.

The point count was made from the end of January until the beginning of March -- just before the start of the breeding season when the parrots disperse more widely. Ten teams of three or four people went into the forest every day, covering areas that had been determined using a grid of the forest reserves. Clusters of eight points were surveyed, from 6am to 9am and 2pm to 5pm, each point being 200m apart and each cluster 2km apart. “It was not easy”, said Matthew. “All the effort is in getting from one point to another in this difficult terrain.”   

The survey results were expressed mathematically after using the well established technique of distance sampling. Twenty to twenty-five per cent of the rainforest was covered, from which the figures were extrapolated to give the final result.  Matthew told me: “I am very confident that there are more than one thousand parrots and the total could be very much higher!” This belief was echoed by Michael Bobb.

When the final analysis was made and the report submitted to the St Lucia Government, the result was a population estimate of 1,750 to 2,250 parrots. This is a phenomenal result and may signal a better recovery of an endangered parrot in the neotropics that exceeds any other species except the Yellow-eared Parrot of Colombia. But the situation is different. There is little land here over which the parrot can expand its range; the total area of montane rainforest was estimated in 2009 at 51.7 square miles (134km²). The parrot occurs over 44 square miles (116km²) -- a range expansion of approximately 74% since the 1970s. Then the parrots had retreated to the Quilesse and Edmund forest reserves. Now there is a corridor along which parrots are dispersing to areas they have not frequented for decades.


Central Forest Reserve

In 1980 I wrote that the World Wildlife Fund had set up a sanctuary in the centre of the island to cover six square miles (15km²), where about 90% of the parrots were found at that time. “I can only describe the mountains and rainforest as awe-inspiring in their magnificence and the vegetation lush and green. The most cursory glance reveals that trees of a tropical rainforest have a totally different appearance to those of temperate climes: each one is a world in miniature, harbouring a host of epiphytes, such as bromeliads and orchids, and hung with lianas which descend to the forest floor.

“If one climbs to a ridge, one can look down on the forest canopy or at the more distant view of steeply sloping, luxuriantly clothed mountains, their peaks shrouded in cloud. Nearer at hand, huge tree ferns provide useful shelter during a tropical downpour and along the mountain tracks, one encounters occasional plantations of blue mahoe and mahogany.”

The rainforest reserves still occupy the central part of the island. On my second day there in 2010 I traversed part of the Millet nature trail, a two-mile loop. From the most elevated part there are views of Piton Flore to the north and the Soufriere mountain range to the west. My guide was Aloyshius, a Forestry Department employee and bird guide. He told me: “When I was nine years old Paul Butler came to my school to talk about the parrot. He inspired me!  Now I am part of the team that helps to conserve our parrot.”

The forest here included such plantation trees as cocoa, nutmeg and breadfruit. On the previous morning Aloyshius had watched a parrot feeding in a mango tree at the forest edge, along the trail. At 7am, the time of the previous day’s sighting, we waited quietly near the tree for about an hour.

Suddenly Aloyshius became alert:  leaves were falling from the tree. “Look!”  A parrot had arrived in complete silence and with the stealth of a sparrowhawk. It was feeding on a mango, munching steadily with the fruit still attached to the tree. High above me, and through my binoculars, I could see the rich, deep blue of the head feathers of this large, magnificent parrot, its fiery orange eye and the red and green feathers of the upper breast. Seldom have I seen such a majestic parrot! As it ate, the wind blew the feathers of the nape into a ruff that framed its face, rendering its appearance even more imperious.

It departed as silently as it arrived. Reluctantly we moved on, not expecting another close sighting. After standing with my back to the trail, I swung around to see a parrot flying away, at head height, its green wings bright in the sun. We must have disturbed it -- perhaps the same bird -- as it fed in another tree.

The survival of the parrots in their natural habitat is important not only to influence the protection of the forest and the vital watersheds (without which the island would be unable to function) but this magnificent bird is increasingly attracting bird watchers from many parts of the world, Michael told me.  They want to walk the forest trails to see it. It has the potential to help drive the economy and it already creates jobs for tour guides and Forest Department personnel who act as bird guides. “Everyone benefits from the conservation of our natural resources,” said Michael.

In recent years the government has been able to purchase and replant critical areas of forest that border the reserve -- more than 1,000 acres (404 hectares). The banana industry decline on St Lucia led to some  growers forsaking the industry and abandoning their plantations.

  
Fruits of aralie (Clusia major)

I asked Michael if there was enough food for the expanding parrot population. Among the foods taken are the young seeds of magnolia (Talauma dodecapetala) the new leaves of mahogany -- a very numerous forest tree -- and the small, dark plum-like fruits of  aralie (Clusia major) which sends down aerial roots and grows like a strangler fig. Currently there is enough food but if the population expands further, problems will arise if the parrots attack crops.

Michael told me that St Lucia Parrots nest very high up, at a height of at least 59ft (18m), often using the gommier tree (Dacryodes excelsa). Two to three eggs are laid, usually at the start of the dry season between February and April. 

 In 1980 it was Gabriel Charles, sadly no longer with us, who had shown me and so many others the parrot that has come to symbolise their island. It was a privilege to spend time with Michael who followed in Gabriel’s footsteps with nearly 30 years’ experience of watching and conserving this iconic parrot.

“The impressive recovery of the Saint Lucia Parrot population is a testament to the concerted conservation efforts of the Government of Saint Lucia, the people of Saint Lucia, and overseas conservation agencies including Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and RARE.”

(Status of the Saint Lucia Parrot Amazona versicolor, Report to the Government of Saint Lucia, February 2011.)

NB. The current IUCN classification of the St Lucia Parrot is VULNERABLE.



 

 
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