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
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 parrots 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.
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
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
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 islands exports) and crops which fed the 140,000
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 parrots uniqueness,
made such an impact that even today people will quote the parrots scientific
name. I believe that this happens nowhere else on earth!
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
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.
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.
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
said Matthew. All
the effort is in getting from one point to another in this difficult terrain.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 days sighting,
we waited quietly near the tree for about an hour.
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.
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
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
benefits from the conservation of our natural resources, said
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
Fruits of aralie (Clusia major)
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.
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
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 Gabriels
footsteps with nearly 30 years experience of watching and conserving this iconic
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.