| It was the Blue and Yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna) that took me on my first visit to Trinidad. South of the chain of Caribbean islands, Trinidad lies only about nine miles (14km) off the coast of Venezuela. Strictly speaking, it is not a Caribbean island but a geological extension of South America. Its fauna reflects this with mammals that originated in the Amazon region – howler monkeys, agoutis and crab-eating raccoons. With nearly 400 bird species recorded, Trinidad exceeds the total of any island in the Caribbean region.|
Due to its proximity to South America, Trinidad is the only island in the region where the Blue and Yellow Macaw was found. A few other islands had large species of macaws but sadly they are now extinct. This macaw occurred in Nariva, a freshwater swamp in the central-eastern part of the island, five or six miles long and near the coast. This vitally important habitat was declared a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention in 1993. It possesses characteristics found nowhere else on Trinidad and was ideal habitat for a large parrot.
© Bernadette Plair
In the 1960s the macaw was trapped to extinction there. At the same time, 20% of the swamp, which covers about 23 square miles (60 sq km), was destroyed by rice farming. In September 1989 the part known as Bush Bush (about one quarter of its total) was declared a wildlife sanctuary.
In the early part of 2001 I read an article in an American magazine about a lady called Bernadette Plair. In 1992 she had conceived the idea of reintroducing the macaw to the Nariva swamp. Born in Trinidad, when she left to attend college in 1963 the macaws were probably already gone. Bernadette became a scientist at Cincinnati Zoo; its support became of crucial importance for the implementation of her idea. Consultation occurred with a forestry officer on Trinidad, and it was agreed to attempt the reintroduction to Bush Bush through Cincinnati Zoo’s Centre for Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW).
There were several difficult problems to overcome but finally, in August 1999, eighteen wild-caught Blue and Yellow Macaws from Guyana arrived at the quarantine aviary within the reserve. The macaws were fed on the foods they would find outside, such as the large seeds of mahoe (Sterculia caribaea). Some macaws could not be released for several months until their flight feathers had grown. Sadly, four of them would never fly due to the barbaric way trappers removed their flight feathers – with a machete.
Excited about Bernadette’s vision to see macaws flying again in the swamp, I contacted her. She invited me to participate in her next visit to Trinidad. I arrived on May 17 2001. Bernadette met me and I was immediately impressed by her quiet and pleasant determination. When she made up her mind to do something, she overcame any adversity.
She wasted no time in introducing me to the diverse habitats found within the Nariva swamp. We drove east from Port of Spain towards the Atlantic coast. Going south through the town of Sangre Grande the road runs parallel with the coast for six miles (10km), where cocorite palms on the beach bend towards the sea. Near Manzanilla we met three of the macaw “guardians” who had a boat waiting for us to traverse a narrow channel lined with mangroves.
The eastern side consists of a palm swamp, with fragmented stands of stately smooth-trunked royal palms and moriche palms. The small Red-bellied Macaws, that were flying overhead, breed in their cavities, along with Yellow-fronted Amazons, and the more numerous Orange-winged Amazons. The larger fauna includes manatees and giant anaconda, but I was realistic: we would see neither. We scanned the horizon without any sign of Blue and Yellow Macaws. Only the wind-battered remains of the release aviary testified to their existence.
Several small, poor villages, lacking some of the most basic facilities, are found on the edge of the swamp: Plum Mitan to the north-west, Manzanilla to the east, Kernahan to the south-east and Biche to the west. The swamp camp near Plum Mitan, manned around the clock by a remarkable group of men, was our next destination. Originally unpaid fire fighters, the men, mainly of Asian origin, kept watch, night and day, over the area that the macaws inhabit, preventing entry by strangers. Between January and May 2001 they had clocked up a total of 8,640 man-hours.
Smoke was drifting over the impoverished area, thwarting Bernadette’s idea of hiring a small plane to look for the macaws. Here we saw a few wooden shacks, some raised up on stilts. The men had nothing but a roof over their head and their families, and I was touched by their dedication to the macaw project under their leader Bim Rampaul. They welcomed us and cooked us a delicious camp meal of cascadoo fish.
The good work of these mean was soon rewarded when the first young macaws for nearly 40 years fledged into the swamp. Bernadette’s dream was succeeding against all the odds. The macaws were so well protected that between 2001 and 2005 twenty-six young macaws fledged, numbers gradually increasing annually.
In the community centre in Plum Mitan, close to the swamp, I attended Bernadette’s workshop and witnessed conservation education first hand. I visited the village school and met Marissa, an enthusiastic young teacher who had incorporated an environmental education programme into the curriculum in an imaginative way that made it fun. I was greatly impressed. Every morning 140 children assembled to listen to an authoritative talk on the swamp or on environmental issues.
Everywhere we went Bernadette was recognised and greeted with hugs or waves of the hand. She loves her native island and its people and her family and returns to Trinidad regularly, doing much to promote the protection of its natural resources.
In April 2006 I revisited Trinidad to spend three days with Bernadette. By then there were four teams of macaw “guardians”, totalling 24 men. On the first morning we met the boatman at 6.30 and disembarked after the short boat ride through the channel, to reach Bush Bush. We walked on the trail, stopping to examine items eaten by parrots, such as the big, black mahoe seeds. High above us red howler monkeys fed while huge blue emperor butterflies seemed close enough to touch. This was the location of the first release site. Suddenly there was a shriek and a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws flew overhead. In a second they were gone. But I had seen them!
In Kernahan, a settlement in the swamp that I had visited five years previously, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new research centre. Staff gave me leaflets and posters relating to the swamp. A fledgling eco-tourist industry was developing. Near the building a strong steel observation tower had been erected and we ascended to view the wide vista of the flat landscape. Far away, three blue macaws, tiny specks in a distant palm tree, were feeding.
Mr Motilal from Biche and his four macaw guardians took us into the western edge of the swamp. Formerly a large part was covered in forest but now only small patches survive. The men of Biche pointed out a distant stand of trees where one pair of macaws had a nest site.
Two years later, by 2008, 33 young Blue and Yellow Macaws had fledged from eight breeding pairs, to give a total population of 59 birds. In 2007 20 more macaws had been imported from Guyana, quarantined and certified free of disease and parasites. Seventeen could be released. Bonded pairs stayed together and survival in this group was 100%.
In the next three seasons 14 more young fledged.
As at 2013, 26 of the 31 birds released had survived -- an 84% success rate. The population had increased to 86 individuals.
Trinidadians can be proud of what they have achieved. The reintroduction of a parrot to a habitat where it was extirpated by man is difficult to achieve and rarely attempted. Education is a vital factor. Without Bernadette it would never have happened.
 The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. This treaty, with more than 150 participating countries, provides a framework for national action and co-operation for conserving the world’s wetlands. It includes 1,832 sites, totalling 170 million hectares.