Grassroots Tropical Conservation Through Ecotourism, Birders’ Exchange, and the Long-wattled Umbrellabird

by Scott Olmstead

It’s fascinating to watch grassroots conservation movements evolve in developing countries, where the local inhabitants generally tend to be more concerned with basic needs like getting enough to eat than with conservation of natural resources for future generations. The idea of conserving habitats and resources at a large scale seems to be easier to grasp, accept, and especially prioritize if you’re not worried about your day-to-to day existence. But what if getting your daily bread actually depends on the existence of wild creatures, and not just for eating but for showing, alive, to other people? Suddenly conservation is not such an abstract concept.

Let’s look at an example of how ecotourism can encourage conservation and how Birders’ Exchange, a humble ABA program, can support all of the above. Birding tourism is well developed in Ecuador compared to most Latin American countries, and for many local operators it is viewed as an important way to make a living. I have found in my experience that most guides, lodge operators, and other professionals that rely on birding tourism for business quickly come to recognize the need to conserve the wild habitats that support the spectacular birds that visitors seek. It’s kind of a no-brainer: no habitat means no birds, and no birds will inevitably lead to no birders, which will leave the operator with no income.

Long-wattled Umbrellabird

It is exciting for me every time I encounter Ecuadorians who are just making this connection for themselves. They’re not becoming conservationists because they read about the need for conservation online, or heard a passionate presentation on the topic at school. They’re becoming conservationists through direct personal experience!

So to me it is logical that one way to further an agenda of conservation in developing countries like Ecuador is to encourage more people to become involved with birding – and wildlife observation in general – on an economic level. (I’d also like to see more Latin Americans involved with birding on a recreational level, but that’s another discussion.) While I was in Ecuador this summer I got to see this concept in progress.

In early July I finally visited a site that has been on my radar for a couple of years: Recinto 23 de Junio, a small village in the northwest that has already been profiled in several posts on the blog 10,000 Birds. 23 de Junio is famous for its healthy population of the bizarrely spectacular and enigmatically rare Long-wattled Umbrellabird, a species endemic to the wet Chocó bioregion of northwest Ecuador and southwest Colombia. I’ll let you read what others have already written about the origins of Recinto 23 de Junio on 10,000 Birds, but what I found was a local campesino, Luis Ajilla, who is experimenting with a new way of making a living that relies on maintaining the natural environment that surrounds his village rather than modifying or destroying it.

Orange-breasted Fruit-eater

I arrived at 23 de Junio the way the locals do, riding the chiva from nearby San Miguel de los Bancos. (Think of a truck chassis with a wooden bus “cabin” fitted onto the back where a cargo bed might be more appropriate.) I stayed the night at Luis’ modest cabaña that he and his son Luis Jr. have constructed so independent birders can spend the night and they don’t have to drive an hour or more from wherever they might otherwise stay. The water wasn’t working properly during my visit (small detail!) but the cabin was clean and comfortable and I had no trouble sleeping in the peaceful setting. And I spent a whole day exploring the forest patches about the village with Luis. He showed me the lek site at the edge of a pasture where the male umbrellabirds gather at dawn to perform their strange mooing serenades that give them their Spanish name: el pájaro toro. He showed me his own forest patch farther up the mountain where we found more umbrellabirds, as well as other rarities such as Orange-breasted Fruiteaters and Black Solitaires. The terrain was steep and rugged, the forest was steamy, and the trails were poorly defined. I loved it!

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