Now or Never
In the desert of northwestern Peru, the strangest of bedfellows—a conservation biologist and a petroleum company—are racing to save one of earth's most endangered birds.
Jeremy Flanagan steps out of the pickup truck, his shoes sinking slightly in the sand of the searing-hot northwestern Peruvian desert. The British-born conservation biologist readies his tape recorder to play the call of one of the world's most endangered birds, in hopes that the real thing will call back.
He is only a few sneaker prints from the truck door and hasn't even gotten his finger to the play button before he stops dead in his tracks. He cocks his head to the side. Amid the pleasantly cacophonous chorus of birdsong emerges what sounds like a creaky door in need of oil—the Peruvian plantcutter.
“If you stop and listen anywhere out here, you can hear it,” says Flanagan, who wears his baseball cap pulled snug over red hair, shading fair, freckled skin and blue eyes. Flanagan has a boyish, Charlie Brown look that belies his 35 years, the past 5 of which have been spent working to protect the plantcutter and its Peruvian habitat. “It is one of the most rare birds in the world, but here it is just another piece of the background,” he says.
The call heard so effortlessly here in the deserts of Talara belongs to one of the last thousand or so Peruvian plantcutters on earth. And this land where its song blends so well into the setting represents the last hope for the survival of the species.
The plantcutter is about the size of a bluebird, but gray with white wing marks and a striking, rufous-colored belly. Since the 1800s the bird has been either seen or heard at some 14 sites along Peru's northern coast. Since the 1930s, however, plantcutter sightings have become increasingly rare. In 1998 ornithologist Gunnar Engblom found plantcutters in only 3 of the 14 original sites—as well as at 2 sites previously unidentified—in the northwestern provinces of Piura, Lambayeque, and La Libertad.
The plantcutter's precipitous decline is the result of a massive loss of its habitat—sparse desert scrub similar to the mesquite forests of the southwestern United States. Healthy, intact scrub is rapidly disappearing from the broad and seemingly infinite horizons of Peru's desert coast. The coastal region is the country's most densely populated, and, according to Flanagan, the majority of its scrub has been ravaged by goat grazing, by irrigation projects aimed at converting the desert into farmland, and by the cutting of algarrobo (Prosopis) for domestic firewood.
Although no scientist is known to have ever seen the elusive Peruvian plantcutter's nest, it is believed that the bird builds the nest deep and low within a layer of thorny shrubs that includes algarrobo—usually the first layer to be eliminated by gluttonous goats and by locals cutting wood for charcoal. Still, even if algarrobo can be found in degraded scrub habitat, plantcutters may not be. They are among a relative handful of birds that are known to eat leaves, and, along with finches, they form part of an even smaller group of birds that can move their serrated beaks from side to side, not just up and down. Plantcutters are finicky about their diet: To survive, they need more intact areas of desert scrub, areas that also contain less common sapote and faique bushes.
Peru's sparse desert scrub habitat is comparable to an island in the middle of the ocean, where many of the species—not just the plantcutter—are unique. For example, 16 of Talara's 60 bird species are endemic to the Tumbesian Endemic Bird Region of northwestern Peru and southwestern Ecuador. These include the Tumbes tyrant and the rufous flycatcher, which have been designated “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List. Conserving habitats that have a high number of endemic species is as important as protecting biologically rich areas like the Amazon, scientists say. “It used to be that the only thing we ever heard about in conservation was rainforest, rainforest, rainforest. Meanwhile, there were smaller habitats disappearing under our noses,” says Louisiana State University ornithologist John O'Neill, one of the foremost authorities on Peruvian birds. “Habitats like the northwestern Peruvian desert were being ignored.”
That attitude is starting to change, thanks in no small part to both the plantcutter and Flanagan. While the plantcutter's specialized nature has certainly complicated its chances for survival in a rapidly developing region, it has also made the bird a vital indicator of the desert scrub's health. And scientists like Flanagan are embracing the plantcutter to shower much-needed attention on a fast-dwindling ecosystem.
After years spent studying parrots in the Andes of southern Ecuador, Flanagan moved to Sullana, his Peruvian wife's hometown, and cofounded ProAvesPeru. The organization is dedicated to conserving the country's avian habitat, and topping its list is the Talara site—90,000 acres of remarkably intact sparse desert scrub straddling the PanAmerican Highway.
Here, in the historic seat of the country's oil industry, life has been long dominated by PetroPeru, the state-owned petroleum company. Flanagan immediately recognized the company as a very unlikely—yet highly strategic—partner in his efforts to save the plantcutter. By prohibiting trespassing on its lands in Talara, PetroPeru had unwittingly conserved some of the very best habitat. Flanagan offered to take PetroPeru executives on a number of guided field outings there, and used that time to impress upon them the importance of the plantcutter and the crucial role their company has so far played in protecting it. Soon company executives were seeing their land through a completely different lens.
Beaming like a proud father as he shuffles through a stack of photographs of the plantcutter, Fernando Daffós, PetroPeru's public relations director, explains that “the plantcutter has worked its way into the hearts” of PetroPeru executives. Exuding passion, he details his company's plans for decorating its conference room with images of the bird. His sentiments are hardly the kind usually heard from an oil company representative, and that, says Flanagan, is precisely why it's so significant. “People expect conservationists to talk about conservation,” he says. “They don't expect the state petroleum company to.”
Yet that's exactly what the company has done. Moved by the plight of the plantcutter and, of course, recognizing an opportunity to burnish its environmental image, PetroPeru has emerged as the species' savior—helping to turn the plantcutter into a household name in northwestern Peru. The company has funded workshops to educate children, teachers, and journalists about the unique Peruvian bird. It also provided ground support for a study, funded by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, that enabled ProAvesPeru to determine once and for all the distribution of the plantcutter on Talara lands. The study's findings were startling: Talara is home to the most significant concentration of plantcutters in the world—nearly 60 percent of the total.
“Talara is Plantcutter Central,” says Alejandro Grajal, director of Audubon's Latin America and Caribbean Program, which secured the study's funding and continues to collaborate with ProAvesPeru. “It is the last remaining large population.”
Although there are smaller populations nearby, “Talara poses the most efficient opportunity to save one of the most endangered birds in one of the most endangered habitats in the neotropics, if not the world,” Grajal says.
Unfortunately, PetroPeru may no longer be in a position to spearhead these efforts. Historically, the company held the land rights to the whole of the province of Talara. Now the acreage is reverting to the Peruvian government, which is making it available to private buyers, some of whom may be tempted to build on beachfront property.
ProAvesPeru is hoping to secure as a reserve 12,000 of these acres, between the PanAmerican Highway and the steely gray foothills of the Cerro de Amotope Mountains. The land has never been drilled and does not appear to have any other commercial worth. Gustavo Suarez de Frietas, director of protected areas for Inrena, Peru's Natural Resources Institute, says that the critical status of the plantcutter would make the land a promising candidate for protection—if only there were enthusiasm in Peru these days for designating more reserves.
With the end of PetroPeru's oil lease imminent, Flanagan and his organization have petitioned the government with a number of options for ensuring the future of the land. The most promising scenario would be a long-term lease granted to a coalition, which, headed by ProAvesPeru, would manage the land as a scientific reserve. “The government has not yet made a decision,” says Grajal, “and it's uncertain when it will. Quite a lot is hanging in the balance: Those lands will seal the fate of the Peruvian plantcutter.”
After a long day in the field, Flanagan rides a bus down a desert highway toward home. Dusk settles quickly over the desert, turning the green, leafy shrubs dotting the terrain into solid black silhouettes. With the bill of his baseball cap pressing against the bus window, Flanagan scans the scene until the night steals the desert from his view. He notes that the vast expanse of scrub along this road—clumps of shrubs that help make this landscape resemble a mangy dog's coat—is too degraded to make a suitable home for the plantcutter. “What keeps me going is the hope that we can change things,” he says. “It's now or never for this land and this bird.”
Catherine Elton is a Guatemala-based writer whose articles have appeared in International Wildlife and Mother Jones. She wrote about Peru's endangered Junin grebe for the March 200 Audubon.
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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