Environment: Saving the Gracids

For many of these birds private zoos may be the only hope

ROBERTO AZEREDO lovingly cradles a huge egg in his hands as though it had been designed by Peter Carl Fabergé. He brushes it against his cheek. He holds it to his ear. He raises it to the light. “This one,” he declares, “is going to hatch tonight.”

“You see?” says his friend James Gomes Simpson. “That’s why I tell him he’s the crazy man here. He can look a bird in the eye and know she’s going to lay an egg that day, or feel an egg and know it’s going to hatch that night.”

The bird that will peck out of its shell a few hours later, true to Azeredo’s prediction, is a red-billed curassow, or Crax blumenbachii, one of the largest, loveliest, and most peculiar birds of Latin America. An adult male of the species weighs about eight pounds and has a neck the length of a goose’s, a vanilla belly, a black Mohawk crest, and a bluish-black back and wings. Around the base of and extending below its beak is a bright-red knob of soft cuticle that resembles a chewing-gum bubble. A startled redbilled curassow emits a musical whistle four seconds long, which sounds like a bomb dropping (without the explosion). A male in search of a mate produces a breathy boom, as if it were blowing air across a very large bottle.

Roberto Azeredo owns about 220 booming, whistling Crax blumenbachii in his personal zoo outside Belo Horizonte, 200 miles from Rio de Janeiro. This number may well exceed the number of red-billed curassows in the forests of South America, the bird’s native home. Crax blumenbachii is one of the most endangered species in one of the most endangered families of birds in the world: the cracid family, a group of forty-nine species distantly related to pheasants and quail. Azeredo is not an ecologist or an ornithologist; he’s a textile specialist in Brazil’s Ministry of Development. Breeding birds, he says, is just his “heavy hobby.” Yet Stuart Strahl, a biologist with Wildlife Conservation International, the research division of the New York Zoological Society, believes that Azeredo is one of the red-billed curassow’s only chances for survival. He hopes that Azeredo and other wellheeled Latin Americans who are passionate collectors of endangered animals can be rallied to the often frustrating task of rescuing tropical forests and the diverse fauna within them.

In last summer’s blistering heat and drought North Americans awoke to the threat of the greenhouse effect, in which gases build up in the atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat. Carbon dioxide, the principal offender, is produced not only by the burning of fossil fuels but also by the burning of forests. The statistics demand attention. By conservative estimates, at least 27,000 square miles of tropical forest worldwide are destroyed each year—much of it burned to clear the land for agricultural use. As much as 38,000 square miles more may be grossly disrupted. If the destruction continues at this rate, the planet’s rain forests will have essentially disappeared by about the year 2135. As they vanish, global temperatures may well rise to potentially catastrophic levels, although scientists disagree on the extent of the greenhouse threat. More certain is that with the forests will go a huge slice of life. Rain forests cover only seven percent of the earth’s land surface, but they contain more than half the plant and animal species—the vast majority of which scientists have yet to name and study. According to Robert Peters, of the World Wildlife Fund, tens of thousands of species are lost every year as a result of deforestation.

Big problems would seem to require big, desperate solutions, and some conservationists and biologists do advocate a broad-stroke approach. Thomas Lovejoy, of the Smithsonian Institution, for example, is lobbying for a global survey to identify areas rich in biological diversity and then for a plan to set those areas aside as reserves. “In my opinion, we’ve got ten years left,” he says. “We’ve got ten years to turn this destruction around, and that means making substantial changes quickly.” Ultimately, however, even global solutions require local applications—and conservation becomes fascinating in its particulars. For the scientists who live and work in countries where the rain forests are found, the art of transforming conservation theory into practice demands suppleness, imagination, and a taste for the unorthodox; sometimes the work they do barely resembles conservation as it is taught in school.

IN HIS BID TO save cracids, Stuart Strahl says, he will do “just about anything.” Beyond conventional efforts to educate the public about threats to the world’s wildlife, he works with people who would rather see cracids in stewpots or cages than fluttering freely through the tropics. Whenever possible he puts a price tag on the endangered birds. “In Latin America a lot of people still think of conservation as an elitist luxury,” says Strahl, who has lived in Venezuela for four years. “That’s starting to change, but I still have to watch what I do so I’m not perceived as a gringo imperialist.”

Strahl saw in cracids the chance to get “the biggest bang for a conservation buck.”The birds are found as far north as the southern tip of Texas and as far south as Uruguay and upper Argentina, in habitats ranging from the equatorial rain forests of Amazonia to cooler mountain cloud forests and the scrubby seasonal vegetation of tepui, or buttes. Despite this wide distribution, almost 40 percent of all cracid species are close to extinction, and for the same reasons.

Most cracids seem to be picky nesters, reproducing only in undisturbed primary forest—the type of forest that is being decimated at such a breathless clip. What’s more, because they’re big and meaty, cracids have long been the most hunted bird group in Latin America. Many Indians and peasants rely on cracids as one of their major sources of protein; sport and commercial hunters also shoot the creatures, usually illegally. “The fatal handicap of the cracids is their legendary tastiness,”says George Glenn, the executive director of the Rare Center for Tropical Bird Conservation, in Philadelphia. (Both Glenn and Strahl say they have never eaten cracid meat, but one Venezuelan biologist who has confirms that “it’s delicious—much, much better than chicken.”)

These combined threats lend the birds an economic significance, which Strahl emphasizes in promoting cracid conservation. He doesn’t say, Save the birds because they’re beautiful and they deserve to live. Instead, he argues that the population should be maintained for those people who have no alternative source of meat. Noting the birds’ need for primary habitat, he presents the cracid family as a powerful tool for tracking the health of a forest. In the jargon of ecologists, they’re an ideal “indicator species”: a decline in cracid numbers is among the first signs that a forest, no matter how pristine its appearance, is threatened—by illegal lumbering, excessive hunting, toxic runoff from agriculture, or other kinds of human intervention. Conversely, when life is good for cracids, it’s generally safe for an entire tropical ecosystem of smaller and less flamboyant organisms.

“Most Latin governments are beginning to recognize the value in managing forests,” Strahl says. “For one thing, they’re beginning to feel a lot of pressure from the international community to slow down on deforestation to prevent global warming. Second, the governments here realize that if you lose your forest, you lose your watershed. And if you lose your watershed, you lose your agricultural areas, your drinking water, and your power source. Forests are good for watersheds, because they trap more water in the soil, and they produce more rainfall. As the wind goes over the surface of a forest, it picks up moisture and heat, clouds form, and you get big thunderstorms by the afternoon. That’s the traditional tropical-rainforest pattern, and its value as a natural resource is becoming clear.

“What the governments don’t have is a good system for monitoring their parks. So that’s where cracids come in. The birds are large, they can be counted, and the figures can be compared with base-line data to tell you how a particular forest is faring. I see them as the bird group that best reflects conservation problems in Latin America— and that best presents conservation solutions. Using cracids as an indicator species is the biggest selling point of my program.”

Getting the base-line data on cracids, however, has been no easy task. As important as the birds are to Latin America, they’ve been virtually ignored by biologists from developed countries. “If I mention curassow to some ornithologists in the States, they’ll say, ‘Isn’t that a liqueur?’ or ‘Isn’t that an island in the Caribbean?”’ Strahl complains.

To study most cracid species means spending hours slogging through hipdeep mud or crawling beneath dense thicket; it means submitting mutely to the relentless attentions of mosquitoes, ticks, mites, and microorganisms that have yet to be named—all for a glimpse of a single cracid that may last for, oh, 7.6 seconds. The sight may be gorgeous and magical, but it comes at a price too dear for U.S. researchers: fewer than twenty references to cracids can be found in the past decade’s worth of ornithological literature. And until recently virtually none of the Latin American universities offered advanced degrees in ecology or zoology, which meant that few people who had a personal stake in tropical biology were able to pursue it.

“We don’t have many older biologists here in Venezuela,” says Israel Niño, an ecology student at Central University, in Caracas. “We don’t have a long history of biological research. It’s up to us young biologists to learn about the types of fauna that live in our forests.”

STRAHL HAS BEEN working to change the sorry state of cracid research by obtaining grants and fellowships for native South Americans, and he hopes to see about a dozen of his Venezuelan students earn their master’s degrees or Ph.D.s over the next several years. But to gather the bird data he needed immediately, Strahl and a young Venezuelan colleague, José Silva, turned to the people who know the most about cracid distribution and cracid habits: hunters.

Because so much hunting is done illegally, no one was keeping records on who was killing which birds where— nor were hunters likely to confess in order to let records be kept. Strahl and Silva were forced to employ a ruse. Pretending to be a private bird breeder in quest of information, Silva spent three and a half years traveling to towns and hamlets throughout Venezuela. He’d go to the village center— “Every town in Venezuela has a Plaza Bolivar,” he says—and ask the old men sitting there whether they knew who in the area hunted cracids (which are called by such local names as pava, pauji, and camata). They’d introduce Silva to the local hunters, who would be seduced by his friendliness into revealing all that they knew and did: how many birds were in the area, how many they shot each week.

“I’d say, Please, you must help me. I want to breed cracids, so you must tell me the truth about these birds,” Silva says. “I got lucky. In ninety-nine percent of the three hundred and ten interviews I did, they told me everything I wanted to know.”Sometimes the hunters shared tales of how difficult it was to catch a bird. Others vividly described cracid behavior. “One guy told me how he saw two northern helmeted curassows, the Pauxi pauxi“—a highly endangered species—“in their courtship behavior. That’s very important. We don’t know much about pauxi. He told me about how the male bird got close to the female, how it walked around her, making the courtship noises. But he never saw the copulation. He shot them first—male and female both.”Only once was a hunter suspicious enough of Silva’s motives to threaten his life.

From Silva’s investigative reporting, Strahl’s own field research, and other accounts, Strahl and Silva pieced together a portrait of cracid-killing in Venezuela. They discovered that most hunting in the northern half of the country is recreational, while in the south hunting is largely for purposes of subsistence: people shoot cracids, sometimes daily, to survive. Strahl seized the chance to put that pattern to use. He devised a novel plan for saving a large expanse of primary woodland, which he thinks will serve as a model for other tropical forests.

VENEZUELA HAS ONLY a tenth as much rain forest as Brazil does, but its overall conservation record is far better than that of its huge neighbor (and, in fact, better than that of three quarters of the rest of the continent): about 30 percent of Venezuela’s wilderness has been declared either national parkland or protected areas. Venezuela also has an official Ministry of the Environment; in Colombia and Ecuador, in contrast, conservation decisions are made by the Ministry of Agriculture. Nevertheless, many of Venezuela’s protected areas are protected on paper only; no effective controls exist over lumbering, hunting, and mining within their borders. Guards who are supposed to monitor park use sometimes have other, higher-paying jobs during the day. “In some areas three out of four guard stations are deserted,” Strahl says. “If you go in with a chainsaw or a shotgun, nobody is about to stop you.”In effect, there exist few areas within Venezuela that are protected as thoroughly as, say, Yosemite, where resource exploitation is strictly forbidden; Strahl wanted to help establish such an area. Realizing that the government was unlikely to pay for a phalanx of full-time guards, Strahl and Venezuelan co-workers found a way to police the area from within.

As their candidate for protection, they targeted a 1,544-square-mile parcel of forest reserve in south-central Venezuela, where a major river, the Rio Caura, branches off into the smaller Rio Nichare. The forest surrounding the Nichare is among the lushest and most biologically varied in the nation, encompassing lowland tropic, cloud forest, and tepui habitats. Seven species of cracid live in the region, along with 400 other species of birds; tapirs, jaguars, and ocelots; six types of primates; and an uncounted multitude of plants and insects. Scattered throughout the rough, steep terrain are settlements of Makiritare and Sanema Indians, who subsist by fishing and hunting—mainly cracids. What’s especially important about this swatch of forest is that it is almost completely inaccessible from most directions. The only feasible way to enter is at the mouth of the Nichare, which is barely wider than a standard house.

Strahl and his Venezuelan associates have asked the local Indians to monitor the mouth of the Nichare, keeping out commercial hunters and miners. Although the Indians live south of the river gateway, they have set up an outpost at that vulnerable spot. Lately the area has come under increasing pressure from entrepreneurial gold-diggers, drawn by rumors that southern Venezuela may contain up to a tenth of the world’s gold supply; the Indians are worried that their hunting grounds will be destroyed in a frenzied gold rush. Strahl and his colleagues are optimistic that the government will set aside the Nichare site as the country’s first protected area for which local Indians will be the designated overseers. The Indians would be able to hunt and fish as they always have. Strahl asks only that a small subdivision of the reserve— about 200 square miles—be left alone as a scientific study site, where biologists can, for instance, obtain base-line data on wildlife populations. As a final spur, the Indians will receive a grant to supply them with much-needed medicine, outboard motors, radios, and other goods.

A few of the Sanema Indians were deeply suspicious of Strahl, claiming that he would turn the Nichare basin into his personal hunting ground. But several Makiritare families have already moved to the river’s mouth to stand guard. Strahl says, “I don’t think another site in Venezuela has such a diversity of life, and can so easily be protected.”For all its romantic simplicity, the plan is not perfect. Years ago the Indians traded their traditional blowguns for rifles, and they now bag many more cracids than they once did. “But the alternative is worse,” Strahl says. “The alternative is to risk losing the whole forest, along with every last cracid and the entire forest ecosystem. I wish they didn’t kill the birds, but I know that they have to eat.”

WHETHER THE NICHARE site will stay protected over generations, and whether other forests in other nations can be similarly set aside for small-scale use, remain to be seen. In the meantime, Strahl is struggling to keep alive as many cracid species as possible. Several species have not been spotted in nature for decades. Many of the most endangered varieties are in the hands of people Strahl alternately respects and distrusts: private bird breeders.

The serious cracid breeders of Latin America are an unusual and insular group of about a dozen men who all know one another—and one another’s collections. Most prominent among them is Jesús Estudillo, a wealthy veterinarian and poultry producer in Mexico City who has a fifteen-acre aviary of a thousand or so cracids. He owns representatives of almost the entire cracid family, including the rare and spectacular horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus), which has such an elongated knob of cuticle projecting from its forehead that it looks like a unicorn. But Estudillo does not possess the even rarer alagoas razor-billed curassow (Mitu mitu mitu), described in a 1973 book as “possibly extinct.”Only Pedro Nardelli, a beer distributor and softdrink bottler in Rio de Janeiro, has a few mitus, in his collection of 350 to 400 birds.

The motives of cracid breeders are not always clear. The men obviously love their birds. Roberto Azeredo spends every morning before work, every lunch hour, every evening, every weekend, and all his vacation time working with his curassows. Nardelli’s son, Pedro Jr., says that when a bird in his father’s collection dies, “he is depressed for days; it’s as though he’d lost one of his children.”The breeders lavish sizable sums of money on their animals. Nardelli paid $20,000 to cover his 1,000-square-yard zoo with an aluminum net twelve yards high, and he now allows his commoner species to fly around freely. Estudillo hired a landscaper to design elaborate planters for his cracid cages. On occasion the breeders have rescued animals from probable extermination: Nardelli captured what may be the last group of Mitu mitu mitu from a forest that was being razed to make way for a sugarcane field.

Yet part of the delight the birdmen take in their flocks has less to do with conservation than it does with simple pride. “In a way, it’s like stamp or coin collecting,” Strahl says. “Who has the biggest and most valuable collection? Who has the rarest birds? For Nardelli, owning the only Mitu mitu mitu is like having an original Rembrandt.” Trafficking in endangered animals is illegal in many Latin American countries, so some of the breeders are vague about how they obtained their birds. “Some we found ourselves, on expeditions,” Nardelli says. “Others were . . . gifts.”

Strahl first realized the difficulties of working with private breeders when he organized a cracid symposium in Caracas in the spring of last year. More than 220 people attended the meeting, which made it the largest avian-conservation conference ever held in Latin America; but among the participants were a number of cracid collectors who tried to use the event to barter birds. “They knew they couldn’t sell the birds legally,” Strahl says. “But once the breeders were all in one place at one time, we had no way of stopping any shady dealings that might go on.” Strahl later learned that one collector at the meeting was hawking a pair of highly endangered Crax alberti for $25,000. A few breeders tried to sell Strahl birds, while others sought his advice for tapping the lucrative zoo and pet markets in the United States. “I’m a field biologist,” he told them. “I don’t trade birds.” Strahl was also distressed by the frivolity of some of the breeders. “One fellow showed me photos of a bird that he’d gotten by crossing two endangered species,” Strahl recalls. “He’d done that because he’d liked the colors of the original birds, and he thought the offspring would be cute. And the hybrid was a very beautiful bird. But it bothered me to see these vanishing species being used like colors in a paint set.”

At the same time, Strahl recognized the value of trying to woo collectors over to his cause. “They have this incredible gene bank out there,”he says. “For some species of cracids, captive breeding is the only chance we have.”Visiting the breeders’ facilities, Strahl has often been impressed. Roberto Azeredo, for example, has become a high priest of cracid fertility. In the wild, Crax blumenbachii lay only two eggs a year at best. Under Azeredo’s pampering care, many of the curassows are pumping out three eggs five times each year. Indeed, his cages have become so crowded, he says, that “we have a hard time believing the bird is endangered.”

Now Strahl, with the help of Geer Scheres, a biologist in Belgium, is attempting to establish a private breeders’ network. Strahl wants the collectors to exchange birds selectively toprevent prolonged inbreeding. Arranging trades can be difficult, because the breeders don’t always like each other. Still, Strahl is hopeful he’ll be able to foster cooperation.

Recently Estudillo learned of a pair of horned guans that were being kept in a small Guatemalan zoo under atrocious conditions—feeding on stale tortillas and garbage and roaming through a pigs’ trough. Estudillo needed the guans to replenish his own population, which has become so inbred that chicks are being born without eyes or legs. After prolonged haggling, Estudillo and Strahl thought they had persuaded the zoo to send the guans to Estudillo—only to have the zoo officials renege on the deal at the last minute. “The Guatemalans are reluctant because horned guans are a prestige item,” Strahl says. “But it’s possible that the birds could die if we don’t get them into an established breeding program.”

STRAHL’S LONG-RANGE goal is to see the cracids now in captivity reintroduced into nature. That scheme, too, will take time and diplomacy. Although the birds are reproducing rapidly in cages, a viable wild population will require thousands of genetically diverse birds. Moreover, if a flock of cracids were released into an unguarded forest, poachers would very likely shoot them, thereby destroying in months what a breeder had taken years to accomplish. Finally, not all the breeders are interested in reintroduction programs. “I’m not sure that some breeders will ever release their surplus birds,” Strahl says. “They love them too much.”

A test case should come sometime late this year. Roberto Azeredo plans to donate a dozen red-billed curassows to the Companhia Vale Rio Doce, which maintains a protected reserve of primary forest along the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The birds will be kept in cages on the site, and their chicks will be tagged with radio transmitters and released. If the radiotelemetry data reveal that the cracids are thriving, more will be freed. And if the project is successful, similar reintroduction programs will be launched elsewhere in Brazil and in Peru.

“When I talked to Roberto at the [cracid] meeting, I didn’t know if he was serious about conservation work—I wondered if he just wanted to sell birds,” Strahl says. “But now I’m convinced that his may be one of the best captive-breeding programs of all.”

Like most conservationists, Strahl is warily optimistic. “You don’t really have a choice about being optimistic,” Thomas Lovejoy says. “If you decide that it’s too late, that it’s hopeless, you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy on your hands.” But Strahl admits that many cracids aren’t going to survive to the twenty-first century.

“We conservationists have a dirty little secret,” he says. “We don’t talk about it publicly, but we know that many species are probably going to go extinct in the next couple of decades. Cracids are going faster than most. Mitu mitu mitu isn’t going to make it, except under Nardelli’s personal care. Crax blumenbachii may or may not make it. So sometimes I wonder if our efforts are worthwhile. But then I go out in the field, into the cloud forest, and hear a curassow booming. You feel the boom with your entire body. As long as you can feel the forest, you have a fighting chance.”

—Natalie Angier