Ironically, bird breeders—the source of the siskin’s woes—are helping, too. It’s illegal to keep red siskins in Venezuela, or in the United States without a permit. But there are many people in Europe, Australia, and southern South America that have large captive colonies and know how to breed them. “They feel responsible and they want to help,” says Brian Coyle, a postdoc in Braun’s lab and the coordinator of the Red Siskin Initiative. “They want to raise awareness and funds, and to contribute to husbandry and nutrition research.”
Still, reintroduction will be problematic because some breeders are still after wild siskins. “They have this myth that the red factor is better if there’s a wild red siskin involved in the process,” says Bibiana Sucre, executive director of Provita, a non-profit that’s coordinating the siskin conservation efforts in Venezuela. And there’s a highly organized bird-trapping network in Venezuela that meets their demands. “You don’t see red siskins being sold on the road. They’re sold through more specialized organizations, and to more targeted audiences like aviculture organizations that breed canaries.”
The initiative’s solution is to form alliances with coffee growers. Traditional coffee plantations are like managed forests, full of tall and shady trees. Many of these plantations cover hundreds of hectares and sit close to national parks, making them the perfect places for reintroducing siskins. But many countries have moved towards sun-exposed plantations, which produce more coffee per hectare, at the cost of more logging, heavier pesticide use, and the destruction of bird-friendly habitats.
Braun and his colleagues want to tip the economic scales in favor of the traditional plantations by rewarding them with bird-friendly certification. The plantations could then sell their products as luxury items and escape the tight price controls that Venezuela sets upon coffee, allowing them to compete with the more environmentally destructive sun-exposed plantations. They would also be motivated to actively prevent poaching.
“It’s a realistic approach to conservation, where we’re working with market opportunities,” says Coyle. “If we can create Save the Siskin coffee, we can control the habitat.” Sucre adds that her team has already connected with producers who are willing to take part, and with intermediaries who will sell the certified coffee abroad.
Coyle is optimistic. To him, the siskin can be more than a cautionary tale of careless exploitation, but a triumphant exemplar of conservation done right. “There are many iconic conservation projects that will be constantly intensive and expensive,” he says. “But this bird has a lot of habitat left, and it can reproduce in large numbers. I think there’s a very good chance that we can do something unusual: have a species that can sustain itself without needing people.”