His Feathered Friends

Without the help of a South Florida conservationist, the island of Dominica may bid farewell to its national bird

The sisserou parrot will never make it as the poster child for endangered species. Nobody would pay one million dollars-plus to exhibit a sisserou in a U.S. zoo, as is occasionally the case with those cuddly giant panda bears from China. Nor does the sisserou have the exotic appeal of the golden lion tamarin, once the most endangered primate on earth but now numbering near 1000 in the wild thanks to a high-profile conservation campaign.

Standing about eighteen inches tall, the sisserou is the largest member of the genus Amazona and features brilliant green wings flecked with red and distinctive purple breast feathers. But the sisserou's marketing prospects, conservationwise, are marred by its obstinate personality: The parrot is an antisocial creature, contemptuous of human beings and reluctant to adapt to the modern world.

There is only one place on earth to locate the sisserou parrot, also known as the Imperial Amazon: on the tiny eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. A place so obscure that even 21 years after independence from Great Britain, a large chunk of the mail intended for its ever-shrinking population of about 70,000 residents ends up in the Dominican Republic. A place so tiny it could fit twofold within Lake Okeechobee. Dominica is a volcanic sneeze of a country.

Tony Sheets and Paul Reillo hoof it up the mountain
Paul Demko
Tony Sheets and Paul Reillo hoof it up the mountain

The sisserou resides high up in massive, centuries-old gommier, carapite, and chatannye trees, 2500-or-more feet above sea level. Since 1979, when Hurricane David ran roughshod over the island, purportedly removing almost every leaf from every tree, the sisserou has led a perilous existence. Only about 200 of the birds remain. The sisserou is confined to the northern highlands of Dominica, an area that has been steadily encroached upon by farmers. If Hurricane Georges had veered 50 miles to the south last year, there would probably be no sisserou parrot left to save.

Unfortunately for Dominicans, the country's fate is intimately intertwined with that of the embattled, reclusive parrot. The sisserou is Dominica's national bird. Its likeness adorns the country's coat of arms and its national flag. Schoolchildren learn songs extolling the virtues of the sisserou.

To assist with saving the cranky sisserou, this bird-smitten island is looking to an unlikely outsider: a Palm Beach County zoologist with a fondness for parrots and a willingness to take on quixotic tasks. The one before him is daunting: Save a diverse and wild habitat, and in so doing, a beautiful and rare bird. And that in turn could help jump-start the economy of an entire Caribbean island.

The only way to reach the commonwealth of Dominica by air from South Florida is via San Juan or Antigua. Once one arrives in Dominica, the trip is not over: To get from the airport to Roseau, the capital city and main hub of activity, takes more than an hour by taxi -- a ride not for the weak of heart. Presumably because of the difficulty and expense of blasting a road through a mountain, the island's thoroughfares are extremely narrow and seldom straight. Every curve is blind. The occasional sign warning of a dangerous bend seems about as necessary as alerting people to the hazards of head-on collisions. An inordinate amount of time is spent fearfully staring at another vehicle barreling directly toward you.

"You can see why these are God-fearing people," says Paul Reillo, steering a green Nissan pickup truck on a Sunday morning in October through the bustling streets of Roseau. The roads are draped with multicolor banners celebrating Dominica's 21st year of independence.

Reillo is a 38-year-old lapsed academic who runs the nonprofit Rare Species Conservatory Foundation about 1400 miles away in Loxahatchee, Florida. The foundation's private twenty-acre headquarters in Palm Beach County serves as a breeding ground for unusual species such as the pygmy marmoset and the white-bellied caique.

Reillo is a lean six feet four inches tall with steel-rim glasses, a goatee, and a propensity for bringing up the topic of sisserou parrots at inappropriate moments. He at times seems to play the part of the aloof scholar. Like the bird he has come to Dominica to study, Reillo is distrustful of humans. But beneath the somewhat suspicious and academic veneer, Reillo also has a real-world grounding that enables him to stick his head under the hood of his Range Rover one moment and perform delicate surgery on a parrot the next.

Reillo is no stranger to driving in Dominica. In the last two years, he has made at least eight trips to the island. Room number four at the Castle Comfort Lodge in Roseau has become his second home, Red Cap rum his native sedative of choice, and poached eggs and bacon his customary Dominican breakfast.

This particular trip has added significance, though. It is perhaps the culmination of almost two years of hazardous driving, parrot searching, bureaucrat coddling, and frantic fundraising. It could be the realization of a conservationist's dream: the creation of the nearly 10,000-acre Morne Diablotin National Park in Dominica. The 10,000 acres, about five percent of Dominica's total land mass, are the primary habitat of the sisserou parrot, as well as the island's other endemic parrot, the more bountiful jaco. It will also encompass Morne Diablotin, at 4747 feet the highest peak in the Caribbean. Without the protected status of a national park, the land likely would be swallowed up by farmers or sold off to logging and mining interests, thus decimating one of the last tracts of pristine rain forest in the Caribbean.

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