His Feathered Friends

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

The park was on the verge of being created six years ago when the Dominican government discovered that 1301 acres in the middle of the proposed area was owned by a private company. Until Reillo came along, the project was dormant. Since early last year, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation has scraped together $750,000 in donations and loans to help Dominica purchase this private tract of rain forest for the proposed park. But to do so, he has had to sacrifice his life's savings and place the foundation in a precarious financial position.

All to preserve the habitat of a place that most people have never heard of and to protect a bird that most people, even Dominicans, will never see up close in the wild. Depending on the political whims of the Dominican cabinet, by the time Reillo returns to Loxahatchee three days from now, the park could be a reality.

As we head toward Morne Diablotin in search of the sisserou, Reillo's pack mule for the expedition, Tony Sheets, bounces along in the bed of the pickup. Our initial destination this morning is a dead carapite tree just outside the proposed national park that for years has been home to a pair of prolifically breeding jaco, or red-neck, parrots. As we snake northward, the Caribbean Sea stretches out for miles to our left. We pass by signs promising that "Guinness Works For You," a testament to Dominica's past as a far-flung outpost of the British Empire. A hand-painted billboard simply proclaims, "Save the Sisserou."

Reillo and Sheets attempt to gauge if termites have invaded the home of two prolifically breeding jaco parrots
Paul Demko
Reillo and Sheets attempt to gauge if termites have invaded the home of two prolifically breeding jaco parrots
Parrotmobile: The Sisserou Express awaits passengers at Dominica's Botanical Gardens
Paul Demko
Parrotmobile: The Sisserou Express awaits passengers at Dominica's Botanical Gardens

Turning inland from the more populated coastal areas and climbing toward Morne Diablotin, the road changes from blacktop to gravel. Guavas, tangerines, and most notably, bananas, grow along the road on small farms and in the wild. Banana exports have long been the linchpin of Dominica's economy, accounting for more than half of its employment and better than a third of its export income. But a trade dispute between the United States and the European Union is threatening the banana-based economies of Dominica and other eastern Caribbean countries. In a nation where the annual per capita income is already a paltry $2500, the financial future is bleak. The economic uncertainty adds urgency to the establishment of the national park: As the banana trade tanks, the pressure to embrace environmentally destructive policies, such as logging or mining, will undoubtedly increase.

For the past two years, Reillo and the three-person "parrot team" from the Dominican Forestry and Wildlife Division have monitored the jacos' breeding habits through a video camera at the carapite tree. The surveillance has yielded arcane but scientifically significant data, such as how many chicks the parrots can successfully raise in the wild, and how much time the male and female jaco spend at the nest during the mating cycle.

We drive on for a few minutes and climb a hillside overlooking a citrus grove. Almost immediately a squawk is heard, and Reillo stops in midsentence to survey the scene. He can spot a parrot and discern its origin as easily as most people tell their left shoe from their right. Two jacos then dart across the sky in tandem, Reillo tracing their path with his finger. The birds are mostly green with a splash of blue on their heads and another swatch of red across the neck. After a few minutes, accustomed to our presence, more jacos soar by, sweeping down to perch momentarily and steal a bite of tangerine off the trees.

"I guarantee you, at least twenty birds can see us right now," Reillo says in awe. "Here we're looking at one of the rarest parrots on earth and yet on any given day you can come up here and see one."

What we don't see, though, is perhaps more telling: Throughout a day of traipsing in and around the proposed area for Morne Diablotin National Park, not one sisserou parrot is spotted or heard.

Paul Reillo has known greater frustrations than tottering on a rotten log in the bush while balancing a camera over his head. At a similarly remote location more than a decade ago in the Genting Highlands of Malaysia, Reillo was studying the breeding habits of stalk-eyed flies, which feature exaggerated eye stalks that grow to almost twice their body length. As Reillo descended from a forest shrouded in clouds after a day of field work, logging trucks rumbled by headed in the opposite direction. The trucks were on their way to systematically remove the very habitat that enabled stalk-eyed flies to survive.

At the time Reillo was engaged in postdoctoral research at the University of Maryland at College Park. He earlier had earned a doctorate in zoology from Maryland's Baltimore County Campus and was on a career path that could have led to a tenured faculty position. Reillo describes the encounter with the logging trucks in Malaysia as a "cathartic moment" in his thinking about conservation work and academia. He came to the realization then that the "continued pursuit of esoteric academic questions was absolutely ludicrous in light of the fact that the ecosystem as a whole was being destroyed." And Malaysia was far from an aberration: Similar environmental destruction was being repeated all over the globe -- especially in poor tropical countries, where the vast majority of the world's biodiversity exists.

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