His Feathered Friends

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

A few blocks from the sisserou's home at the Botanical Gardens is the seat of the Dominican government. It is a drab concrete bunker of a building, noteworthy for its hurricane resistance rather than for any redeeming aesthetic qualities. When not studying the nests of rare parrots in the bush, Reillo spends much of his time within this building as a sort of single-issue lobbyist. This afternoon he has exchanged his hiking boots and shorts for loafers and olive-green slacks.

The air-conditioned office of Eliud Williams inside the governmental headquarters has become quite familiar to Reillo. Williams is the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment and essentially the top administrator dealing with the establishment of Morne Diablotin National Park.

Williams notes that the Morne Diablotin project is simply a continuation of the government's decadeslong commitment to protecting the environment. "As a country Dominica recognizes that it has valuable natural resources, and notwithstanding who's been in government, there is a consistency of ensuring that natural resources are preserved," Williams says.

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

Williams further notes that if the land is not protected, clear-cutting of the forests is an obvious danger. "The biggest threat to land degradation and destruction of that kind of natural resource is poverty," he says. "If people are poor and they don't have means, they will degrade the land."

It has been a long time since Paul Reillo took a vacation. In 1992 he attempted to drive up to Maine and visit some friends from his days studying spiders. By the time he reached Maryland, Hurricane Andrew was bearing down on South Florida. Reillo ditched his car and flew back to Loxahatchee to prepare for the hurricane. He spent the next several weeks assisting animal facilities in Miami-Dade County that had been devastated by the storm. Never mind the vacation. "Since then I've given up on them," Reillo says.

This is about as close to a holiday as he gets. The Dominican cabinet is scheduled to vote on the proposed national park today, and Reillo is killing time showing off the splendors of Dominica. With Tony Sheets again riding in the bed of the truck, we follow a newly paved road southeast just after breakfast, passing by uniformed schoolchildren on their way to class and fishermen returning with buckets of mackerel and redfish. The road is an improbable feat of engineering, climbing upward in straight switchbacks at a grade so steep that the pickup truck feels at times as if it will topple backward. Martinique is visible in the distance. The road then bottoms out at a ramshackle town on the edge of the Caribbean, where a couple of mangy dogs mill about. It is unclear if the highway is still under construction, or if this is the intended final destination.

We do a U-turn and head to the southwest corner of the island. Our destination is Scotts Head, a mass of volcanic rock that hangs off the end of Dominica like a dog's tail. Only a thin layer of rocks connects the lemongrass-covered peak of Scotts Head with the mainland. On one side of the isle, the teal Caribbean laps gently against the rocks, while on the other small whitecaps from the Atlantic Ocean rush ashore. We climb the peak, perhaps two hundred feet up, and gaze. Sheets is philosophic: "Yep, when I decide to end it, this is where it'll be."

In the afternoon Reillo talks shop with the three-member parrot team, Ronald Charles, Stephen Durand, and Matthew Maximea, at Castle Comfort Lodge. During the breeding season, from January to June, the parrot-team members spend about 90 percent of their time monitoring and searching for sisserous and jacos, often scaling the mountains well before dawn to do so. But in the off-season, because of the lack of resources for the forestry division, their time is mainly devoted to other matters, like enforcing the country's temporary ban on hunting.

One topic of discussion is the possibility of capturing a female sisserou from the wild in order to initiate a captive breeding program. Because there is only one known sisserou nest in the world -- and it is 85 feet up a tree several thousand feet above sea level -- the possibilities for kidnapping a bird seem remote.

But Reillo fears that if they don't make some effort at creating a stable sisserou population in captivity, Mother Nature could render all of their work meaningless, like studying the mating habits of the triceratops. "I have serious worries about the sisserou population," Reillo says, "because I am afraid that one hurricane could destroy the entire population."

The meeting also focuses on supplies. "Give me a wish list," Reillo tells them. In addition to the truck that Rare Species donated, the foundation has provided a steady flow of equipment both minor (parrot food) and major (camera equipment) to the forestry division over the last few years. The most significant request today is a telescopic lens to use for parrot observation. But among the other needs are two-way radios, slide film, and ponchos.

Reillo makes no promises. "I don't know how fast I can move on any of this," he tells them. "We're just a few hundred thousand dollars in the hole right now."

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