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
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
Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' twenty-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Paul Demko
Pygmy marmosets are among the unusual animals housed at Rare Species' twenty-acre animal preserve in Loxahatchee
Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"
Paul Demko
Bird man: Stephen Durand is a member of Dominica's three-person "parrot team"

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.

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."

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.

Reillo decided to bolt academia, but he wasn't sure how else to direct his energies. While in South Florida to interview for a job, he made the rounds of local bird sanctuaries. One of these was in Loxahatchee and owned by a medical doctor, John Vaughn. The preserve contained an eclectic group of endangered birds, such as red-browed Amazon parrots and white-bellied caiques. "I knew my birds well enough to know that what was there was very, very unusual," Reillo recalls. In 1989 he moved to Loxahatchee and took over as director of the facility. The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1994, and the group purchased the sanctuary -- birds, equipment, land, and all -- from Vaughn a year later.

The preserve is down a washboard-rutted dirt road, just beyond the reach of strip-malled South Florida. Loxahatchee Groves is one of the last South Florida outposts of eccentricity. The kind of community where having a several-hundred-pound East African bongo on your property (or twenty of the large-horned, cowlike animals, as in Reillo's case) doesn't prompt howls of protests from the local homeowners association.

Like most properties in Loxahatchee Groves, the twenty-acre Rare Species preserve is enclosed by a fence and adorned with numerous signs warning "No Trespassing." What sets the property apart is that the fencing is draped in foreboding black nursery cloth and topped with barbed wire.

Inside the compound are two nondescript trailers. One serves as the administrative offices of Rare Species, the other as Reillo's home, both of which he shares with his fellow wildlife biologist, Karen McGovern. The rest of the Rare Species staff consists of three part-timers, and the entire operation is run on a minuscule annual budget of about $100,000. Reillo himself takes no salary from the foundation.

It was under these financial strictures that Reillo told the Dominican government in early 1998 that he would attempt to raise $750,000 to help purchase 1301 acres from a private company, the Dominican Fruit Syndicate, and make possible the creation of the Morne Diablotin National Park. "We have a constituency ten miles to our east that could easily fund this," Reillo says. "I submit to individuals and to foundations, 'If you want to invest in a conservation project, find one better.'"

Reillo's confidence aside, the fundraising campaign has been somewhat less than triumphant. Rare Species has cobbled together the money but only by going into serious debt. The group has raised $439,000, or about $311,000 less than its goal. To keep the national park project from collapsing, a $150,000 contribution that was slated to pay off the nonprofit group's mortgage was added to the Dominica fund with the donor's blessing. And Reillo has sacrificed his own personal savings, although he won't say how much money that is. The group now has about 60 grant applications pending with private foundations and corporations.

Even without the added onus of fundraising, the day-to-day grind at Rare Species is ceaseless. In mid-October a mama pygmy marmoset had three babies, one more than she is capable of raising. Reillo removed one infant from the cage and nursed it himself, right down to wiping the animal's behind. Newborn pygmy marmosets -- furry little primates that were the basis for the critters in the movie Gremlins -- must be fed every two hours, around the clock. Despite this sleep-depriving schedule of care, the animal died from pneumonia in a week.

In addition to the work in Loxahatchee and Dominica, Rare Species is a technical adviser to the Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary in Christ Church, Barbados. When construction is completed, Graeme Hall will serve as an aviary for migratory birds as well as an education center. Rare Species also works closely with Tropical World de las Flores, in Veracruz, Mexico. The center propagates rare orchids, bromeliads, and other plants by collecting cell scrapings, therefore eliminating the need to uproot plants from the wild.

Beyond the two trailers on the Loxahatchee property and past another barbed wire-topped, cloth-draped fence is a private collection of animals that can be found almost nowhere else on earth. As Reillo pushes aside the fence one afternoon, we are immediately greeted with a cacophony of squawks. He would prefer not to have any animals here at all, devoting his efforts instead to preserving natural habitats. But the realities of environmental destruction make captive breeding inevitable if species are going to survive. "We're losing more than we're saving," Reillo says. He notes that, because of a few headline-grabbing victories, such as the resurgence of the bald eagle in the United States, many people assume that efforts to preserve biodiversity are flourishing. "The truth is it couldn't be worse. We're in an extinction crisis."

In one cage are several red-browed Amazon parrots, a conservation success story, at least in captivity. Only about 250 of the birds remain in the wild. Starting with a group of just eleven red-brows in 1992, Rare Species has seen its collection -- the only one in North America -- grow to 36. Reillo has now developed a manual for breeding red-brows, essentially a parrot sex guide, to help propagation efforts in other parts of the world.

But the compound also offers plenty of symbols of the frustrations of protecting endangered species. In one cage sits a lone red-brow. The bird is missing all of the toes on its right foot and has been dubbed Peggy, short for Peg Leg. Peggy is a victim of "poacher's tanglefoot," a sticky substance placed on tree limbs to immobilize the birds. "The poachers would come in with machetes and literally scrape the birds off the trees," Reillo says.

A Brazilian hawk-headed parrot sits in Rare Species' administrative offices. She is recovering from an injury incurred when the animals were packed up to prepare for Hurricane Floyd. "How you doing, sweety?" Reillo greets the bird. There are no more than a dozen surviving hawk-heads in the United States, four of them here in Loxahatchee. Perhaps a dozen of the birds are thought to be alive in the wild. Reillo estimates that 100 eggs have been laid by Brazilian hawk-heads at the facility, but only two of those were fertile, and neither survived. "This is how extinction happens," he says.

Also in the office is the only known captive female Dominican sisserou parrot in the world. Unfortunately the bird is facedown in a formaldehyde-filled jar, its once splendid green feathers now a dismal black. The parrot died in June 1998 in Dominica while attempting to expel an egg. The would-be father is now mateless, residing in a cage at the Botanical Gardens in Roseau.


The only known living captive sisserou in the world may be without a partner but is certainly not alone. In adjoining cages at the Botanical Gardens in Dominica are seven noisy jacos. Until early October the sisserou had eight red-neck neighbors, but a snake slithered into the cage through a drain pipe and attempted to inhale one of the birds. The snake was unsuccessful in actually digesting the jaco, but the bird died anyway.

Several times per week, the parrots are disturbed by more benign intruders: people on vacation. From the port of Roseau, vans arrive at the Botanical Gardens filled with tourists. Cruise ship patrons lugging their recently purchased "Somebody Loves Me in Dominica" T-shirts file past the cages housing the sisserou and the jacos. They make parrot noises, snap pictures of the birds, and perhaps purchase a seashell that didn't even come from Dominica from a local entrepreneur. The naturally reclusive sisserou cowers at the back of his cage, apparently having little interest in bolstering the tourism trade.

If bananas are an emblem of the Dominican economy of the past, cruise ship patrons gawking at the solitary sisserou are an apt symbol of what the government is banking on for the future.

Because of its status as a former British colony, Dominica has long enjoyed a favored trade status with Great Britain and now the European Union (EU), in particular with regard to banana exports. Dominican bananas are grown on small family farms rather than large plantations such as the ones run by U.S. corporate behemoths Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte in Central and South America, and it is therefore impossible for them to compete costwise on the open market.

Since 1997 the United States has successfully argued to the World Trade Organization that the EU's policy of setting aside about seven percent of its market for bananas exported from the eastern Caribbean is a violation of free-trade rules. The American government has also retaliated by levying stiff tariffs on some EU exports. The European countries are expected to cave in to the economic pressure and drop the banana subsidy eventually.

In response to the looming banana crisis, Dominica has attempted to diversify its economy. It has encouraged cultivation of other crops, such as coffee and dasheen (a plant with a tuberous root, similar to a potato), and pursued the cut-flower trade and offshore banking opportunities.

But Dominica's primary economic hope is to capitalize on its status as the "nature island of the Caribbean," to attract tourists. "For years we have been saying 'ecotourism,'" notes David Williams, Dominica's superintendent of national parks, "but bananas were king."

The island boasts none of the white sand beaches (or lavish casinos, for that matter) that make other Caribbean islands popular destinations for well-heeled tourists. What it does have is the only unblemished tropical rain forest in the region. There are more than 1000 species of flowering plants on the island, including 74 known types of orchids. In some parts of Dominica, primarily the area around Morne Diablotin, tracts of land smaller than three acres are home to more than 60 unique plant and animal species. If the Morne Diablotin National Park is approved, more than a third of the country's land will be permanently sealed off from development by authority of the Dominican constitution. Dominica hopes to distinguish itself as theCaribbean destination for ecofriendly travelers, much as Costa Rica has done in Central America.

Williams says that the country's citizens are beginning to make adjustments to the new economic realities. Many of the Dominican citizens who once tended crops, he notes, now ferry tourists around the island in vans. "Those guys were banana farmers not too long ago," he says.

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.

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."

Not long after the parrot team meeting devolves into a happy-hour session stimulated by Kubuli beer and Red Cap rum, the Minister of Agriculture and the Environment, Peter Carbon, telephones. He is stopping by to pick Reillo up for dinner but offers no information as to what decision the cabinet made. Reillo frets as he finishes off a glass of rum and changes into his bureaucrat outfit of the previous day: olive-green slacks and loafers.

Over a late-night dinner with the minister and various other government bigwigs, Reillo gets the news he has been working for two years to hear: The cabinet has given its blessing to the park. "It's kind of like a dream," he says the next morning. "I'm thinking, What happened last night?"

Now Reillo must prove to the Dominican government that Rare Species actually has $750,000 to purchase the land. In the next few days essentially all of Rare Species' money will be deposited into one bank account to come up with the purchase price. "We're consolidating money from all over the planet," Reillo notes. "We're penniless."


On the day before Halloween, Paul Reillo drives to Miami International Airport with a notary public in tow. Minister Carbon is flying from Brazil to Dominica, but has a stopover in South Florida. Reillo hopes to waylay him in the airport so that they can officially sign the contract for the land purchase, thus avoiding another trip to Dominica. A fax was sent to Carbon alerting him to the rendezvous, but it's unclear if the message was received.

Around 6:00 p.m., over dinner at the airport, the contracts are signed and notarized. A few bureaucratic formalities are all that remain in the way for Morne Diablotin National Park to be officially established. The park most likely will be announced next month and then drafted into the country's constitution by the end of January.

The national park will not necessarily ensure the reclusive sisserou's survival, but it will at least protect the bird from man and machine. Nature unfortunately is beyond the Dominican government's and Reillo's control.

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