FEA­TURE

In Colom­bia, bird­ers find their ver­sion of Eden

Northern Living - - CONTENTS - TEXT FLORENCE PANNOUSIAN | AFP PHO­TOG­RA­PHY LUIS ROBAYO | AFP

What the bird king­dom of Colom­bia has to of­fer

De­spite his small stature, 10-year-old Juan David Ca­ma­cho has big dreams: Pac­ing through Colom­bia’s jun­gle with binoc­u­lars in tow, he aims to spot all the bird species his coun­try of­fers.

It’s a mighty goal: Colom­bia boasts the great­est num­ber of bird types on the planet—1,920 or 19 per­cent of those on the planet—a ver­i­ta­ble par­adise for bird­ers.

“We leave very early with our cam­eras, binoc­u­lars, and tripods and we watch the birds un­til around noon, in si­lence,” says the young boy, con­tin­u­ing to scan the area to make sure he doesn't miss a rare spec­i­men perched on a branch in the forests near Cali.

Since his fa­ther first took him bird­watch­ing three years ago, his love of search­ing for feath­ered friends has come to ri­val even his pas­sion for foot­ball, a fa­vored pas­time in Colom­bia.

Once a month he jour­neys through the trop­i­cal forests sur­round­ing Cali, the coun­try’s third largest city with some 2.5 mil­lion res­i­dents.

Nes­tled in the heart of the south­west’s mas­sive green ex­panse, the Valle del Cauca and the An­des Moun­tains, the area counts 562 species of birds, “much more than any­where in Europe,” ac­cord­ing to ex­pert Car­los Wag­ner.

War zones

Ca­ma­cho has al­ready seen 491, cap­tur­ing 200 of them in pho­tos, the boy told AFP.

In Feb­ru­ary he de­liv­ered a lec­ture— “Three years of pas­sion for birds”—at the In­ter­na­tional Bird Fes­ti­val, which brings some 15,000 peo­ple to Cali.

Too short to reach the lectern on the stage, he grabbed the mi­cro­phone to dis­cuss the ex­pe­di­tions he has made with his par­ents, a com­puter sci­en­tist and a lawyer.

Huge swaths of Colom­bia’s ter­ri­tory re­main to be ex­plored: For decades they have been deemed too danger­ous to travel be­cause of the coun­try’s drawn-out armed con­flict.

An on­go­ing peace process with for­mer

Revo­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia gueril­las has bird­ers like Wag­ner hop­ing ac­cess will some­day be im­proved.

The 40-year-old ex­pert, who heads the bird fes­ti­val in Cali, says the va­ri­ety of ecosys­tems in the area—rang­ing from moun­tain­ous to trop­i­cal—al­lowed a great di­ver­sity of species to evolve.

Wag­ner grew up in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side near the San An­to­nio for­est, site of the first large-scale or­nitho­log­i­cal ex­pe­di­tion in the area, which New York’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum car­ried out in 1910.

Bird tourism

Threat­ened by de­for­esta­tion, this 900-hectare Eden was ranked as an “Area of Im­por­tance for Bird Con­ser­va­tion” in 2004 by BirdLife, a ma­jor Bri­tish non­profit.

But be­cause Colom­bia did not legally rec­og­nize the des­ig­na­tion, there was no guar­an­tee it would be re­spected, said Wag­ner.

Along with other bird­ers and ecol­o­gists, he is work­ing to sen­si­tize res­i­dents in the area of the im­por­tance of preser­va­tion.

“We are great ro­man­tics, but farm­ers have needs: They cut down trees to cul­ti­vate,” he said.

And though Colom­bia is a bird king­dom, ob­ser­va­tion tourism is poorly de­vel­oped.

The gov­ern­ment, how­ever, is grow­ing aware of the po­ten­tial source of in­come: In the fu­ture, the tourism min­istry projects nearly 15,000 ob­servers might de­scend on the Latin Amer­i­can coun­try per year to bird­watch, bring­ing in US$9 mil­lion.

Most bird­ers trav­el­ing to Colom­bia cur­rently orig­i­nate from the United States, Canada, Ar­gentina, and the United King­dom.

In the San An­to­nio for­est, a dozen places and guides al­ready wel­come ob­servers, at a rate of COP$15,000 to COP$20,000 (ap­prox­i­mately US$5 to $6.50) per visit.

Olga Gomez, who raises rab­bits, has trans­formed her small one-hectare farm into a bird par­adise, com­plete with flow­ers to se­duce winged visi­tors.

“We’ve seen up to 25 species, in­clud­ing 18 hum­ming­birds,” said the 66-year-old woman with a smile. She says 1,000 visi­tors per year come to her La Con­chita finca, or ru­ral hol­i­day es­tate.

“Magic!”

Fur­ther up on the moun­tain, at the Ale­jan­dria

finca, clouds of hum­ming­birds in a dizzy­ing spec­trum of colors flut­ter among red saucers of sweet wa­ter, while others feast on ba­nanas placed strate­gi­cally on bam­boo plat­forms.

A French fam­ily from Amiens, north of Paris, mar­vels at the spec­ta­cle: “In our north­ern plains, trees have dis­ap­peared be­cause of in­ten­sive farm­ing,” says Marc Bul­court, 62, a re­tired nurse.

“We see fewer and fewer birds, but here it’s magic!”

A mul­ti­col­ored tan­ager, one of Colom­bia’s 79 na­tive bird species, zips over.

“Any ob­server wants to see it at least once be­fore dy­ing!” says Wag­ner, point­ing to the teensy turquoise, yel­low, and anise­c­ol­ored bird.

Spot­ting a rare con­dor is young Ca­ma­cho’s cur­rent quest—the iconic bird of the An­des is dwin­dling in num­bers, mak­ing it hard to sight.

Once he has tra­versed all of Colom­bia, the boy wants to ex­pand his bird­ing uni­verse to other coun­tries, he says—adding that he as­pires one day, of course, to be­come an or­nithol­o­gist.

“We [bird­ers] are great ro­man­tics, but farm­ers have needs: They cut down trees to cul­ti­vate.”

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