The Barú peninsula preserves the colors and sounds of biodiversity. A two-hour walk through seven hectares of the National Aviary takes visitors to one of the most remote and difficult-to-access wilderness of this country. When the Aviario Nacional opened more than two years ago, some 2,000 birds have called this privately-run sanctuary their home.
The tour starts with an immersion in nature, proceeding through three ecosystems and 21 exhibits. An intense heat can be felt in the forest but diminishes with the spray from nearby waterfalls. The humid tropical forest of the Chocó region and Amazon are the first stop, and visitors enter an immense cage to see 60 species of birds, including the Blue-billed Curassow, endemic to Colombia and critically endangered; the Andean cock-of-the-rock; and Collared aracari.
“The idea is that they inhabit very large spaces and that people have to find them. Here, the sense of enclosure is lost,” states Martín Pescador Vieira, while pointing out a kingfisher, the bird he was named after. Vieira, 24, is the son of Rafael Vieira and Silvana Obregón, a couple who turned their passion for birds into a conservation opportunity. During the last 12 years, they and a handful of friends have worked on this ambitious private project to show outsiders the abundant biodiversity of the country, and work to preserve birds that are threatened – which sadly is the case for 80% of the 165 species that have been documented in the aviary.
At the edge of the tropical forest, in another immense cage, lives the harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), one of the most powerful raptors in the world and the main predator in this ecosystem. Even the enclosure cannot hide its inquisitive nature. Its flight is imposing, menacing and confident. It is one of only five harpy eagles in captivity in the country; the other three are sheltered in Barranquilla and one lives on a reserve in Cota (Cundinamarca).
All five ended up in captivity after losing their habitat, which according to the Red Book of Birds of Colombia by Humboldt Foundation, accounts for the reduced number of 10,000.
Veterinarian Jonathan Lugo, who works at the aviary, claims that 80% of the rescued birds arrived at this sanctuary as a result of wildlife authorities rescuing them from animal traffickers. “They have given us parrots with dyed hair and burned nails,” says Lugo. “Barn owls and true owls have also arrived in very bad shape, often with their wings and claws fractured. On one occasion, I received an owl with a very serious infection. A wing was broken, rotten and full of maggots. In the end, we couldn’t save it.” For Laura Saavedra, the aviary’s zootechnician, the owl cases are the most painful because, in this coastal region of Colombia, these animals are associated with witchcraft, and superstitious locals have been known to beat them and shoot at their furry bodies. “Many cannot be released because they would be hunted,” claims Vieira. “It is one of the dangers to which they are exposed. We try to educate people in local communities, but it’s a process that takes a long time.”
According to Henry Pérez of the Directorate of Protection of the National Police, animal trafficking is the third-largest illegal activity in Colombia. During the first eight months of this year, 3,860 birds have been seized from smugglers. The most targeted species are canaries, parrots and macaws. “Most likely, by the end of 2018, this number will reach 5,000 or 6,000 birds,” says Pérez. “It’s a business in which those who capture them do not profit, just the traffickers.”
The law enforcement official claims trappers can fetch between $50,000 to $100,000 pesos (US$17 to US$34) for catching a wild macaw, while the trafficker can sell it overseas for up to $5 million pesos (US$1600). Peréz also adds that the cities of Santa Marta and Medellín, as well as coastal regions of La Guajira and Urabá, are areas where criminal organizations have flourished.
The second major ecosystem of this aviary are mangroves where most of the birds live freely, such as the Black-bellied whistling duck and Black-crowned night heron. “The beauty of this ecosystem is that there are times you find many birds and then suddenly just a few,” says Vieira, adding that last year at least 300 or 400-night heron nests were spotted among the trees.
As we head deep into the aviary, the heat of Barú becomes intense. The lush ecosystem shifts to brush forest, and among the birds that are heard is the Venezuelan turpial and Vermilion cardinal. Stone-curlews and woodpeckers can be seen darting among the shrubs. Crossing a small arid patch, the aviary simulates the rugged terrain of the Andes, home to the Andean condor – Colombia’s national bird. Fewer than 130 remain in the country according to Humboldt and are distributed between the ranges of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Serranía del Perijá, Páramo de Cáchira, Macizo de Santurbán, Páramo del Almorzadero and Sierra Nevada del Cocuy.
The condor’s endangerment is so worrying that most of the aviary’s efforts are focused on breeding. For more than a year, males and females have been left alone to mate, but the process is a slow one, depending entirely on natural attraction. Even though the birds are of reproductive age, efforts have yet to yield results.
For as long as Martín Pescador Vieira can remember, he has been surrounded by birds. When he was just 2-years old, he watched his father carry pigeons and roosters to a small plot of land they owned in El Palmar, in the Rosary Islands. This wasn’t just a refuge for the Vieira Obregón, but the place where Martín’s father, Rafael, began to channel his passion for birds. “Little by little we filled the place with exotic species my father’s friends gave him. They did it for different reasons, mainly because they found them wounded or simply because they didn’t want to have them in their homes,” remarks Martín.
Along with three friends, Rafael Vieira turned what began as a hobby into his dream to create a place that would house some of the country’s most exotic biodiversity. Getting started wasn’t easy as El Palmar didn’t have land for an ambitious conservation project. They decided on a site on the mainland, and construction began in 2006. In February 2016, the family opened their doors to the public and South America’s largest aviary. “It’s a private project that requires a large investment of time and resources, so we opt to work slowly,” says Alba Lucía Gómez, one of the four founders and current manager. Their hope is to one day have 34 exhibits and a veterinary clinic specializing in birds. Gómez says there are 24 people working in the aviary at any given time and do their utmost to rehabilitate birds that arrive with serious conditions.
After finishing Architecture at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Martín returned to the coast to keep his family’s bird-caring tradition going. “Next year, my goal is to gain experience and apply what I have learned to the second stage of the aviary’s expansion,” he says. His father, meanwhile, has dedicated himself to another project, the Oceanarium Rosario Islands, a site he also founded with the aim of protecting endangered marine fauna and flora of Colombia’s Caribbean.