Biologists are trying to save the last of the endangered Puerto Rican parrots after more than half the population of the bright green birds with turquoise-tipped wings disappeared when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and destroyed their habitat and food sources.
In the tropical forest of El Yunque, only two of the 56 wild birds that once lived there survived the Category 4 storm that pummeled the U.S. territory in September 2017. Meanwhile, only 4 of 31 wild birds in a forest in the western town of Maricao survived, along with 75 out of 134 wild parrots living in the Rio Abajo forest in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, scientists said.
And while several dozen new parrots have been born in captivity and in the wild since Maria, the species is still in danger, according to scientists.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Gustavo Olivieri, parrot recovery program coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural Resources.
Federal and local scientists will meet next month to debate how best to revive a species that numbered more than 1 million in the 1800s but dwindled to 13 birds during the 1970s after decades of forest clearing.
The U.S. and Puerto Rican governments launched a program in 1972 that eventually led to the creation of three breeding centers. Just weeks before Maria hit, scientists reported 56 wild birds at El Yunque, the highest since the program was launched.
But the population decline is now especially worrisome because the parrots that vanished from El Yunque were some of the last remaining wild ones, said Marisel Lopez, who oversees the parrot recovery program at El Yunque for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“It was devastating. After so many years of having worked on this project…,” she stopped talking and sighed.
The Puerto Rican Amazon is Puerto Rico’s only remaining native parrot and is one of roughly 30 species of Amazon parrots found in the Americas. The red-foreheaded birds grow to nearly a foot in length, are known for their secrecy and usually mate for life, reproducing once a year.
More than 460 birds remain captive at the breeding centers in El Yunque and Rio Abajo forests, but scientists have not released any of them since Hurricane Maria. A third breeding center in a forest in the western rural town of Maricao has not operated since the storm. Scientists are now trying to determine the best way to prepare the parrots for release since there are such few birds in the wild they can interact with, and whether Puerto Rico’s damaged forests can sustain them.
One proposal scientists
Scientists are tentatively planning to release 20 birds next year in Rio Abajo.
Another proposal is to release more parrots in Maricao, which was not as heavily damaged by Maria.
“Our priority now is not reproduction. … it’s to start releasing them,” Lopez said, adding that breeding centers can hold only so many parrots.
But first, scientists need to make sure the forests can offer food and safe shelter.
Jessica Ilse, a forest biologist at el Yunque for the U.S. Forest Service, said scientists are collecting data about the amount of fruit falling from trees and the number of leaves shed. She said the canopy still has not grown back since Maria and warned that invasive species have taken root since more sunlight now shines through. Ilse said that many of the large trees where parrots used to nest are now gone and noted that it took 14 months for El Yunque’s canopy to close after Hurricane Hugo hit Puerto Rico in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.
Scientists also are now collecting new data on the number of predators at El Yunque, including el guaraguao, a red-tailed hawk that hunts Puerto Rico parrots. Without a canopy and proper camouflage, wild parrots have become an easy target.
Ilse said local and federal scientists plan to help the forest recover through planting. By the end of November, they expect to have a map detailing the most damaged areas in El Yunque and a list of tree species they can plant that are more resistant to hurricanes.
Huge seizures in recent years of trafficked pangolins have drawn worldwide attention to the threat of extinction faced by these armadillo-like anteaters.
It will come as a surprise to some that pangolins top the list of world’s most trafficked endangered mammals.
They’re much sought after in both China and Vietnam for their meat and their scales, which when ground up are believed to remove toxins and cure a variety of ailments, including everything from arthritis to cancer.
Users boil the pangolin to remove the scales, then dry and roast them.
Pangolins can be found in many Asian and African countries, although they are reported to have nearly disappeared from lowland Laos.
Many citizens in China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong believe that pangolin scales have medical uses, but experts, even including some of China’s traditional medicine practitioners, say that no scientific evidence supports this belief.
Some consumers claim that pangolin scales can improve kidney functions, treat palsy and skin diseases, and stimulate lactation, but here again scientific evidence is lacking.
They are also used in traditional African medicine.
Vietnam has passed laws banning the sale of pangolins but implementation appears to be weak. And while some pangolins are rescued, the country has limited capabilities when it comes to caring for them.
According to the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than a million pangolins were poached in the decade prior to 2014.
Over the last three years, high-profile seizures of record numbers of pangolin scales by customs officials indicate that smugglers, traffickers, and traders are still selling the scales in large quantities.
On April 3, customs officials in Singapore seized a shipment of more than 14 tons of pangolin scales in what experts described as the largest seizure of a single shipment of its kind ever recorded.
Citing officials, TheWashington Post reported that the shipment, which originated in Nigeria, was worth about $39 million U.S. dollars
Some 30,000 pangolins were believed killed for the shipment, according to an official with the Pangolin Specialist Group, who was quoted by The New York Times.
An IUCN Species Survival Commission formed the Pangolin Specialist Group in 2012. It comprises 100 experts from 25 countries and is hosted by the Zoological Society of London.
In 2016, an international body in charge of regulating wildlife trading worldwide acted to ban pangolin poaching, trafficking, and sales.
All 182 member nations belonging to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted in favor of the ban.
The IUCN maintains a Red List of threatened, vulnerable, and endangered species.
All eight species of pangolins, four in Asia and four in Africa, are included on the IUCN Red List, with their designations ranging from vulnerable to endangered.
Populations of all of the species are said by scientists to be rapidly decreasing.
The African connection
On Jan. 31 this year Ugandan authorities reported seizing 750 pieces of elephant tusks and thousands of pangolin scales being smuggled into Uganda from neighboring Sudan.
Officials from the Ugandan Revenue Authority said that the smuggled items were hidden inside pieces of timber carried by three big freight containers.
Two Vietnamese men suspected of belonging to a smuggling ring involved in the case were arrested, the officials said.
The Associated Press quoted officials as saying that the elephant tusks were likely collected in neighboring Congo.
In Africa, elephants are threatened by demand for ivory products in China and other countries, including Vietnam. Africa had 1.3 million elephants in the 1970s but has fewer than 500,000 today, the AP said.
China has officially banned the ivory trade, but some ivory products continue to reach the country from Vietnam and elsewhere.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, while Vietnam made the trade of ivory illegal in 1992, the country is still a “top market” for ivory goods. They are largely used for decorations and are also used in traditional medicine.
Pangolin trafficking is also banned worldwide under an international treaty, but smugglers are known to bring pangolin scales to Hong Kong and then on into China. In early 2018, reporters from the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that despite the international ban, Hong Kong shops were still selling pangolin scales, sometimes from behind stacks of boxes containing other goods.
The trade in pangolins shipped from the east-central African nation of Uganda is highly profitable. Smugglers can buy the pangolins at low prices in Uganda and sell them at high prices in China and Vietnam. Meanwhile, a market for them has also developed in Indonesia.
Before April’s record-breaking seizure of some 30,000 pangolins in Singapore, this year, customs officials made other sizable seizures in Malaysia and in Hong Kong in February. The Hong Kong haul included 8.3 tons of pangolin scales and 2.1 tons of ivory, in a shipment marked “frozen beef” from Nigeria, media reports said.
Why we should care about pangolins
First of all, pangolins, many of which are about the size of a house cat or small dog, are a threat to no one except to ants and termites, which they lap up with a long, sticky tongue.
They can fight off animal predators with their sharp claws and their scales, which act as a kind of armor when they curl themselves up into a ball.
But pangolins possess little defense against human predators, who can simply pick them up off the ground.
“They’re defenseless,” said Hongying Li, the China program coordinator with the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in New York which is dedicated to research and protecting people and animals from infectious diseases.
Li said that eating pangolin meat is “a way of showing off. It’s a way of saying I am very rich. I can afford pangolin meat.”
Li also said that pangolins are “very important to the environment, because they eat a lot of ants and termites…”
He described ants and termites as “a disaster for the forest.”
No celebrity status
But as Martin Fletcher of the Daily Telegraph in London explained in a recent article, pangolins “lack the celebrity status of elephants, rhinos, and tigers.”
That, he says, “helps explain why so few westerners even realize they exist.”
In reporting his story, Fletcher decided to check out zoos but found that not a single British zoo houses any of them. Leipzig is the only zoo in Europe that has one and is one of only six zoos in the world that houses them.
Pangolins are shy, nocturnal creatures and often inhabit forests where it is difficult to spot, photograph, or study them. In captivity, they usually fail to adapt well to alternative foods.
But some prominent figures in Britain have taken note of them.
In 2014, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, teamed up with the makers of the game “Angry Birds” to create an online contest aimed at helping the pangolin.
In 2015, the prince noted that “the humble pangolin…runs the risk of becoming extinct before most of us have ever heard of it.”
In an episode of the BBC program “Natural World,” David Attenborough said that the Sunda pangolin was one of the 10 species that he would like to save from extinction.
Attenborough recalled rescuing one of these pangolins from being eaten while he was working on a film early in his career.
He described it as “one of the most endearing animals I have ever met.”
The Sunda pangolin’s main predators are humans, tigers, and the clouded leopard.
The animal spends much of its life in trees and is classified as threatened.
‘Wildlife under siege’
The best recent journalism to appear in English on the subject of endangered wildlife in Vietnam was published on April 7 in The New York Times’ travel section of all places.
The author Stephen Nash travelled through a national park in Vietnam which is the home to many rare animals, including pangolins.
He concluded that “wildlife is under siege” in Vietnam and that national parks “are often no refuge.”
Nash learned that pangolins command $500 a pound for their meat and scales in folk-cure apothecaries in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Park rangers and others with whom he spoke at the Cat Tien National Park affirmed that the animal populations in the park were declining.