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CI works with Colombian Catholics to save parrot from extinction

February 9 2007:

There are now 660 yellow-eared parrots in Colombia, up from just 81

Five years ago, Conservation International and its partners forged a partnership with the Roman Catholic church in Colombia to save two species on the verge of extinction. Today, the alliance is lauded as one of the most successful biodiversity conservation campaigns in Latin American history.

According to a CI report, the yellow-eared parrot ognorhynchus icterotis and the Quindío wax palm Ceroxylon quindiuense today have a new lease on life — as do the remarkable landscapes that sustain them.

As Fabio Arjona, executive director for CI Colombia explains: "The goal was to end the use of millions of wax palm fronds in Palm Sunday services here and in the United States, a practice that was killing the trees and destroying the parrots’ sole habitat."

This merging of religion and ecology culminated last Easter with a priest blessing thousands of palm seedlings in Bogota’s main park, processions throughout the country of people carrying ordinary palms rather than rare ones, and the news that both parrots and palms were well on their way to recovery. Since the campaign was launched by CI and national partner Fundación ProAves, yellow eared parrot population stands at 660 - a remarkable increase from the previously recorded 81.

The story has captured the nation's imagination. Indeed, CI reports, very few conservation campaigns have had an impact of such magnitude on the national consciousness. The alliance begun by CI and ProAves has grown to more than 35 national NGOs, government institutions, and the Catholic church.

For centuries, Colombians have used wax palm fronds for Palm Sunday processions commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where residents greeted him by waving palm branches. Peasants fell the wax palms just to strip the highly prized young emerging fronds for sale to worshippers.

ARC is also working on a project in Mexico with a group who are sustainably growing palms, orchids and bromeliads for use in Christian and Indigenous ceremonies.
The parrot is extraordinarily dependent on the Quindío wax palm, which is Colombia’s national tree — and at 70 or so metres in height is the world’s tallest palm. Wax palms are now restricted to a few small pockets in the Colombian Andes where recruitment is virtually nonexistent because cattle graze on the tender young seedlings, leaving few to grow to maturity.

The strategy to protect both species included the creation of 25 private nature reserves protecting 22,000 acres (8,870 hectares), and the reforestation of 36,000 trees, including 10,000 wax palms. National television public service messages aired more than 1,000 times on donated commercial slots, educating Colombians on the ecological problems facing the two dependent species. The campaign fostered a new cultural tradition of celebrating the environment at Easter, positively affecting the nation’s social, economic, religious, cultural, and political values.

Some American churches this Easter began using fronds from other palm species sustainably harvested in Guatemala and Mexico. In Colombia, people paraded with fronds of common palm species and avoided using wax palms. Rural communities no longer cut down wax palms but plant them and sell the seedlings.

Government, police, military, and even rebel guerrilla forces now prohibit the sale or exploitation of both wax palms and yellow-eared parrots. And the extraordinary collaboration between conservationists, policymakers, the private sector, the church, and rural and urban communities has evolved into an unusual and powerful alliance.

This report is reproduced with the permission of Conservation International, which recently appointed its first programme director for faith-based initiatives, and with whom ARC is now working on several projects and proposals.


According to director of Unidad de Conservación de Especies in Colombia, José Vicente Rodríguez-Mahecha, the yellow eared parrot project is seeing great successes, after seven years of activities that began with the publication of the Tropical Field Guide ¨Loros de Colombia¨, and continued with the support of the Threatened Species Initiative strategy (IEA in Spanish).

"From an initial population of  around sixty individuals,  the yellow eared parrot population has increased to nearly 800 and growing. One hundred artificial nests allowed the number of hatches to increase by 70% in the last breeding season. In addition, the species has already expanded its current geographical range. We have seven new records in other distant sites in the country; the last one in southern Cauca Department, close to the border between Ecuador and Colombia. This tremendous success is owed to the great job of Fundación Proaves, with the support of Regional Environmental Authorities and the Fondo para la Acción Ambiental y la Niñez (FPAA)."  

The strategy was developed in partnership with at least ten other environmental institutions, as well as the Catholic Church.

As a major result, the Ognorhrynchus icterotis is now candidate to be downlisted from CR to EN, as are 16 other Colombian species.


Link here for the Pro-Natura-ARC Sacred Orchids project, protecting sacred species by setting up sustainable growing programmes.

Link here for the Conservation International website.

Link here for the ProAves website (in English).

Link here for the ProAves website (in Spanish).

Link here for another story about how Conservation International has worked with religions to preserve endangered species - this time with Hindu leaders to save the rare seaturtles of Bali.

Link here for an article about the yellow-eared parrot from the Parrot Society website.

Link here to learn more about the yellow-eared parrot from Birdlife International.

Link here for a photograph of the astonishingly tall Ceroxylon Quindiuenxe wax palm.

Link here for more information about the endangered wax palm.

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