San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Doubts Plague Parrot Project

A project meant to rescue thousands of parrotsmay seem like a natural fit for a country that boasts 16native parrot species, including the scarlet macaw andthe great green macaw.But the World Parrot Refuge, currently seekingdonations and investors for construction in CostaRica, has drawn criticism and concern from local birdenthusiasts.The founders of the refuge envision a 235-acrepreserve with large enclosures that will allow the relativefreedom of as many as 3,000 unwanted pet parrots.The preserve, to be located a 25-minute drive fromPuntarenas near the Tárcoles River, would also attractthousands of tourists, founder Horst Neumann said.With lifespans of up to 100 years, many pet parrotsend up unwanted or mistreated when their owners tireof their novelty, Neumann said. Bred as pets, they cannotbe released into the wild.The proposed refuge would include 100 endangered species rescued from homes aroundthe world.CRITICS, however, worry that theintroduction of non-native parrot speciescould have a devastating impact on CostaRica’s native parrots.They also say the refuge is evidence ofthe immediate-gratification type of tourismgrowing in the country.“Their hearts are in the right place. It isvery true what they say, most people whenthey get a pet parrot don’t realize they arein it for the long term. But bringing all ofthese animals here is a big mistake,” saidBruce Young, a Monteverde-based ornithologistwith NatureServe, a non-profitconservation organization.PARROTS are renowned for their diseases,Young said. Because the WorldParrot Refuge would have open-air enclosures,the spread of diseases from nonnativebirds to the native population livingin the surrounding rain forest is nearlyinevitable, he said.Disease can be spread through bitinginsects or bird poop run-off.Even with the best efforts, the risk ofescape is always a threat, Young added.For example, fallen branches and vandalscan tear nets, Young said.“What worries me is we are finallystarting to see an increase in the scarletmacaw population, and just north of wheretheir range is, we will have this parrotpark,” said another critic, Dr. ChristopherVaughan, a conservation biologist from theUniversity of Wisconsin and a visiting professorat Universidad Nacional.The scarlet macaw population in CostaRica was up to 392 as of the last count inSeptember 2003, Vaughan said.NEUMANN and cofounder WendyHuntbatch insist their birds will be disease-free,and will comply with all of the regulationsof the Ministry of the Environmentand Energy (MINAE) for the import ofanimals.“I don’t think people realize how strictMINAE is,” Huntbatch said.The birds will need approval of boththe importing and the exporting countries,as well as certificates of health, accordingto Juan Rodríguez, a local representativeof the Convention on International Tradein Endangered Species (CITES), whichoperates under MINAE in Costa Rica.The project will also need approval ofthe ministry’s National System of Areas ofConservation (SINAC), Rodríguez said ina faxed response to Tico Times questions.“We should be very careful to protectendemic species,” he said. “We do notwant the invasion of exotic species thatcould eventually displace our species.”HUNTBATCH and Neumann currentlyoperate a parrot refuge for 250 parrots inBritish Columbia, Canada. Every weekthey are sent birds that have been kept insmall cages for years, often in poor healthbecause of unhealthy diets or smokyhomes, Huntbatch said.The couple has worked for years to rescuethese birds and stop the pet-bird breedingpractice that produced them in the first place.Unable to meet the needs of the thousandsof unwanted parrots in the world intheir facilities in Canada, the couple developedthe idea of the World Parrot Refuge.They found Costa Rica’s climate to beideal for a year-round outdoor facility.Although the focus of the World ParrotRefuge is to rescue birds, the foundersmight also breed rare species, “to keep thegene pool alive,” Neumann said. Therefuge, however, would not include arelease program.SO far in their development plan,Neumann and Huntbatch have funded theproject personally and through a few donationsfrom the public. The purchase of theproperty and construction of the facilitieswill cost between $3 million and $4 million,they estimate.The couple is soliciting donationsthrough the Internet Web site They are also consideringlooking for investors for the project,which they say will include profitable andnon-profit aspects. The land will be placedin a trust to guarantee the continuance ofthe refuge, Neumann said.With a hotel, restaurant, gift shop andthe possibility of sleeping in “adventurehuts” within the enclosures – and chargingan admission fee of around $40 – Neumannhopes the project will be self-sustaining.LIKE it or not, Young thinks it could be.“That is the trend now in Costa Rica,” hesaid. “Tourists 20 years ago really wanted tolearn about the rain forest, and they’d comeand spend time there. Now it seems like a lotof tourists are more interested in instant gratification.We see this in Monteverde, theytake their short walk in the forest, and theydon’t see anything, so what they do the restof the time is go to the zoo, the butterfly gardensand frog ponds.”Vaughan worries this type of tourismcould send the wrong message.“In Costa Rica, with more than500,000 species of biodiversity, why do weneed people to come and look at exoticspecies?” he said.“It’s difficult enough to try to understandour native biodiversity. It is likebringing a Safari Land into Florida; it’slike a Disney World or something.”

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