by Dr. R. Scott Winton
As we peer through the fog in the pre-dawn twilight, the birds we see are anonymous silhouettes. Once the tropical sun breaks through the thickness of the cloud forest, bright jewels of color are illuminated.
“There it is!” says José, somehow both whispering and shouting. In the branches overhead appears the multicolored tanager, a feathered kaleidoscope of colors. Not only is this bird dazzlingly beautiful, but it is also exceedingly rare, restricted to a few isolated forests in the central and western Andes of Colombia. With it, a flock of a dozen other bird species flit through the forest’s sub-canopy gleaning insects and fruits while we watch silently.
Our group of foreign birders is ecstatic. To see such an iconic and rare species is a prized moment even for the well-traveled among us. One has just spent months counting birds in the depths of the Amazon and another used to guide bird expeditions through South Africa. But despite our collective wealth of avian experience, when we set out to explore this part of the Colombian Andes near Cali, we would be foolish not to bring along our guide José, who grew up on a farm not far from the very forest where the multicolored tanager lives.
The saying that “You can’t beat local knowledge” is apt. José knows the birds here in a way that no amount of internet research can beat. His passion for birds and abilities in the field could almost be described as innate. From a young age, without any binoculars, books or formal training, he began to study the birds on his parents’ medicinal herb farm where he spent long days working outside. A chance encounter with a visiting ornithologist from a university in Cali introduced him to the concept of birdwatching not just as a hobby, but also as a business. He started helping out with birdwatching tours that passed through the area, voluntarily at first and then, once he had proved his worth, as a paid assistant. Somewhere along the way he picked up surprisingly fluent English and he now works for several birdwatching tour companies and as a freelance guide.
José’s remarkable story of self-making seems almost inevitable, when seen in the context of Colombia, a mega-diverse country with nearly 2,000 species of birds. The sheer volume of bird diversity, including 74 species found nowhere else on Earth, has lured flocks of birdwatchers from abroad. For many years, however, violent conflict deterred these tourists. A recently signed peace agreement marks a high-profile, if not yet complete, pivot for the country toward an era of increased security, and the numbers of visiting birders are expected to increase steadily.
The presence of armed groups also rendered much of Colombia’s forests off-limits to loggers, miners and oil prospectors. As a result, Colombia finds itself faced with an opportunity to decide how it will manage newly accessible natural resources. But this opportunity may also be the start of a crisis. For rural communities, the mode of future development poses some difficult trade-offs and the fates of many endangered bird species hang in the balance.
Extractive industries offer the promise of rapid and potent economic stimulus in the form of jobs and tax revenues. With poverty pervasive in rural conflict-afflicted regions of Colombia, the need for economic and social development is indeed urgent. But the jobs brought by a mine or logging concession are often ephemeral, and these industries are notorious for extracting profits and leaving degraded ecosystems in their wake, with eroded soils and impaired water.
Why not instead leverage the value of all the rare and endangered birds that live in the remaining forests of Colombia? Visiting birdwatchers require lodging and restaurants, and they will pay a premium if they can find those services near rare birds and through community-run initiatives. The money they spend supports permanent jobs in areas where opportunities are often limited to small-scale cattle farming or other forms of rural agriculture.
The potential expansion of birdwatching infrastructure in post-conflict Colombia offers the promise of a triple win. Foreign birders would get the chance to experience Colombia’s unrivaled mega-diversity, new tourism-related livelihoods would alleviate poverty and the prospects for conservation would increase dramatically. In order to tap the value of birds, some investment will be required. Road upgrades, support for rural communities to start their own businesses and service-oriented training programs would help jump-start birdwatching tourism in conflict-affected regions of Colombia.
It is encouraging to see that the Colombian government appears to be well-aware of the potential of birdwatching and has launched a “national birdwatching strategy” aimed at boosting this industry. Colombian conservation biologist Natalia Ocampo Peñuela and I recently published a study in Tropical Conservation Science that provides a birdwatching treasure map for Colombia. In it we highlight the regions of Colombia that have the highest concentrations of rare birds attractive to birdwatchers. We overlay these bird maps with Colombian municipalities affected by conflict where needs for socioeconomic development are greatest. By following our map, the government could design infrastructure projects in a way that meets two well-established national goals: to enhance birdwatching tourism and to facilitate social development in post-conflict regions.
There are undoubtedly many people like José scattered throughout Colombia with remarkable natural talents waiting for their flashpoint with bird tourism to arise. Will those Colombians become bird guides, continue an agrarian lifestyle or get recruited to work a copper mine?
As our birdwatching group debriefs before parting ways, all anybody can talk about is when they will get the chance to travel to Colombia again. Over the coming months our respective social media feeds are ablaze with wonder and admiration over the photos of marvelous Colombian birds. We will all return to see more Colombian birds sooner or later. I have had the good fortune to make several return trips and these have made clear to me that although Colombia already has much to offer visitors, much of its birdwatching tourism potential has yet to be realized.
Article: Ocampo-Peñuela N and Winton RS 2017 Economic and Conservation Potential of Bird-Watching Tourism in Postconflict Colombia. Tropical Conservation Science 10. https://doi.org/10.1177/
Natalia Ocampo Peñuela, PhD
Currently a postdoctoral fellow at ETH Zurich, Dr. Ocampo-Peñuela is a Colombian conservation ecologist whose research focuses on the conservation of tropical birds in Colombia and other biodiversity hotspots. Using spatial analyses on forest cover, species distributions, protected areas, and threats to biodiversity, she improves spatial planning in the world’s most biodiverse and threatened places. She is passionate about birds professionally and personally, has been studying Colombian birds for 12 years, and occasionally leads bird-watching tours. Read more about her on her website: www.nocampopenuela.com
Scott Winton, PhD
A postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich, Dr. Winton is a wetland ecologist who studies nutrient and greenhouse gas biogeochemistry. He is an avid birder and birds often play a central role in his research, which he likes to call ‘bird biogeochemistry.’ More about Dr. Winton’s work is on his website: rscottwinton.wordpress.com