Archive for October 24th, 2009
Maria is easily the most famous Giant Antpitta in the world. Despite the species being rare and reclusive, photos of Maria are all over the internet.
That’s because Maria is food-conditioned. When Angel Paz, owner of Paz de las Aves, leads a group of birders a half mile down the muddy trail on his hillside property, and calls out softly, “Maria, venge,” she emerges from the understory. It’s almost magical, how quickly she moves. And she accepts chopped up giant earthworms as her reward.
Just how food-conditioned? She’ll take an earthworm from the hands of a stranger. Maria isn’t “tame.” She’s a wild creature. But she is conditioned to respond to Angel’s voice. The promise of earthworm’s has overcome her inherent shyness.
Ordinarily, I oppose feeding wild animals. It usually ends badly, almost always for the animal; sometimes for people. In the early 1970′s, Stony, a handsome young grizzly, used to help folks at Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park eat their lunches. One day, when someone refused to share their lunch with Stony, he helped himself. A tourist got mauled and Stony got shot.
But Giant Antpittas aren’t big grizzlies, and Ecuador is impoverished and, except for the extraordinary Galapagos Islands, has no tradition of parks or preserving wilderness. What Maria does, in return for Angel’s training and a few earthworms, is feed Angel and his family. Angel, unlike his neighbors lower down the road, is highly motivated to preserve the cloud forest on his property. He doesn’t cut it down to graze cattle. Angel’s children clean the mud off of visitors’ boots for a small fee. Angel’s wife, sister and brother-in-law serve tea and traditional cakes to the customers. There are modest souvenirs for sale. As a result, Angel and his family have a better house, a propane stove and a nice used car. More, Angel, for a fee, has accepted apprentices, and taught them how to do what he has done.
Birders will come and pay his $5 admission because otherwise their chances of their finding the rare, skulky Giant Antpitta in the jungle are very nearly zero. Maria prospers; heck, one of her kids is now food-conditioned as well. Angel demonstrably prospers. And precious wild jungle is preserved by people who would otherwise slash and burn it for pasture. Even if Maria’s loss of fear ends up getting her killed, perhaps that’s an acceptable price in these perilous times. If hundreds of hectares can be kept intact, maybe everybody wins.
If Angel’s neighbors see that intact jungle can be more valuable than grazing cattle on stripped land, that’s a good thing. If Angel continues his training of apprentices, who apply the same technique to other hard-to-find birds that birders will pay to see, it may be an even better thing. If local people can learn that wilderness has value, it’s a start.