The black-capped petrel, known as the little devil by locals, is struggling for survival on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. But how do you convince people to care about a bird when their children are starving? This is the challenge facing Adam Brown and his conservation group, EPIC.
Name: Adam Brown
Species: Black-capped petrel
Location: The Caribbean
After graduating as a conservation biologist in the US, Adam took several jobs studying songbirds and seabirds. But after a while, he wasn’t satisfied; there were already a lot of people working in this field and Adam didn’t feel like he was really making a difference. So he and his wife decided to set-up a conservation group in the Caribbean, called EPIC (Environmental Protection in the Caribbean).
They are now working with local people to save the black-capped petrel from the edge of extinction. One of their greatest challenges in trying to understand and meet the needs of poor, rural communities while ensuring the long-term survival of the species.
Conservation in the Caribbean is difficult. Most of the islands are independent nations, so there’s not one over-arching ethic through the whole region.
There are some areas where the conservation work is great; the US Virgin Islands is fantastic and the island I’m on right now, Dominica, is terrific. But there are plenty of islands where there’s no environmental presence at all.
So we felt that if we could get in there, then we could make some difference. Over the years we have, so it’s been really rewarding.
I’m working with a species called the black-capped petrel. It’s a very difficult species to study because of a couple of unique things about it. It’s a seabird so it spends all of its day on the ocean feeding, but at night it comes into the centre of the island to nest.
It may fly inland for about 50 kilometres and it nests in a burrow 3 meters underground. This makes it terribly difficult to find and once you have it’s difficult to monitor. Because of this people lost track of what was going on with the black-capped petrel.
They thought the species was extinct until the 1960s, when David Wingate – who is credited with single–handedly saving the Bermuda petrel from extinction – found the black-capped petrel way up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.
But despite rediscovering the species, there really wasn’t a lot of conservation follow-up. Until about 10 years’ ago when people started looking for the bird again and found that there are only about 1,000 or 2,000 left.
The whole population, from what we know, is only on the island of Hispaniola. But there’s some inkling that they’re on Dominica as well, so that’s why we’re here right now.
The last known nest in this part of the Caribbean was here in 1862, so about 150 years ago. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we find them here. If we do, it’d be a pretty big deal.
W0w, rediscovering populations of the Black-capped Petrel would be amazing. But what’s threatening its survival?
In a place like Dominica, which has a really strong environmental ethic, it won’t really be people that are the problem. But instead, it’ll be things like introduced predators. In Haiti [which occupies the western portion of the island of Hispaniola] the population is big, so the problem is people.
It’s not people directly hunting the bird or capturing it, but it’s the encroachment on its habitat. The bird requires deep-sloped, pristine forested areas but in Haiti there’s only 5% of the original forest intact.
The destruction of its habitat starts off with the collection of wood to make charcoal; millions of people depend on charcoal to cook with, so that’s a lot of wood to collect. Then people start moving into those cleared areas to graze their cows or to farm. As those areas get developed that way, people start building their houses there and the process pushes itself along in that fashion.
So in what ways are you working to change this trend?
Our goal is to work with people to highlight that there is a species here, that it’s an iconic species that’s only found on the island and nowhere else in the world. We’re trying to create understanding and figure out a balance between the people living there and making sure that this bird isn’t driven to extinction.
We realised that we’re not going to come in and change things quickly so forging partnerships with humanitarian groups, who already have relationships in these villages, is a great way to go.
We really need to deal with some of things that are making people go into these areas to log trees. So if charcoal is an issue, then we need to get more people using natural gas to cook with. You’d think that was a simple thing to do, but it’s cheaper to buy a bag of charcoal and cook in a hole in the ground, than it is for people to go out and buy a stove and replenish it with natural gas.
The other thing is, the crops that people plant are high yield and low income crops. They don’t get a lot of return for the amount of land that they need to farm. We would like to introduce farming techniques that would allow people to grow crops that are both high yield and high income.
Another problem is that folks have to pay for things like water, because their water catchment systems are terrible. So we can alleviate some of the financial hardships that people have in these villages by creating catchment systems, for instance.
To be honest, I’m a biologist, I’m not a humanitarian so this not my area of expertise. But I know these things need to be done for the petrel to survive on Haiti. There’s a delicate balance between the poverty of the people and the success of the bird.
This is not unique in the world; if it’s not the petrel, than it’s the elephant or the Bengal tiger. It’s that poor, rural communities live next to areas where there are endangered species. I know programmes like this have had success, so I know this one can too.
There are a lot of highlights and lots of lowlights. I think finding areas where we didn’t know the birds lived before is fantastic. As a biologist, that’s really rewarding. By discovering it’s an important area, we can then take on conservation measures.
Also, seeing local people commit to the project is really rewarding. We had a meeting with the village elders recently, where they sat down with us and we had this really frank discussion. We explained that this bird is very important to us and asked them: ‘How are we going to make sure that this bird survives?’ They took on that challenge and said: ‘These are the things we need. If together we can make these things happen, then we feel we can protect the bird.’
Walking away from that meeting was great. That was the next step; a really important step from the community. They didn’t say: ‘We couldn’t care less about this bird, our children are starving and we can’t get medicine when we’re sick.’ Instead, they said: ‘We’re willing to take this on with you.’
The biggest challenge day-to-day is access. Getting to places is really difficult; the roads are terrible, if there are even roads at all.
But what’s really frustrating is to be in a forest, where you know the petrels are nesting, and to go back to that same place a year later to find the forest is gone. It was just cleared for charcoal. It shows that you’re up against the clock.
I feel optimists about it. Being in Dominica, where I am right now, where the conservation challenges are different helps with that. If the petrels are here on Dominica – where the forests are really protected and the people care a lot about keeping the island the same – then I feel really good about the future of the petrel.
In Haiti, I feel good about it as well, but I know it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to get worse, before it gets better. I feel though that we’re on the right road. The buy-in from the community is really important and I feel like that was big step.
It’s these collaborative efforts – with conservation groups, humanitarian groups, and the local people – that makes me feel good about the future.
It seems like you’ve learnt a lot from this experience, what are your top 5 tips for others looking to achieve a similar goal?
1) You have to have a lot of patience. This is the first thing. You go in thinking it’s just like how you live your life at home. You believe you can get so much done. From working in places like Haiti, I’ve learnt that you only get about a quarter of the things done that you’d anticipated achieving.
2) Being open to multidisciplinary collaboration is really important. If you’re a scientist, don’t just stick with scientists. Know that other people have different strengths that can help you.
3) Be willing to change your idea. People always go into conservation projects with a preconceived idea of what success looks like and how you’re going to achieve it. You need to know that those things are going to change along the way and that’s just from you learning.
4) Raising money is really difficult. I think that the average person who writes funding proposals gets about 1 in 7 of those grants. So don’t get disillusioned by a lack of funding. If you really care about something, be willing to put your own sweat equity into it to get it done.
5) I didn’t realise until recently how important storytelling was within conservation. Science is really dry to people. When you’re talking to non-scientists about conservation, they just glaze over. To bring conservation to the public, it needs to be done in an entertaining and engaging way. That’s where storytelling comes in – articles, short films, podcasts, radio broadcasts, even songs. That’s how you bring a story to people and make them care about conservation.