Saving the Sisserou

Dominica's Sisserou seems to a relic from an earlier time: it doesn't quite look, or behave, like the parrots people in the Caribbean often see squawking across the sky on evenings - and, unlike its cousins, the Sisserou is endangered. But the Sisserou has some good friends who have found a way to help save this remarkable bird. Peter Rickwood explains

Last captive Sisserou held in the aviary of the Botanical Gardens, Roseau. Photograph by Paul Reillo/RSCFThe “Parrot Team”: left to right, Ronnie Winston, Matthew Maximea, Paul Reillo and Stephen Durand. Photograph by RSCF

A mid the branches of the huge gommier trees, on the flanks of the sleeping Morne Diablotin volcano in Dominica, there is a flash of green; and then the sunlight strikes crimson, or is it magenta, tinged with purple and a red so deep it’s almost black.

If you are lucky you have just become one of the few people to have seen the elusive Sisserou, among the rarest of parrots on earth, whose safety has recently been ensured by private donors and a scientist willing to gamble his savings on its future.

Not only is the bird remarkable, but the events that have set a secure seal on its future – as good as can be provided by protecting its habitat in the highlands of Dominica – are also out of the ordinary.

Like most endangered creatures, the Sisserou won’t be saved by being trapped and put in a cage. Preserving Sisserou, the Imperial Amazon parrot, Dominica’s national bird, of which there are probably fewer than 200, has taken the establishment of a 10,000 acre forest reserve.

On January 21, 2000, that large plot of land on the highest dormant volcano in the Caribbean was declared the Morne Diablotin National Park by the government. But it took a race to raise funds and clinch a deal when 1,300 acres of privately-owned land blocking the park came on the market. About 8,500 acres of the new park had already been established as forest reserve by the government of Dominica, which has one of the most progressive conservation policies in the Caribbean.

“If we hadn’t acquired the [privately-owned] land it could have been sold for agricultural purposes,” says David Williams of Dominica’s Department of Forestry which, not surprisingly in an island dependent on agriculture and eco-tourism, lacked the ready cash to acquire it.

Enter Paul Reillo, director of Loxahatchee, Forida, Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF). “We did what we had to do,” says the research zoologist, “it was a remarkable campaign.”

In Reillo’s case that required him to put up nearly all personal savings to swell mortgage and operational funds from the Conservatory to US$311 ,000, while a further US$439,000 was raised from private philanthropists to purchase the land all donate it to Dominica.

Last January, Reillo was worrying whether the financial risk being taken by the Conservatory was justified, or whether I would become the Conservatory’s epitaph. Three months later, however, Reillo declared delight that the decision had been an overwhelming success.

“This is a very significant area of biodiversity,” Reillo says. Before the declaration of Morne Diablotin national park, Dominica already possessed a world heritage site, the 170,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park. In fact, Dominica is regarded as one of the world’s most significant reserves of biodiversity.

The wild forests of its mountainous interior, cut by 365 rivers harbour over 160 species of birds, a huge diversity of small mammals, reptiles, plants, and some of the tallest trees in the Caribbean. But Sisserou remains an enigma, an extraordinary species that, it is speculated, is an ancient relic predating the other islands’ noisy, gregarious Amazon parrot species.

“Sisserou doesn’t behave, doesn’t sound like other parrots,” Reillo says. “It is just weird. We think its introduction was all least 10,000 years ago.”

Reclusive and quiet, it is found only in mature forest, and nests at an average height of 85 feet, on the slopes of Mount Diablotin. Yet no one has ever observed bay Sisserou; and the parrot may never have been plentiful, says Karen McGovern, curator of the RSCF.

While the Conservatory appears to have protected the future of Sissero, Reillo says it is important to set the record straight. “People may think we are parrot lovers, but what our organization tries to do is focus on species that have enormous leverage for biodiversity protection: by protecting a species you end up saving a whole rain forest.”

However, the story shouldn’t end there, says Reillo. The success of Dominica’s eco-tourism policies and establishment of national parks is not only a model for other islands but for tropical nature globally. On a fragmented planet where habitat is strinking,techniques for the regulation of resources, such as  tracts of rain forest, are critical, Reillo says. The success of the Mount Diablotin park is significant because it was achieved without support from any major conservation group.