Sue Kaufman, a 20-year veteran of the business world, volunteers with several environmental organizations. She is soon to join Grist‘s board of directors. Here she chronicles her volunteer activities on a recent expedition with Earthwatch Institute to the Peruvian Amazon..

Monday, 1 Mar 2004

LIMA, Peru

Greetings from Lima, Peru, where I am spending the night before heading out to Puerto Maldonado and up the Tambopata River. After many weeks of anticipation, I am thrilled and awed to find myself heading into the Amazon — and thankful to Earthwatch Institute for giving me the opportunity to fulfill a personal fantasy.

Macaw of the wild.
Photo: Christopher Jonas.

As many of you may know, Earthwatch funds scientific field research focused on a sustainable environment and provides volunteers the opportunity to participate in that research, as a way to learn more about what will be required to sustain the environment. This I learned one day last November when I picked up their catalog in my local natural-foods store. There were trips all over the world, everywhere from the Arctic to coral reefs, but the trip I have chosen is called “Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon.”

Why, you might ask (I’m asking myself to some extent), would I pick a place that requires multiple immunizations and a backpack full of mosquito netting shaped into various forms of clothing, for which your friends’ parting comment is not “Have a great trip,” but a bemused “Be careful”? Ever since I spent several weeks in the rain and cloud forests of Costa Rica, I have wanted to spend time in the Amazon — and here I am, on my way.

The Peruvian Amazon, I was both gladdened and saddened to learn, contains some of the only regions of the Amazon so unspoiled that it is relatively easy to see wildlife of all kinds. I was also somewhat saddened to learn that I was going in the middle of the rainy season.

Why macaws, you might also ask? I was primarily motivated by my fantasies of becoming an ornithologist in my next life. And macaws are large, I figured. Even I — amateur birder that I am, with eyes that aren’t what they used to be — would be able to see them.

As I began reading about macaws and the parrot family to which they belong, I learned that they are an important group for study. On the one hand, they are one of the most imperiled families of birds, with the multiple threats of habitat destruction, hunting, and capture for the bird trade. It has been estimated that somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of U.S. households have a pet tropical bird. In the years 1982 to 1988, it was estimated that 1.8 million birds in the parrot family were imported into the U.S. Although their import has since been outlawed in the U.S., illegal trade to the U.S. continues, as does trade with other countries, particularly in Asia. As a result, parrots have the most endangered species of any family of birds.

On the other hand, they are generally ignored by ornithologists; as one parrot specialist noted, most ornithologists think their natural habitat is the cage. He went on to note, “Most ornithologists and ecologists today are nearly completely ignorant of the biology of these birds and the extent of their conservation problems. There have been so few detailed studies of psittacines in the wild that parrot biology could be considered one of the present ‘frontiers’ of ornithology.” All of this has begun to make me feel that I will be doing important work here in the Amazon.

It turns out that the research team I will be joining (with 12 other Earthwatch volunteers) at the Tombopata Research Center in southern Peru has been gathering data on macaws for more than a decade. Their data comprises one of the most complete data sets on parrots in the wild in existence. And most interesting to me, their research has been conducted in partnership with the native community on the Tombopata, which runs an ecotourist lodge where I’ll be tomorrow night. Macaws have been identified as having major ecotourist value: They are large and bright, so even a gringo unschooled in the rainforest can spot them, and they hang out in predictable locations — clay licks. I’ll describe a clay lick later this week as I write about our work as volunteers at Tombopata Research Center.

For the next four days, I’ll fill you in on the life of an Earthwatch volunteer in the Amazon. Now, as I sit here in my hotel in Lima, I find myself with a few large questions about what I’ll be doing:

  • How will learning about macaws lead to preservation of the Amazon?
  • How does a partnership with the native population engaged in saving endangered species and habitat look?
  • Do I really like spending six to eight hours a day collecting data on birds’ comings and goings?

I hope I’ll be able to gain some insights — for myself, as well as for you. Stay tuned.