|Green-winged Saltator in a cage outside a shop in Cachoeiras de Macacu in Rio|
de Janeiro state. This high altitude species is commonly kept as a cage-bird despite
legislation in place to protect them, and most are trapped locally.
In the REGUA area, the most common method employed by hunters to trap birds for the cage-bird trade is to use a captive bird placed next to an empty cage baited with food to attract the targeted species. The unsuspecting bird enters the cage to get to the food and becomes trapped. Birds are then transported for sale in illegals markets in local towns or Rio de Janeiro, often in huge quantities. Hunting is therefore an easy and inexpensive way to make money, and with demand remaining high and some local authorities turning a blind eye, it is difficult to imagine this threat going away any time soon. However, the enforcement wing of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), INEA (RJ state government authorities), with help from the Brazilian NGO Renctas, are having some success tackling illegal hunting and trade, but the scale of the problem means that resources are nowhere near enough to enforce the law effectively.
Although rather drab in plumage by neotropical standards, seedeaters are particularly sought after as cage-birds for their songs, and in the REGUA area male Buffy-fronted and Double-collared Seedeaters are common in cages. Another species very commonly kept as a cage-bird in the area is Green-winged Saltator, and they can frequently be heard singing from apartments and shops in the nearby towns. Thrushes, especially Rufous-bellied Thrush, are also very popular as are Saffron Finch and Bare-throated Bellbird, and Temminck's Seedeater are also sometimes kept.
|Rufous-bellied Thrush, the national bird of Brazil since 2002, is highly sough after |
as a cage-bird for its song, and very popular in the REGUA area.
|Another popular cage-bird, male Saffron Finches are very territorial and sometimes|
used for blood sports, with two males placed in a cage to fight. This barbaric
practice was banned in Brazil 20 years ago, but has recently been reported from
|Immature male Bare-throated Bellbird. Endemic to the Atlantic Forest, this cotinga|
is under pressure from the cage-bird trade for its unmusical but extremely loud
song. They are relatively uncommon in cages in the REGUA area due to policing
by IBAMA, and a local in the village of Mutumbo near REGUA had four birds
confiscated by IBAMA during my visit this month. Trapping pressure is much
higher in other states such as southern Bahia, São Paulo and Santa Catarinam,
and they remain relatively common in the forest of Rio de Janeiro state. Also
threatened by deforestation, Bell-throated Bellbird is classified as Vulnerable.
(Photo by Tasso Leventis)
Key to addressing this problem is a change in local attitudes towards biodiversity, and as is so often the case, small NGOs are making more progress with this than government legislation or the authorities. REGUA is one of the few protected areas in the Atlantic Forest employing local people, mostly ex-hunters, as rangers to patrol the reserve. As a result, since 2001 hunting at REGUA has declined by an estimated 98%! Obviously some hunting activity would simply have been displaced onto adjacent land, so perhaps even more importantly, REGUA has been helping to slowly change local attitudes towards the forest and it's wildlife. REGUA's education programme teaches local school children about the Atlantic Forest and it's wildlife is unique and therefore in need of preserving. REGUA is now the second largest employer in the local area, with 30 full-time staff (and more employed during the tree planting season), many of whom are involved in wildlife tourism to the reserve. By providing employment REGUA is demonstrating that the Atlantic Forest and its wildlife, traditionally viewed as worthless and to be exploited, can provide a sustainable source of income if conserved and respected.
Culturally, there's been a shift away from hunting towards the observation of wild birds amongst wealthier Brazilians. Birding has grown rapidly in popularity in Brazil over the last few years, with increasing numbers of young men and, refreshingly, women, becoming interested in birds, often through photography (take a look at the excellent WikiAves website). Brazil now has it's own bird fair (Avistarbrasil), and in contrast to when I first visited REGUA five years ago, there doesn't seem to be a week that goes by without several Brazilian birders visiting the reserve, with the active Rio de Janeiro Birdwatchers' Club also making regular visits. Earlier this year some Brazilian birders even found themselves twitching when a flock of ultra rare Brown-backed Parrotlets turned up in Ubatuba.
In addition, REGUA's Raquel Locke also reports that computer games appear to be replacing hunting as a pastime amongst the local young men. I wonder how long it will be before Ultimate Bellbird Hunting becomes available on the Wii?
Many thanks to Adilei Carvalho da Cunha for providing information on the bird species targeted by hunters and the methods of capture, to Nicholas and Raquel Locke for additional information about trapping and trafficking, and to Tasso Leventis, Alan Martin and Leonardo Pimentel for permission to use their photos.
Read more about the problem of illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil here.