Community-based conservation takes flight to find rare raptor

Red-throated Caracaras spotted in mountains of Honduras.
Red-throated Caracara perched in tree

"Finding a Caracara nest had been on my bucket list of things to do for almost 20 years," says Mark Bonta, a Penn State Altoona researcher, who is working with locals in Olancho, Honduras, to understand more about a recently discovered Caracara nest.

Credit: David Medina

Late last spring, using community ties and lots of patience, a team of Honduran and U.S. researchers found the nest of a rare Central American bird-of-prey.

The discovery of breeding Red-throated Caracaras in northeastern Honduras may give conservationists just enough time to explore the reasons for the raptor's demise in the region and help rescue it, according to Mark Bonta, assistant professor of earth science, Penn State Altoona, who led the discovery team.

"While the species is apparently doing fine in South America, it has all but disappeared from Mexico and Central America," says Bonta. "This is the first-ever nest recorded from the region."

One of the keys to finding the rare bird was building and maintaining relationships with rural community residents and local leaders, according to Bonta, who helps coordinate the Honduran Conservation Coalition, the group that made the discovery.

"After having feelers out for many years, our group finally received a tip from some people in a community that they had seen Caracaras tending a nest last year," says Bonta.

The team, sponsored by The Peregrine Fund, immediately went to investigate, but found the nest tree blown over. Nevertheless, in the hope that the birds would return to the area this year, the researchers enlisted the help of Isidro Zuniga, a local conservationist, who searched the rugged mountains for months. Finally, in late April, he found the new nest. After constructing a blind, Zuniga observed and filmed five adults caring for a single nestling for a month, until it fledged.

"Finding a Caracara nest had been on my bucket list of things to do for almost 20 years," says Bonta. "This is one of the enduring mysteries." He wrote about the species in his 2003 book, "Seven Names for the Bellbird: Conservation Geography in Honduras."

A dense blanket of pines covers Olancho, a sparsely populated Honduran province slightly larger than the neighboring country of El Salvador where the population of a few dozen Red-throated Caracaras still hangs on. The nearly impassable terrain and lack of roads would have made a search for the bird nearly impossible without those local ties, says Bonta.

He refers to this grassroots approach to environmental stewardship as community-based conservation. Environmentalists who use these methods embed themselves in the local scene, building relationships and gaining trust. It's not always the most popular approach to conservation, he says.

"When you're trying to get funding and you say that your trust-building process consists mainly of hanging out, shooting the bull, and drinking a lot of coffee, it raises some eyebrows."

However, Bonta says that community-based conservation projects, typically funded for thousands of dollars, can be more efficient and effective than some of the major environmental initiatives that cost millions of dollars to fund and maintain.

He adds that he and his colleagues are not just looking for rare birds in Honduras. They are also assisting residents in developing more concrete steps to preserve the environment in the region, which is becoming a focus of major mining and timber operations. The conservationists help the residents take inventory of their natural resources and create their own environmental impact studies.

"We want to help them think long term, to map their resources and figure out on their own the best ways that the land can be used," says Bonta. "This isn't necessarily a magic formula, but I've seen the alternative -- the state and private companies making the decisions -- and this can work better."

Community-based conservation projects can be sustainable and outlast national and international efforts because of the stake that local people, who are tied closely to the land, have in their own futures, he says.

"Clean water, lush forests, and abundant biodiversity are critical to them, but not necessarily compatible to the short-term and get-rich-quick schemes promoted by so many outsiders and enabled by governments," Bonta says.

Another benefit of locally grown conservation projects is that they help residents realize that natural resources like minerals and timber are not the only things to value in their environment, according to Bonta, who has spent about five years -- off and on -- in Honduras since 1991 and met his wife there. When the residents are offered compelling evidence of how unique their ecosystems are, they are more eager to protect them, he says. This also provides a counter balance to land buyout offers from multinational companies

"Many people in Olancho's towns and villages are already committed to protecting their environment," says Bonta. "Finding the Red-throated Caracara is an extra boost, giving them something spectacular to rally around."

Bonta says these types of efforts are part of a continent-wide movement.

"At the grass roots, a real environmental consciousness revolution is happening not just in Honduras, but in all of Latin America," he says. "Sustainable economic development and environmental justice are inextricably linked, and communities are constantly gaining more say in their own governance and futures."

Bonta, who only recently started teaching at Penn State Altoona, says he came to the University because of its commitment to community-based and multidisciplinary approaches to conservation and its unique environmental studies program.

"A lot of people think that environmental studies is just for biologists, but it includes methods and outlooks from the social sciences and humanities, as well," he says. "It's very holistic and it's one of the reasons why I applied for this job."

This broad range of interests and skills were helpful to Bonta and his team as they conducted their own work in Honduras, including the discovery of the rare raptor.

Known for its raucous call and communal nesting, the Red-throated Caracara, which resembles a crow, was once plentiful in the region, but about 30 years ago, the population had collapsed. Bonta says this disappearance is still a mystery, one that the team's new discovery may help unravel. He discounts the idea that a loss of habitat alone could account for the rapid disappearance of the species, since its habitat is still largely intact. And since people rarely kill the bird, Bonta believes it is doubtful that hunting is the explanation.

The Caracara may be more vulnerable because it subsists almost entirely on the larvae of wasps that are themselves endangered, he suspects. However, it will take more work to find the real reason for the collapse and implement ways to save the species.

"The next step will be to capture, tag, and track the bird, and get some nest cameras up," Bonta says. "Over the next year, the coalition will be working with ornithologists from Simon Fraser University and Cornell to train local people in these techniques, while we continue to pore over reams of data generated from this year's research."