The return of the Paujil to the Serranía de las Quinchas

Mónica Amador-Jiménez, University of Bristol

According to Colombian scientists, there are approximately only 2500 individuals left of the endemic bird species Paujil, and the primary threats against the Blue-billed Curassow, as it is called in English, are deforestation and hunting. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature affirms that Crax Alberti, the scientific name of the Paujil, is in critical danger of extinction. Crax Alberti is a very particular bird, and the males of this species are the ones blue-billed that represent the image that creates so much sympathy and interest among conservationists and birdwatchers. Ornithologists and biologists specialized in studying bird behaviour, are struck by the fidelity of the Paujil; this bird has only one partner throughout its entire reproductive life. What adds to the vulnerability of the species is that it has a meager reproduction rate as it lays only two eggs a year. The paujil is a territorial animal that avoids contact with humans and its highly developed sensitivity to sounds makes it able to detect soon the presence of humans or animals that could threaten them. For that reason, the Paujil is known to be a bird that alerts other animals in the forest when there is the presence of predators. The paujil emits a loud intermittent sound when detecting potential danger. The paujils are, however, vulnerable since they cannot make long flights or fly high, and most of the time they stay on the ground looking for seeds and small animals or move around in trees looking for fruits.

The last time I saw a Paujil in Puerto Boyacá was three months ago. I was on a motorcycle heading to the caserio Aguas Frias, the most remote settlement in the Serranía de las Quinchas, located on the Puerto Boyacá side of the mountain range. Then, suddenly, I saw the bird on the road in front of us, and when it spotted us, the animal took off and flew straight over our heads and crossed the road where it found a branch that it could land on. The bird then spread its wings open, and I felt that I was observing prehistoric bird with its large and brilliant blue beak, a feeling that got even stronger when the bird started emitting a deep and intermittent sound.
Before this experience, I had previously seen Paujils moving through the gardens of the tourist reception centre inside a private natural park in the Quinchas, the Paujil Reserve, a place where the birds every afternoon come to find seeds just in front the bungalows of the tourist. I had also seen paujils on the lawn of the house of Don Fermín, a residence located in the vereda La Cristalina. Don Fermin and his family had managed to tame two Paujiles that together with a toucan and a parrot are part of this peasant family. Don Fermín and his sons Giovanni and Marroco used to be hunters, and birds such as Paujiles were favourites on their list as its meat resembles that of turkey. Today the brothers are the environmental leaders of the vereda La Cristalina and co-founders of the Pico Azul Association, a community tourism organization that promotes environmental conservation in the Quinchas mountain range. They have made a symbol out of the Paujil, just as the organization Private Reserve had done before.
The peasant´s organization Pico Azul had understood that bird watching is a tourism niche that has the potential to generate significant dividends by attracting foreign tourists. For them, this commercial development is becoming an exciting livelihood alternative that is possible to combine with the regulations the locals have to abide with after the establishment of the regional natural park of Serrania de las Quinchas in 2016 (different from the private park mentioned above). The existence of the birds may provide the peasants with an income not linked to the illegal practices of coca cultivation or timber extraction.
In the Quinchas, the environmental conservation practices associated with the economy of ecotourism in its different modalities, such as the management of the private reserve or community tourism, have in common that they use the Paujil as a symbol. The image of the bird is a common sight, making us feel that the Paujil has returned to the Quinchas in full strength. Giovanni Rodriguez, leader of Pico Azul, once told me: During the last few months, we have often heard the sound of the Paujil, and we also feel that it now is more common than before to find along the paths.
The peasants´association has invested efforts and money in developing tourist infrastructures such as paths, signs and a rudimentary bridge, infrastructure that support the community tourist project. According to Giovanni, the reduction in hunting by the peasants has contributed to increasing the Paujil´s presence and numbers. However, for him, it is still challenging to find the bird when the tourists are visiting, and they think it is strange that tourist normally always see the bird when visiting the private reserve. Some of the locals believe that the private conservation NGO is running this park has captured the birds and tamed them.
Foreign birdwatchers, mainly from the United States, often come to visit the Paujil Reserve, the Private Natural Reserve of a Colombian Environmental NGO. On average 50 tourists from abroad do every month take the risk to go to visit the park in Puerto Boyacá – a municipality that still has several security issues – and most of these tourists only go there to see and to support the conservation of the paujil.
Ecotours Colombia S.A is the tour operator based in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, that organizes the visits of the foreign tourists to the private park. This company is responsible for promoting visits to the Paujil Reserve and to the other reserves that the environmental NGO runs, an NGO that in total manages 27 private nature reserves in Colombia thanks to funding primarily from the international organization American Bird Conservation.
Ecotours provides transportation, logistics, guiding, and lodging in comfortable rooms in the tourist reception centre in the Private Reserve. This is perhaps the most advanced nature tourism infrastructure that one can find in the municipality, but the income from this economic activity does not stay in the municipality. The inhabitants do not receive much direct or indirect income derived from this activity since the entire production chain is controlled by an external operator in Bogotá and the NGO is registered in Antioquia and therefore pays taxes to this municipality.
The inhabitants of the village of Puerto Pinzón, one of them being Yeimer, the president of the local community council – the Junta de Accion Comunal – are amazed to see the SUVs bringing in the foreign tourists. But as the cars drive straight through the village in order to reduce the security risk, the tourists do, however, enter and leave the vereda without leaving anything behind. This form of managing ecotourism makes them feel that they are stigmatized because of the paramilitary past of the region and its inhabitants, a legacy that they have tried to detach from since the paramilitary demobilization in 2006.
Also, communities in other parts of the country have denounced the park management of Private Reserve, first and foremost on Twitter. There are accusations concerning their private reserves in Guaviare, Tolima, and recently in Tierra Grata-Cesar, where there is a reintegration zone of the former guerrilla FARC-EP which demobilized in 2016. The members of the former guerrilla movement’s political party, also called FARC, have denounced that this conservation NGO is excluding communities from ecotourism projects and activities.
It is difficult to determine whether the Paujil is increasing in number or not as deforestation seems still to increase in this mountain range. However, the presence/image of the Paujil has emerged with greater force after the arrival of ecotourism and birdwatching activities – and the bird is now, in spite of all the difficulties related to ecotourism, associated with new income opportunities. In this text, I have attempted to describe the presence of the Paujil in the Serrania de Las Quinchas, and, from an anthropological perspective, to trace the relationships that are giving life to this bird. That is to say, the scientific, sociocultural, economic, and political relationships at interplay with the bird.