Wed, Mar 14, 2018 - Page 7 News List

For birders, Colombia is an Eden

AFP, CALI, Colombia

Birdwatcher Juan David Camacho, right, is accompanied by his parents, Luis Camacho, left, and Angela Marquez on March 4 in Cali, Colombia’s Cloud Forest of San Antonio.

Photo: AFP

Despite his small stature, 10-year-old Juan David Camacho has big dreams: Pacing through Colombia’s jungle with binoculars in tow, he aims to spot all the bird species his nation has to offer.

It is a mighty goal. Colombia boasts the greatest number of bird types on the planet — 1,920, or 19 percent of those on the planet — a veritable paradise for birders.

“We leave very early with our cameras, binoculars and tripods and we watch the birds until around noon, in silence,” the boy said as he continued to scan the area.

Since his father first took him birdwatching three years ago, his love of searching for feathered friends has come to rival even his passion for soccer.

Once a month he journeys through the tropical forests surrounding Cali, the nation’s third-largest city with about 2.5 million residents.

Nestled in the heart of the southwest’s massive green expanse, the Valle del Cauca counts 562 species of birds, “much more than anywhere in Europe,” expert Carlos Wagner said.

Camacho said he has already seen 491 and photographed 200.

He last month delivered a lecture entitled “Three years of passion for birds” at the International Bird Festival, which brings about 15,000 people to Cali.

Too short to reach the lectern on the stage, he grabbed the microphone to discuss the expeditions he has made with his parents, a computer scientist and a lawyer.

Huge swaths of Colombia’s territory remain to be explored. For decades, they have been deemed too dangerous to travel because of the nation’s drawn-out armed conflict. An ongoing peace process with former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerillas has birders like Wagner hoping access will some day be improved.

The 40-year-old expert, who heads the bird festival, said the variety of ecosystems in the area — ranging from mountainous to tropical — allowed a great diversity of species to evolve.

Wagner grew up in the surrounding countryside near the San Antonio forest, site of the first large-scale ornithological expedition in the area, which New York’s Natural History Museum carried out in 1910.

Threatened by deforestation, this 900-hectare Eden was in 2004 ranked as an “Area of Importance for Bird Conservation” by BirdLife, a major British non-profit.

However, because Colombia did not legally recognize the designation, there was no guarantee it would be respected, Wagner said.

Along with other birders and ecologists, he is working to sensitize residents of the importance of preservation — no small feat.

“We are great romantics, but farmers have needs: They cut down trees to cultivate,” he said.

Although Colombia is a bird kingdom, observation tourism is poorly developed.

However, the government is growing aware of the potential source of income. The Colombian Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism predicts that nearly 15,000 observers might eventually descend on the nation per year to birdwatch, bringing in US$9 million.

In the San Antonio forest, a dozen places and guides already welcome observers for 15,000 to 20,000 pesos (US$5.25 to US$7) per visit.

Olga Gomez, who raises rabbits, has transformed her 1-hectare farm into a bird paradise, complete with flowers to seduce winged visitors.

“We’ve seen up to 25 species, including 18 hummingbirds,” the 66-year-old woman said with a smile.

She says 1,000 visitors per year come to her La Conchita finca, or rural holiday estate.

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