About 20 miles southwest of Cartagena, Colombia lies a refuge for trafficked birds. Its name is the National Aviary of Colombia, and it is approximately 17 acres. The reserve spans three different ecosystems: humid tropical forest, mangrove forest, and desert. Possibly even more impressive is the abundance and diversity of birds that this aviary hosts. There are 165 species totalling almost 2,000 birds that now call this aviary home. Some of the species include harpy eagles, white-throated toucans, flamingoes, and the Andean condor, which also adorns the Colombian flag. No matter what the species, this aviary provides a nurturing, protected, and immense habitat for all of its rescued inhabitants to live out their lives—forever free from the threat of trafficking and all other mistreatments.
Wildlife trafficking has become the third most profitable illegal trade in all of Colombia, and it is estimated that more than 3,860 birds have been seized from traffickers between January and August of 2018 alone. It is an alarming statistic, and one that unfortunately was expected to increase by another 1 to 2 thousand before the end of the year. In addition to trafficking, Colombia’s birds also face dangers due to habitat loss and, in some sections of the country, even abuse stemming from certain species association with witchcraft and esotericism.
In the midst of all these threats sits the National Aviary of Colombia. In 2006, construction of this reserve began under the supervision of a man named Rafael Viera and 3 of his companions. Alba Lucía Gómez, who is one of the four founders and the current aviary manager, said, “It was a private project that required a large investment of capital and time, so we opted to work on it calmly.” In February 2016, ten years after beginning this project, the largest aviary in South America was finally opened to the public. The aviary’s 21 exhibits showcase the rescued and rehabilitated birds living out their lives in a natural environment where they are safe from exploitation.
Rafael Viera, his wife Silvana Obregón, and their son Martín Viera have had a lifelong passion for bird conservation. According to Martín, throughout his childhood the family would take wounded birds and/or birds that people simply didn’t want any more to a piece of land the family owned in El Palmar, in the Rosario Islands, a tiny archipelago that is part of the island zone of Cartagena. In this mini, family run bird sanctuary, the concept and idea for the eventual 17-acre National Aviary of Colombia could be seen.
Almost 80% of the aviary’s 165 bird species are threatened and some, like the blue-billed curassow which is endemic to Colombia, are critically endangered. Even the Andean condor, an iconic bird of Colombia and its flag, has seen its numbers drop precipitously. A significant cause of their decline is actually due to what could be called misinformed killings. For instance, according to Martín Viera, “The condor is a scavenger animal, it eats only dead animals. However, many villagers think that condors are the ones that kill [their] cattle and therefore they kill them … To save them requires education and the preservation of their territory.” Thus, the aviary’s founders recognize that in order for long-term change to occur, it is integral to educate citizens on the myriad roles that all the birds of this sanctuary contribute to the ecosystems in which they would normally reside.
At the end of each tour, which spans all three ecosystems of the preserve, visitors are treated to a half-hour spectacle called “Birds on the Fly.” The show displays the dazzling nature of 32 of the aviary’s species, and the reserve’s teachers are able to use this show as an opportunity to educate visitors about the importance of these birds. Furthermore, the aviary is hoping to expand its number of exhibits from 21 to 34 in the near future, and to add a veterinary clinic that specializes in birds. However, there are currently only 24 workers at the site, so managing expansion as well as meeting the needs of the current avian residents and tourists is critical to the aviary’s future success.
While improving and expanding the aviary to accommodate more tourists is a top priority, the number one priority remains the conservation and breeding of threatened species like the Andean condor, blue-billed curassow, and harpy eagle, according to co-founder Alba Gómez. The National Aviary of Colombia has certainly accomplished this and more. Through their efforts hopefully the aviary and all its constituents will continue to grow and thrive, helping to save even more exploited birds and increase the numbers of the country’s at risk populations.
In what other sections of the globe have you heard of large-scale avian sanctuaries being built?
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