Conservation Takes Flight in Puebla, Mexico
When Martin Camacho was a child, he had to leave school to help support his family. Instead of attending classes, he went with his father to capture birds in the countryside, eating meals of wild birds' eggs, cactus fruit, and roasted pigeons.
At the age of 10, Camacho had a revelation. A pigeon splayed and roasting on the fire mirrored the figure of Jesus Christ martyred on the cross. A devout Roman Catholic, this image stirred something within Camacho, who vowed to never again kill a bird. “I felt it was a living being who had to be respected,” he said.
This vision led Camacho to transform his third-generation family bird-catching business into a group conservation project that saves birds and provides jobs for former bird catchers.
In 1989 Camacho formed the Puebla Bird Catchers' Union, which maintains an aviary housed in a gleaming geodesic dome. Called the Puebla Ecological Aviary, the dome shelters 1,300 birds in five artificial habitats that duplicate the many landscapes of Mexico.
The Aviary is a reflection of 10 years of concerted efforts by Union members to encourage the reproduction of a dwindling wildfowl population on which they depend for their living. The Union was the first in the country to try breeding wild birds in captivity and has been so successful that others are now following in its footsteps.
Catching and selling wild birds for pets is a venerable trade in Mexico, a bustling part of the small-business economy nationwide. Wild bird populations are also succumbing to the increasing pressures of human populations, and as a result, 36 of the 1,150 wild bird species in Mexico are currently in danger of extinction.
This decline peaked in the 1980s as joblessness began to run rampant in Mexico, and people turned to bird catching to eke out a living. These newcomers to bird catching often took part in illegal activities, capturing and selling birds without any respect for the species or the trade.
Tired of watching the bird populations dwindle, Camacho decided to form an organization, but found that the biggest challenge was raising awareness about conservation practices. To overcome this, the Union first held a series of short courses and conferences to educate themselves. They then developed a set of regulations for members, and later shared their knowledge of wild birds through guided tours at the aviary and with outreach to other bird catchers' organizations.
What really distinguishes the Union members from the approximately 1,500 other bird dealers in Puebla however, is their focus on replacing bird catching with reproduction, which has helped Union members reduce the capture of wild birds by 20 percent. Today the aviary boasts the successful reproduction of 36 Mexican and migratory species.
With no government subsidies or private funding, the bird dealers financed their work by charging a one-dollar entry fee to the aviary, and providing guided tours to some of the 2,000 visitors each month. Within a few years, the Union secured support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a bird study and general management plan for the Flor del Bosque Biosphere Reserve, an important source of oxygen and water recharge for Puebla. Following the plan, the reserve created an aviary with 16 shelters for injured wildfowl, together with a rehabilitation and liberation program.
As the years have passed, the Union's efforts have raised consciousness about the need to protect birds and their environments. However, illegal bird catching is still in practice. To address this problem, the Puebla Bird Dealers continue to promote the benefits of reproduction in captivity. "When they see that this is good business, people will stop capturing and start raising birds," said Camacho.
By 2010, Camacho hopes the aviary will be the best in Latin America, having consolidated its economic base and expanded its capacities through conservation, reproduction, and education. He aims to have the Puebla Bird Dealers' Union firmly inserted into worldwide efforts to raise environmental awareness through partnerships with other organizations and institutions. "Our responsibility to society is to make people conscious of how close we are to destroying our ecosystems and losing our biodiversity.”
Reported by Talli Nauman