U.S. Biologists Plumb Their Pockets to Fund Dominican Park

LOXAHATCHEE, Florida, January 5, 2000 (ENS) - A small group of conservation biologists from the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF) in Loxahatchee and philanthropists across North America have personally guaranteed financing for the new Morne Diablotin National Park on Dominica, West Indies.

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Dominica's national bird, the Imperial Amazon parrot or Sisserou (Photos courtesy RSCF)
Escalating threats to the last habitat for Dominica's national bird, the Sisserou, the world's rarest Amazon parrot, compelled RSCF biologists in late 1997 to expand their roles as scientific researchers to become financiers for the acquisition of critical habitat for the Dominican government.

Found only in mature forest on the slopes of the Caribbean's tallest dormant volcano, Morne Diablotin, the shy Sisserou, or Imperial Amazon parrot, likely numbers fewer than 200 birds. A solitary male in Dominica's Botanical Gardens is the only known captive Sisserou on Earth.

With RSCF' financial support, the Dominican government will acquire the last privately owned land tract that has blocked the national park, and will leverage the acquisition into a 10,000-acre bio-reserve.

The Dominican Government has formally declared the Morne Diablotin National Park. The dedication ceremony will be held January 21 on the island of Dominica.

"Given the extraordinary circumstances, we couldn't delay," said Dr. Paul Reillo, research zoologist and RSCF director. "What we're hoping is that the financial risk is the right one for us to be taking. If not, it'll be our epitaph, a lovely one."

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RSCF Director, Dr. Paul Reillo, demonstrates tree-climbing techniques for Dominican forestry staff.
In addition to the $439,000 raised from private individuals and foundations, the Conservatory has garnered an additional $311,000 from mortgage and operational funds for its Loxahatchee, Florida facility, as well as nearly all of Reillo's personal savings.

Reillo and colleagues maintain that lean, directed conservation strategies to preserve ecosystems are most efficient in saving the world's biodiversity, the vast majority of which is found in the equatorial tropics.

"Everybody can help save the world's natural heritage," says Reillo. "The trick is making sure funds leave permanent conservation footprints, such as protected areas."

According to Arlington James, acting director of forestry on Dominica, "We are extremely grateful for the [Foundation's] assistance. These efforts are facilitating the purchase of land [for the new 10,000-acre Morne Diablotin National Park], which is very significant for Dominica and the region."

Dominated by four volcanic mountains rising to over 4,000 feet, 75 percent of Dominica consists of mountainous terrain and rainforests cut by deep, narrow river valleys. Twenty-eight percent of the total land area, 52,000 acres, is government owned.

Dominica's mountainous rainforests boast some of the largest trees in the Caribbean, with Gommier (Dacryodes excelsa) exceeding eight feet in diameter.

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First photo taken of Imperial parrots feeding each other in the wild.
There are 162 bird species on the island including Dominica's Jaco and Sisserou parrots, a myriad of small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles including the Dominican iguana, and a suite of spectacular invertebrates, highlighted by 55 species of butterflies and the goliath beetle.

Dominica is regarded by many conservation biologists as one of the hottest biological "hotspots" on the planet because of its wide range of species diversity, large number of unique native species, and high degree of risk these plants, birds and animals are facing.

Dominica's National Parks System has two other national parks, including the Caribbean's only Natural World Heritage Site, the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, established in 1975.

It is the only island in the Caribbean that Christopher Columbus would recognize today, and the last bastion of the Carib people and their culture, according to Karen McGovern, curator of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation.

The national park has been in the works for 20 years. McGovern says the successful establishment of the park now is a result of Dominica's national eco-tourism campaign and regional leadership in natural resource protection.