This Thing Called Courage

Thursday, June 25, 2009

With Rebels on the Run, Columbia is for the Birds

(from today's Wall Street Journal; to see slideslow, go to

LIBANO, Colombia -- In March, government agents shot and killed a notorious guerrilla chief known as Comandante Mauricio. His unit, called the "Bolsheviks," had rampaged through the countryside for years, kidnapping, extorting and murdering.
Last month, a new group moved into Mauricio's old turf. Its leader, Steven Hilty, wore a khaki shirt and a fedora. He signaled his cohorts for quiet, scanned a tree line and then zeroed in on a target with his binoculars.
"That's it -- a yellow-headed brush-finch," Mr. Hilty told his fellow American bird-watchers. The finch is one of the more unusual birds in Colombia, which has 1,871 bird species, more than any other country.
As Colombia finally gains the upper hand in its decades-long struggle against Marxist guerrillas, bird lovers are marching back into parts of this avian paradise which were only recently no man's lands. Birding tours are proliferating, reserves are sprouting up in former combat zones, and ornithologists are discovering new species and reacquainting themselves with ones not seen in years.
Until the past four or five years, only a handful of foreigners who were "un poco locos" -- a little crazy -- dared to go birding in Colombia's war-torn valleys and jungles, says Angela Gómez, managing director of EcoTurs, a Bogotá birding tourism agency. Now, with the government's recent success in killing or capturing key guerrilla chiefs, EcoTurs is on track to do about 20 birding tours for foreigners this year, compared with five in 2006, when it started its business.
Birdquest, a Lancashire, England-based tour operator, started coming back to Colombia in 2007, after a seven-year hiatus. Pete Morris, who has guided three Birdquest tours to Colombia in the past two years, says he now often feels safer in Colombia than in some of the more established destinations such as Venezuela or Peru, where petty crime can be a problem.
Perhaps the biggest news in local birding circles is the return this year of Mr. Hilty, known as the dean of Colombia bird specialists. Mr. Hilty hadn't conducted a tour in Colombia since 1986, the same year he co-authored "A Guide to the Birds of Colombia." It was also a time when Colombia was disintegrating into a battleground, vied over by guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the country's army.

Yellow-headed Brush-finch
Mr. Hilty, who works for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours of Austin, Texas, became spooked that year after a birding excursion in which he encountered charred military vehicles that had recently been attacked by rebels. On the same trip, he nearly walked into an ambush Colombian troops had laid for guerrillas. "This is foolish," Mr. Hilty concluded, and began looking for birds elsewhere.
Caution was justified. In 1995, a British soldier working in the Bogotá embassy was kidnapped by the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, while birding in the countryside. He was freed in a police raid four months later. In 1998, four American bird-watchers looking for the rare Cundinamarca antpitta instead encountered a FARC comandante named Romaña, who took them prisoners.
In hindsight, say birders, the best thing to happen to Colombian birding was the ascension in 2002 of conservative President Álvaro Uribe. With U.S. backing, Mr. Uribe took the offensive against the guerrillas by increasing the size of security forces by about 30%. Last year three top guerrilla leaders perished, while surviving rebels were driven deep into the jungle.
Todd Mark, one of the four American birders captured by the FARC in 1998, still isn't convinced that Colombia is safe. Falling into the hands of guerrillas, he says, "is not something you would ever want to happen to you." Mr. Mark was held captive for more than a month, and forced to make long marches over harsh terrain; one of his birding companions, a 63-year-old woman, fell down a hillside, suffering a broken hip and punctured lung. One of the four captives escaped, and Mr. Mark and the other two were eventually released.
The U.S. State Department, which maintains a travel warning on Colombia, says guerrilla groups are still active in the country. Kidnappings, while having "diminished significantly" since the start of the decade, are still a danger, says the agency.
Some Colombian birders acknowledge that there are parts of the country that aren't safe but insist it's now possible to see lots of birds without coming anywhere near the danger zones.
The abundance of Colombian birds -- about 50 more species than second-place Peru -- is partly a consequence of the variety of habitats provided by the Andes Mountains, which split into three distinct ranges in Colombia.
Another Colombian asset is a dedicated group of local birding enthusiasts, who in 1998 formed the nonprofit conservation group, ProAves. The organization has created 15 birding reserves and launched a host of conservation projects, such as training former combatants as forest rangers. Now, ProAves ornithologists are taking advantage of the relative tranquility of the countryside to find new species, like the Santa Marta screech owl, discovered in 2007 in a mountainous area once rife with gunmen.
ProAves also worked to woo back Mr. Hilty. Originally scheduled to do one Colombian tour this year, Mr. Hilty says he added three more due to enthusiastic response from birders. Among the small group accompanying him on a recent trip were a married pair of Washington, D.C., federal workers, a retired school psychologist and a California restaurateur named Karen Clarke. "My husband isn't thrilled I'm here," she said. But Ms. Clarke said she had faith in Mr. Hilty, and a determination to add to the list of 3,000 different bird species she's seen.
The expedition started at Chingaza National Park, where the FARC in 2002 tried unsuccessfully to dynamite a dam and cut off water to the nearby capital of Bogotá. Such is Colombia's birding richness that even a stop at a roadside restaurant near the park yielded a treasure: a glimpse of the rare silvery-throated spinetail.
The next day the birders visited Tabacal Lagoon, in another region where guerrillas have been rooted out. Mr. Hilty heard a trilling coming from some bushes, pulled out his microphone and taped it. Then he played back the tape. Fluttering out into the open, attracted by the sound of its own voice, was a seldom-seen rosy thrush-tanager, with its telltale large beak and stripe over the eye.
But just as the birders were getting on a roll, they were halted by some interlopers, a troop of about 25 Colombians out on their own nature hike. "Hello, my friends," one of the trekkers ventured in English, loud enough to scare off any birds that remained.
Write to Matt Moffett at


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