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A Pterodroma tragedy in Haiti

March 1, 2010
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We’re all too aware of the overwhelming scale of human suffering in the wake of the earthquake that struck Haiti nearly two months ago.  It was merely the latest in what seems to be a never-ending series of devastating natural disasters to afflict the nation in recent memory, a litany of mudslides and hurricanes and flooding that cripple the ability of Haitians, among the poorest population in the world, to build an infrastructure or an economy.  Haiti’s problems are legion, and their causes nearly so, but central to the situation the country finds itself in is the incredible destruction of its forests.  Since 1925, 98% percent of Haiti’s forests have been destroyed, largely for cookstove fuel, and the near complete lack of forest cover has led to incredible erosion issues of what was, in the fairly recent past, rich volcanic soil.  The mudslides and flooding that have killed thousands are a direct result, and desertification has lefts hundreds of thousands more without access to arable land to plant even subsistence crops.

The 2% of forest that remains is protected in two national parks, Parc La Visite and Pic Macaya, both located in the southern part of the nation.  Contained within their boundaries are the remnants of the vast forests of Haiti’s past, high-elevation pine forest with massive trees and sheer limestone cliffs; the last stronghold of many plants and animals on the island of Hispaniola.  For decades they’ve been largely spared from the deforestation evident elsewhere in the country, but in the wake of this most recent earthquake they’re under threat anew, and its worse than it has been at any point in the past.   From the Environmental News Service:

The number of people leaving Haiti’s earthquake-ravaged cities for rural areas could reach one million, putting pressure on already vulnerable communities in those areas, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warned Monday. The NGO Trees for the Future says these internally displaced people need help to keep them from cutting Haiti’s few remaining trees for fuel and shelter.

“Given the earthquake’s devastation, there is now a mass exodus of people to rural areas, but these areas cannot even support the current population much less the hundreds of thousands of people migrating there,” said Ethan Budiansky, Africa and Caribbean programs officer for Trees for the Future, who regularly travels to Haiti to work on agroforestry initiatives.  “Land will become even more impoverished and the few remaining trees will be cut down unless strict measures are put into place.”

That is, of course, bad enough.  But not only are the parks of Haiti home to Caribbean specialties, but they host crucial breeding grounds for one species in particular that finds it’s way into our coastal waters, the Black-capped Petrel.

Black-capped Petrels are the only member of the spectacular Pterodroma genus to occur regularly in American waters, and the species is one of the target birds for any off-shore birder traveling to North Carolina.  Once considered extremely rare, they’re virtually assured on any trip to the continental shelf from April to October and are the only species of bird found year-round in the Gulf Stream.  But in an unusual turn for birds in the northern hemisphere, those individuals usually seen on pelagics out of Hatteras and elsewhere on the eastern seaboard are not feeding nestlings but post-breeding dispersals, spending the summer non-breeding season foraging along the Gulf Stream on long sickle-shaped wings.

Black-capped Petrels instead nest during our winter, in a burrow dug into the cliff face that they visit only at night. This nocturnal behavior, common among Pterodromas, has made determining the true status of the population difficult and it was only in the 70s that their primary foraging grounds were discovered off the southeastern shore of the United States, having even been considered extinct until a few years before.

It is known that, historically, their colonies could be found on nearly every island in the Greater Antilles.  This is no longer true.  The Black-capped Petrel is limited now to only three known breeding sites, all on the island of Hispaniola.  A small colony is relatively safe in the Dominican Republic, but the other two are in Haiti’s national parks, including a colony of nearly 2,000 pairs in Parc La Visite, the species’ only significant breeding population.  The same national parks currently under serious threat from displaced refugees migrating out of the city of Port-au-prince.

The threats to nesting Black-capped Petrels in light of the earthquake are simply an escalation of the problems that have brought their population so low to this point.  The park’s trees, crucial for holding soil to prevent mudslides that bury nest burrows, are chopped down and burned for charcoal.  Young birds in the nest are fatty and good-tasting,  predated by both humans and introduced predators such as mongoose that follow humans.  Generally, the parks that have offered some modicum of protection from a drastically over-utilized and deteriorating landscape, can no longer provide that protection.  Even the sheer cliffs where the last remaining breeding colonies of Black-capped Petrels hid from researchers for nearly 150 years are no match for an increasingly desperate population.

I wish there was something positive to take home here, but there’s hardly a silver lining to be found.  Conventional relief efforts, while crucial in the immediate aftermath, have contributed somewhat to environmental stress in Haiti.  Providing food does little to stem the need for means to cook that food, and when fuel is in short supply trees are destroyed.  But there’s little that can be done because people obviously need to eat.  Worse still, efforts to increase environmental awareness that have proven successful, such as Birdlife International’s Formon School, have been compromised in the wake of the earthquake and swamped by displaced people.

The question of what can be, or could have been, done in a situation like this is a difficult one.  We can hardly blame people who have been through so much suffering for doing what it takes to survive, and in many ways the Black-capped Petrels have always existed in an incredibly precarious situation that few birders who have watched them arc over the waves realize.  In truth, that the difference between survival and extinction rests on the continued protection of a small plot of green in one of the poorest nations in the world makes the fact that they are so easily found in the waters of North Carolina nothing short of miraculous, and that all of it can be lost in the wake of a single, if terrible, natural disaster is nothing short of devastating.

It remains to be seen how everything plays out, of course, but with the cards stacked against it, the Black-capped Petrel could very well be heading down the path cleared by another Caribbean Pterodroma.  The Jamaican Petrel, felled by habitat loss and over-harvesting, was a cautionary tale.  While the nocturnal nesting habits of these birds make it difficult to be sure, most believe it went extinct sometime in the late 19th century.  We can unfortunately only hope against hope that the Black-capped Petrel doesn’t follow, but it doesn’t look good.

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