If you haven’t already heard me screaming from the rooftops, I won first place in Best environmental/responsible tourism writing at the Travel Media Association of Canada’s annual awards last month. It was for the story ‘Bird Poop Boom’ in the Red Deer Advocate in December 2013 on Peru’s Ballestas Islands. People exploited cormorant guano for financial gain and I guess I did too, winning $750 for my tale on how people have used these birds for commercial gain. The Alberta TMAC chapter cleaned up with three other wins – Debbie Olson, also from the Red Deer Advocate, won 2nd place in people photography, Lisa Kadane won 1st in Best Service Feature. Talented blogger and writer, Jody Robbins picked an Outstanding Achievement award in the same category. Alberta writers ‘brought it’ to this prestigious competition!
I always thought bird poop was something you wiped off your car or clothing as fast as possible. I never knew it was worth money, but for a few years in the late 19th century 80 percent of Peru’s income was derived from seabird droppings or guano.
Peru has been described as the ‘birdiest’ county in the world. With over 1800 species it rivals Columbia for most species, but Peru has more endemic species and more species counted in a single day.
Not only are the birds a visual delight, they are important to the economy.
The sea cliffs of the Ballestas Islands in Peru’s Paracas National Reserve provide ideal habitat for millions of cormorants, Peruvian Boobys and pelicans with safe nesting areas and easy proximity to the cool, nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt Current.
The Guanay cormorant – a shoebox-size bird that takes its name from the guano it produces – was found in such numbers in the 1800s the sky turned black when they flew from the cliffs. Consuming almost half its body weight each day in anchovies, Guanay are dung machines, building crater-shaped nests and staining the cliffs with their excrement.
British and French farmers wanted the guano for fertilizer and people thought the supply was inexhaustible. But the birds could not generate enough of the number-two business to supply the number one business! After exporting $2billion worth of guano by the early 1900s, the supply ran out. Peru did not have enough even for its own needs. The bird dung boom had ended.
With the unsustainable harvests, the Guanay population had declined to 7.5 million birds. With protection they rebounded to over 22 million by 1953. Unfortunately for the birds, a second boom was underway. In 1955 Peru started industrial fishing of anchovies and by 1957 the bird population had dropped to 18 million. Today there are about one million sea birds left around the Ballestas Islands, but there is another boom emerging that may save the birds.
Almost three million tourists visit Peru each year and while Machu Picchu remains the biggest attraction, bird and wildlife watching is gaining popularity. On a tour to the Ballestas Islands visitors are advised to wear hats and washable clothing as the Guanay does not leave all the guano on the nest! Our guide Johann was busy spot-cleaning our gear between interpretative talks. I made sure to keep my mouth shut when I looked up.
Bird guano is still harvested, but in smaller amounts, and the National Reserve of Paracas has been designated a “wetlands of international importance” or RAMSAR site. There is still work to be done with education and enforcement of conservation rules. The day I visited people were approaching shorebirds and flamingos too closely and flushing them into the air. Too much of this and birds lose energy reserves and breeding success falls.
But Peru is going in the right direction. The government has protected land four times the size of Switzerland and is encouraging tourists to visit more natural areas. In Paracas Johann says “We have 300,000 visitors this year and we hope for more next year.” Hopefully, lessons have been learned from the previous booms and busts so this boom keeps Peru the birdiest of countries.
To see the birds behind the bird poop boom check out http://bit.ly/1bL4mk8
Although bird poop may not be your thing, by thinking like an explorer what overlooked resource might you turn into opportunity?
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