Bird Watching in Brazil: Interview with Guide Bret Whitney
by Bill Hinchberger
Bill Hinchberger Ornithologist Bret Whitney
São Paulo - Bret Whitney passed on a doctoral fellowship at Penn State and a promising academic career in favor of an uncertain path as a field guide in the nascent bird watching tourism industry in the 1970s. Soon he joined forces with some fellow guides to found Field Guides Incorporated, an Austin, Texas-based company that has been running bird watching expeditions worldwide for 22 years. Though sans PhD, Whitney ranks among the world’s leading experts on Brazilian birds. He claims personal field experience with more species of Brazilian birds than any other ornithologist and has published numerous scientific papers, including once that identify three species of Brazilian birds previously unknown to science. We caught up with Whitney in São Paulo at Brazil’s First Annual Brazilian Bird Watching Conference (Avistar).
As a conservation strategy, ecotourism is based on the theory that local people will protect the environment if they have some incentive to do so. What’s your take on that concept?
The incentive has to be dollars. No other incentive works. You can talk to them all you want, hug them, and give them brochures to distribute. But give them the bucks, and all of a sudden they’re totally on board.
Maybe nobody agrees with me, but I believe we’re going to get the attention of the government. There’s a huge potential market. It is just growing and growing and growing. Our little business, Field Guides, takes about 90 people to Brazil a year. Each spends about $2800 in the country. That’s not including our salaries or anything. Add the air tickets for people who take Brazilian carriers, and our business puts about $300,000 a year into the Brazilian economy. You could at least triple that for the whole foreign market, so around a $1 million a year comes into Brazil just from people who just want to look at birds.
Without anybody really paying attention.
And that’s all from the foreign market. There’s nobody in Brazil doing it. Zero. That’s going to change tremendously with the publication of two or three good field guides that are due out real soon. One by me and my friend Fernando Pacheco, through Lynx Ediciones in Barcelona. Our goal is to have these things in newsstands, right besides Playboy, Veja and 4 Rodas for less than R$20. We want to subsidize the price to get the “povão” [average Brazilians] looking at birds. Not a dime of royalties or anything for any of us, so we’ll keep the price rock bottom. That’s an investment in making this Brazilian market start to grow. Because people only preserve what they love. And everybody in Brazil loves birds. You start talking to anybody about birds, and you can’t get a word in edgewise.
Where does your company run tours in Brazil?
We run eight trips a year in Brazil. Even after 9/11, with international tourism going to hell, Brazil has held its own. It has done better than any other market we handle.
We do a general tour for first time visitors to Brazil. They want to see some highlights birds and then do other parts of the world. We take them to the Pantanal, Iguaçu, and Itatiaia National Park. Four days in each, with a day of travel between each one. It is a fairly short trip. We stay in some very nice and comfortable places. We see a hell of a lot of birds, butterflies and other wildlife – mammals. Almost always people go away wanting to come back to Brazil. Maybe they thought they were going to go to Brazil only once, but at least 50% are back to do another part of Brazil within two or three years. Brazil is huge. It is as big as the US, and it has four times the number of birds.
Brazil can be divided into eight biogeographic regions – none of which corresponds to political boundaries. Each is about the size of a lot of countries in Europe. Each has between 700 and 1,000 species. Each is worth three or four separate itineraries. The potential here is just enormous.
They just need to be more aggressive. They need more guides who speak English. They need books. All that is going to happen.
You’ve been involved in a debate about how the number of bird species. What’s that all about and why is that important?
The most important reason is that all legislation is based on the species concept. If you’re going to have dollars to preserve an area, the only thing they care about is species protection. They don’t care about family, genera or subspecies. So it is really important from a practical, political, everyday perspective to have a list of species.
The philosophical problem appears because the concept of “species” is debatable. We don’t have a set of rules that we can use to define what a species is right now. The long-accepted definition of species is when two things occupy the same habitat but don’t interbreed. The problem is when two things are obviously quite closely related and share a common ancestry fairly recently in history but have been separated. It might have been flooding of a huge area when sea levels rose. It might have been the rise of the Andes over millions of years and separating east and west. Then you find things that are genetically closely related, but you can’t do the test of whether they breed together because they’re not together anymore.
How different do they have to be? We go through periods in ornithology where, for example, one is brown with a red head on this side and another is brown with a blue head over on that side, and they’ll say that they’re clearly two species. Then a few decades later, thinking minds say they’re just slight variations –species and sub-species. That’s the argument.
Before there wasn’t any legislation to worry about. Nowadays we’re coming into a phase where we want to split everything – almost a pandemonium. If you’re not careful, you can end up flooding the system with endangered species and shooting yourself in the foot by crying wolf.
Molecules are starting to help. We’re starting to do more genetic analysis, with better resolution. That allows us to look at a whole family of birds. So far it’s been a bunch of scientists bickering. Now we’re going to have another layer of data.
We’re also using vocalizations. That’s what I do. You can quickly gather a large sample from a big geographic area without having to shoot the birds and grind them all up. Besides, it is difficult to keep firearms registered with the right paperwork.
When you record, you’re able to get a window into the genetic makeup of the bird. And it is easy to get a wide geographical sample in a hurry. So we’re not just looking at plumage and measurements of beaks and wings and tails but also vocalizations and molecules.
You’ve been working in Latin America for 25 years. You keep coming back to the some of the same places. What kinds of changes have you seen? Any worrisome signals?
Some places have just flat out disappeared. It’s not there anymore. You come back one year to the next, and it’s in soybeans. A place that’s been there for millions of years is gone in a few months. It is incredibly shocking. I remember the first time I missed a piece of forest. I couldn’t believe that we were at the right spot. My GPS finally told me that we were in fact at the intersection. It was like my right arm was gone.
I see it happening.
The first time I came to the Atlantic Forest 20 years ago, I expecting things a whole lot worse. I had read numbers low as 2-5% left. Numbers as high as 10%. I was shocked at how much was left – especially when you get up above 1,000 meters. There’s a hellava lot of good habitat. And there’s good forest right down to the coast in some places. In huge states full of people like São Paulo there’s still a lot of great green.
We have to be more conscious of reserves that have an altitude component to them. We need corridors that go from the lowlands to the highlands wherever possible. Those things are critical for the maintenance of birds, and many other things. A lot of things move up and down. They use the whole slope all the time.
I also think the park system must incorporate second growth buffer areas beyond the big and old forest. That’s going to be fantastic stuff in 50-100 years. It is in a natural successional state. That increases diversity. You get more species of wildlife and birds with that successional stuff.
There isn’t much bird watching infrastructure in Brazil, is there?
The infrastructure is growing. That’s one of the things I’ve seen change in the 20 years I’ve been coming to Brazil. It’s much better now. Lots of places have opened up in the last 15-20 years.
Those sport fishing places in Amazônia haven’t made it to the bird watching scene yet, but they’re great. Just a stationary barge on a remote river. You get there by a charter flight or long ride on a dirt road or on a river. They’ve got a TV dish, air conditioning, a generator, a cook from Minas Gerais who makes great food, a bunch of bunks, and speedboats to take you where you want to go. It’s paradise. They’ve all got hunting trails. You employ the local people who already know a lot about the forest, and they look forward to people coming.
Is there any evidence to support the idea that climate change is forcing birds to new habitats?
There are two angles. When an area is lost, it’s dead. The birds go somewhere for a while, they hang out in suboptimal habitats, and occasionally you find something in a totally bizarre place. Those birds are doomed. They’re not going to be reproduce. They going to live out their lives and disappear.
As for global warming, in my opinion, though I can’t cite data, it is definitely happening. You can see it in the breeding and wintering ranges of birds that have been documented over decades. You can overlay that on temperature graphs and see that birds are moving. This is easier to do in the temperate zone where more of the birds are migrants. Lots of tings that are showing up as breeders in the northeastern United States that never used to make it up that far. We can’t definitely link it to global warming, but you can link it to temperatures.
In Brazil it is going to be harder to see, but there are a huge number of birds that pull north out of Argentina and Paraguay and populate Brazil up to the southern part of the Amazon every year. People don’t appreciate the volume. Billions of individual birds move up into southern Brazil.
You had a contest to raise money to name a species that you and a colleague had identified in Peru. Tell me about that.
I’m glad you asked. I got into serious trouble in Brazil when I tried to name a new species that I found in Acre. I was working for The Nature Conservancy and the Goeldi Museum in Belém. I was the lead ornithologist on a field expedition that was taking a biological inventory of the Serra do Divisor National Park in western Acre. It was an 18 day trip, and during the course of this rapid ecological inventory, I found two new species of birds.
One was a shockingly new Antshrike that only occurs on certain ridges out there. I had an informal agreement with The Nature Conservancy and the Goeldi that we would hold an auction to raise funds for the park. This was a novel idea back then, but it is just like somebody putting up money for a cancer wing in a hospital - a symbolic gesture.
I was going to try to line it up with Sotheby’s in New York, try to get them to do it for free and keep a percentage of the money for our Brazil book project. A big percentage of it was going to go to the Audubon Society in Texas because they were going to hold the auction in Dallas, and 50% was going to go to SOS Amazônia and The Nature Conservancy’s work in Brazil. I didn’t get it totally cleared with everybody involved because the auction opportunity appeared very quickly. And that was my mistake. It really pissed off people in Brazil. [The newsmagazine] Veja published a big article saying that it could be named anything – who knows, Ronald McDonald. Who knows where they got that. Soon after I was identified as a biopirate.
When that happened, I bought a ticket to Brasília and said everyone who thought I was a biopirate could come. They set up a meeting, and d about 10 IBAMA officials sitting around, I had to defend myself. But I asked them, too, about their criteria? Who identified all my company’s field guides as biopirates? They ended up apologizing.
Now species naming has been copied in other countries. There’s a foundation in Germany that does nothing else - and they keep 15%. We did it two years ago in Peru and got $75,000 for a bird name. All the money went straight to Peru. It’s paying park guards, buying boats and motors and gasoline. Brazil lost out.
As for the bird that led to the scandal, I finally ended up naming it Acre Antshike. The paper came out in 2004.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in EcoAmericas, a monthly newsletter about development and the environment in Latin America.