20 Jul 2017

Using IBAs to uncover America's hidden ecotourism paradises

BirdLife Partners in the United States, Bahamas, Belize and Paraguay are clubbing together to promote ecotourism in places where poverty overlaps with Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), a pioneering project that will enrich these areas for both people and nature

Andros Island, Bahamas © Shutterstock
Andros Island, Bahamas © Shutterstock
By Tom Clynes

Hurricane Matthew struck Andros Island in October of 2016, ripping the roof off Carlene and Doral Woods’s house as the couple and their children huddled in their living room. No one was hurt, but a lingering pile of ruined furniture and other debris in the family’s front yard serves as a reminder of just how vulnerable the people on this Bahamian island are.

That vulnerability extends to economic circumstances as well. Andros is not the Bahamas most tourists see. On this and other less developed islands unemployment is high, poverty is increasing, and ambitious, talented young people usually leave to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. 

Bahama Oriole (via Wikicommons)

But the Woods family say that this past year has been one of their best ever, despite the hurricane. The couple have launched a bird-guiding business, with training and other assistance from the Bird-Based Tourism Initiative. This is an innovative program that promotes conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean by creating economic opportunities and incentives to protect wildlife and ecosystems.

“The question we were asking was, How can we encourage communities to value ecosystems enough to protect them, and in turn have ecosystems contribute to the economic well-being of the communities?” says Matthew Jeffery, director for the Caribbean and deputy director of international alliances programs for the National Audubon Society (BirdLife Partner in the US).

Potential ecotourism sites were identified by layering poverty maps over maps of Important Bird Areas (IBAs)

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Jeffery and his team chose sites by layering poverty maps over maps of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and important protected areas that are likely to attract bird-watchers. The pilot phase of the program focused on supporting birding-focused entrepreneurs in the Bahamas, Belize, Paraguay, and two regions of Guatemala.

The program is funded by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) and the National Audubon Society, which teamed up with local BirdLife Partners Bahamas National Trust, Belize Audubon Society, and Guyra Paraguay. Additionally, in Guatemala Audubon partnered with local conservation groups Asociación Vivamos Mejor and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Together, Audubon and its partners developed a bird-guide training curriculum tailored to local cultures and languages, as well as providing basic business, hospitality, and language training. The program also supplied equipment for guiding and trail development, and other support. The objective was to build ecotourism capacity and create a network of community-based birding destinations that offer skilled local birding guides, high-quality interpretation and lodging, food, and related goods and services tailored to the birding market.

“We’ve demonstrated that bird-based tourism is an economic alternative that can raise incomes in poor communities"

To encourage demand for local entrepreneurs’ services, Audubon reached out to its members, urging birdwatchers to consider stepping outside the tourist mainstream to visit destinations where a birding vacation could help to support struggling communities in and around protected areas.

Thus far, more than 275 people have attended basic guide training, and more than 70 have completed the advanced training. Beyond the guides themselves, more than 400 local business owners participated in trainings, and 5,500 children attended environmental and bird education classes. The project has also shown other benefits: it has boosted the capacity of citizen science initiatives such as bird counts and censuses, and added some 120 participants to eBird, an online database of bird observations which supports IBA monitoring.

The initiative dovetails with the BirdLife Flyways Program, which is working to protect chains of IBAs that are critical for migratory birds, and to reduce threats along these routes. That’s good news for birds and birders, since the bird-guiding program’s target areas include some of the most threatened ecosystems in the region—many of which host migrating species that are familiar to bird-watchers in North America.

Cuban Lizard-cuckoo (via gailhampshire/Flickr)

On Andros Island, for instance, a visitor might see world-traveling shorebirds such as the Piping Plover Charadrius melodus, or inland residents like the Cuban Lizard-cuckoo Coccyzus merlini.

The island is also home to numerous globally-threatened birds, including Bahama Oriole Icterus northropi ( Critically Endangered), Bahama Swallow Tachycineta cyaneoviridis (Endangered) and West Indian Whistling-duck Dendrocygna arborea (Vulnerable). Since these birds are restricted to limited ranges, the preservation of the island’s natural habitats is critical to their continued existence.

With the success of the pilot phase, Audubon is expanding the program to other sites throughout the Americas, beginning with Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. Supported by USAID and the Colombian Government, the initiative will soon be replicated across Colombia – a country with more bird species than any other. “We’ve demonstrated that bird-based tourism is an economic alternative that can raise incomes in communities living close to biodiversity-rich areas, while helping to conserve natural capital,” says Jeffery.

Back on Andros Island, birding guide Carlene Woods is optimistic that the coming year will be a good one. “We know it’s not an overnight thing that's going to radically change the island economy right away, but we know that it’s viable,” says Woods. “We’re getting clients.”

“That hurricane was pretty tough,” she says, glancing at the pile of debris in her front yard. “But the next day a Painted Bunting flew into the yard and started singing the most beautiful song. That was really a mood-brightener!”