Who? Jelger Elings, MSc student of Forest & Nature Conservation and Aquaculture & Marine Resource Management
Where? Barba Azul Nature Reserve, Bolivia
What? Thesis research on the protection of the blue-throated macaw
‘The savannah of the Barba Azul Nature Reserve lies so totally in the middle of nowhere that there was no other option than a direct flight to the park. In the rainy season, the roads are too muddy for cars or motorbikes, so Barba Azul is only accessible by air. That idea took a bit of getting used to when I first got there. What if something happened, what if you got bitten by a snake or fell seriously ill? The packing list I was sent included a supply of antibiotics and once I was there, I understood why. There was nothing there, except a few houses for the rangers and cabins for tourists.
The reserve is named after the blue-throated macaw, an endemic species of parrot which is now only found in this area. Motacú palms grow here and there on mounds created long ago by the indigenous population, and about 150 macaws still live on these ‘forest islands’. Their habitat is disappearing in Northern Bolivia due to large-scale livestock farming. When the savannah is flooded by heavy rains, the cows seek dry land on the forest islands and eat up all the young trees. Farmers also burn the savannah to promote grass growth. As the little patches of forest shrink, the blue-throated macaw is facing extinction. Barba Azul was set up especially to protect the habitat of these birds.
My research was about whether this method of protection works. I stayed in a little house that used to belong to a cattle farmer. I spent two months there, far away from any towns or cities, in the company of three Bolivians. When I arrived I hardly spoke any Spanish. I had practised a little bit using Duolingo, but at first we communicated a lot through gestures. In my work I generally went my own way, so I didn’t need to chat very much. Until the day when the cook fell ill and one of the rangers took her to the nearest hospital. Then the other ranger and I stayed behind together and we had to talk to each other.
I wasn’t homesick for a moment. In fact I really didn’t want to come home yet. Nor did I feel lonely for a single second. Everything was so beautiful that I didn’t even notice I was alone so much!’