Posted: September 7, 2012, 1:30 p.m. PST
Celebrations over the discovery in Colombia of a new species of bird were short-lived when it was revealed that much of its habitat – also the habitat for a threatened macaw species – is in danger of being flooded by a new hydroelectric dam project.
By Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions
The Pescadero-Ituango hydroelectric dam threatens to flod the habitat for the military macaws in the region.
By Fundacion ProAves
Cauca Valley is the site of the Pescadero-Ituango hydroelectric dam.
The July 2012 edition of The Auk, a leading, peer-reviewed ornithology journal, announced the discovery of the Antioquia Wren (Thryophilus sernai) in the Central Andes of Colombia. This came one year into a seven-year construction project for what is to become the largest power station in the country. The nearly $5.5 billion, 738 foot tall Pescadero-Ituango hydroelectric dam will flood 15 square miles of habitat, drowning all six locations where the newly identified bird has been confirmed so far.
Of equal concern is the likely flooding by the dam of habitat for the last colony in the region of the threatened military macaw. The macaw has scattered, sparse populations throughout Central and South America, including one colony 15 miles upstream from the dam — well within the area targeted for flooding.
According to The Auk, the resultant flooding from the dam would lead to the loss of an important area for the conservation of the new wren, precisely in the sector with the least-disturbed dry forests of the region, and where other bird species of conservation concern occur. The extent and quality of this wren species’ habitat are expected to decline. Thus, the species would be classified at least as “vulnerable” under IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List Criteria.
“The timing of this discovery of a new species seemingly couldn’t have been worse, especially given the dam project has been in the pipeline for decades and just recently has gotten a green light. Despite the seriousness of the threat to these birds posed by this massive engineering project, there is still some hope to mitigate impacts to the birds,” said Benjamin Skolnik, conservation project specialist for American Bird Conservancy (ABC), who oversees the organization’s conservation work in Colombia. “This region of Colombia is a world-class birding tourism destination, and the government understands how valuable birds are to the economy. This may help in the survival of the new wren and the macaw.”
One potential mitigation action that could be taken by the government to aid the new wren is the protection of nonflooded habitat upstream of the dam. If enough suitable habitat is protected as a new protected area, it may be possible to safeguard viable populations of the macaw and wren populations against loss to logging, cattle grazing and agriculture. Detailed environmental impact studies should explore these possibilities as well as other measures to conserve remaining habitat.
Colombia is home to 1,890 bird species, more than 100 of which are threatened globally, and 70 of which are endemic to the country. Some of the key species that are threatened are the Santa Marta parakeet, dusky starfrontlet, gorgeted puffleg, chestnut-capped piha, and blue-billed curassow. In addition, the country boasts extensive birding infrastructure such as reserves and lodges. The American Bird Conservancy has worked with Fundación ProAves, a leading Colombian environmental group, to establish 14 such reserves encompassing around 50,000 acres.
“Bird conservation efforts have a history of giving back to local communities for the long-haul in a fashion that has been a win-win for all concerned. The conservation programs are helping to not only protect and rehabilitate the land and forests but they also provide improved habitat for birds and other wildlife that ultimately bring in tourism dollars. And we’ve demonstrated a variety of conservation and farming techniques that benefit wildlife while at the same time offer equal or even higher farming returns,” said Lina Daza Rojas, executive director of Fundación ProAves.