Along the service road that winds its way up to Barrick’s Pascua-Lama mining project in northern Chile, dozens of brightly-plumaged Burrowing Parrots can be seen flitting overhead. Not long ago, these colorful green- and blue-winged birds were classified as endangered in northern Chile, with an estimated population of just several hundred birds remaining.
As part of its environmental permit for Pascua-Lama in Chile, Barrick is required to protect the Burrowing Parrot — so-called because they carve out burrows for nesting on cliff faces — and educate the public on how to protect them. A significant part of this task has involved increasing the company’s own understanding of the bird, which is plentiful in other regions of South America. This led to a five-year research partnership with Chile’s University of La Serena beginning in 2010 and a subsequent book based on the findings, Historia Natural del Loro Tricahue en el Norte de Chile, 2014 (PDF).
"We started this study on the premise that people don’t protect what they don’t value and they won’t value what they don’t know about," write Renzo Vargas and Francisco Squeo, the biology professors at the University of La Serena who have spearheaded the research.
This research involved tagging the birds to track their movements and study their habits from breeding, to feeding, to migration. Ultimately, this research indicated that the Burrowing Parrot population is larger than previously believed in Chile.
The national government has reclassified the bird’s northern population from endangered to vulnerable.
"I don’t think enough people realize that modern mining involves working with other disciplines that haven’t traditionally been associated with mining, such as these biologists from the University of La Serena," says Rodolfo Westhoff, Barrick’s Environmental Manager at Pascua-Lama. "The research shows that the Burrowing Parrot population has increased nearly ten-fold from the 350 in northern Chile in the 1990s to more than 3,000 in ten colonies across 20,000 square-kilometers today."
The main reason for the population recovery was the introduction of two national laws. The first law was passed in 1972 and prohibited the hunting, transportation, commercialization, possession or industrialization of several species of Chilean fauna, including the Burrowing Parrot. The second was passed in 1996 and prohibited the capture of the Burrowing Parrot.
"I’m pleased to say that between these laws and our research, the national government has reclassified the bird’s northern population from endangered to vulnerable," Westhoff says.
Although the very cheerful, social and, consequently, loud birds experience predation from other species such as hawks, vultures, foxes, and domestic cats and dogs, their numbers in the wild had dwindled largely due to human interaction. Despite the passage of the laws, Burrowing Parrots remain vulnerable to poaching for the pet trade, habitat degradation from farming or simply being dealt with as pests.
Local farmers have traditionally viewed Burrowing Parrots as pests because the parrots’ diet largely consists of fruits and seeds from the crops that farmers grow. Others worried about the transmission of bird-related diseases to livestock from the parrots because they often drink from the same water source as livestock, especially during drought seasons. This changed after Barrick’s environment and community relations teams engaged community members in Higuera and Punta Colorada to educate them on the parrots’ plight and what they can do to help protect them. Now the parrots are viewed more favorably.
"Despite Pascua-Lama’s temporary construction suspension, Barrick continues to make good on its commitments, such as monitoring our feathered friends," says Gail Ross, Barrick’s Manager of Biological and Ecological Sciences. "We’re proud we can make a positive difference to this species."
This is not the first time that Barrick-led research initiatives have demonstrated hope for a species’ recovery. The company’s research into amphibian life in the Dominican Republic has achieved similar results for two vulnerable frog populations in that country.
In addition to education efforts, the partnership in Chile has led to the construction of water towers for the parrots’ use on known flight routes, which has eased local concerns about shared water use. Other efforts include designating low-speed and quiet zones along areas of the service road known to be frequented by the parrots, along with signage alerting people to the birds’ presence.