photo of Kate Jordan Wallace í60

A cradle for birds

Kate Jordan Wallace í60 has made the Dominican Republic her home since 1994, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and now as a conservationist and environmental educator. At the center of what she calls her "whole new life" on the island are birds.

Wallace helped found the Club de Observadores de Aves Annabelle Dodóthe Annabelle Dod Bird Watchers Club. According to Wallace, Dod "wrote the book" on birds of the Dominican Republic. After she left the country in the 1980s, bird awareness among Dominicans dropped considerably. Even now, Wallace says, "there are almost no professional ornithologists on the island. We are all amateurs in the club." Formed several years ago, the club has a mission to educate Dominicans on issues of conservation and the environment by focusing on the 26 endemic bird species of the Dominican Republic. "Other organizations," says Wallace, "are working from the top, trying to change government policy. Weíre working from the bottom, trying to change local opinions. In a developing country people are understandably more interested in how theyíre going to get their next meal. If the meal happens to be a bird, thatís OK. Itís frustrating because youíre telling people who donít have enough to eat that they should protect what to them is an intangible resource."

Not only are birds frequent meals in the Dominican Republic but their habitats are also disappearing. Dominicans regularly cut down trees to make charcoal, build houses or plant bean crops: "Thereís nothing but limestone and rubble. Itís a world problem, but itís particularly dramatic here. These people just donít have the ability to say, ĎIn 10 years, this forest will be gone.í "

Last winter Wallace guided three different tour groups that contacted the club. One group, members of the New York State chapter of the National Audubon Society, wanted to study global population problems related to conservation: "We met with people from one of the local family planning organizations, and we went bird watching." Another group was from the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Its visit strengthened the affiliation between TOS, the club and Partners in Flight, one of several conservation groups in North America devoted to making an outreach to Latin American conservation groups, which, according to Wallace, have very little money and few resources: "We desperately need binoculars, and we need guidebooks. Weíre trying to train people to appreciate the birds, but itís really hard when they donít have these tools." TOS was specifically interested in visiting the Dominican Republic because 50 percent of the birds on the island are migratory. Conservation groups have a growing concern for neotropical migrantsóshore birds, hawks and warblers that spend summers in North America nesting and breeding, then return to the tropics in late August. "These birds are extremely vulnerable to habitat loss in North America and habitat loss here," she says.

Wallace has been "the commissariat" for researchers who come to work on the island. She is also part of an on going effort to create smaller bird-watching clubs around the island, of which five are now active. In addition, she trains Dominicans to be guides in certain national parks.

The club makes excursions almost every weekend. From her apartment in Santo Domingo, sheís an hour and a half drive from a major shore bird site, three hours from a freshwater lagoon where sheís been working, and five hours from the major mountain range where many endemic birds occur.

Wallace doesnít envision leaving the island anytime soon. "Itís getting to be home now," she says. "There are things to do here that were done a century ago in North America. Thereís maybe a dozen of us in the Dominican Republic who are fully devoted to this enterprise. Iím a big frog in a little pond. Itís not like North America, where there are conservation organizations on every street corner. Itís a different order of magnitude."

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