Mission Impossible Colombia

Colombia, ProAves, rain forest, forest canopy
Mission Impossible: Eight park guards with little formal education and no prior experience in technical climbing, five days, proficiency with advanced methods required, all training conducted in Spanish.  Photo © David L. Anderson.

Colombia, ProAves, forest canopy, rain forest, rainforestSome ideas are too good to be true, or else too good to fail. This is one of those stories.

Have you ever met someone you liked at first sight? That rare friend, that when you found yourselves together for the first time there was chemistry and you were friends before you really knew who they were? Getting to know each other was a formality, the cement that held the wall together after the bricks were already laid.

ProAves is like that for me, only they are a non-profit conservation organization and not a single individual. ProAves’ mission is saving the most endangered birds in Colombia, South America. They buy land where remnant populations of critically endangered birds are found and turn it into wildlife reserves where tourists – foreign, Colombian, everyone – can go see them. ProAves is famous for saving the Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) from extinction. They built the Nature Reserve Loros Andinos (Andean Parrots), reforested the land with wax palms where the parrots nest, and conducted public outreach to get the local people on the side of the parrot. But one thing was missing: parrots nest in trees and palms, and ProAves needed climber training to get to the nests.

Colombia, ProAves, canopy, forest canopy, rain forest
A pair of Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis) nesting in a wax palm. ProAves saved this spectacular bird from extinction. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.
ProAves, Canopy Watch, forest canopy
Yellow-eared Parrots are now so common they can be seen marching down the streets in little Colombian towns like Roncesvalle, where they teach people to love parrots. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.

I found ProAves last year in December on a vacation to Colombia. Colombia is the country with the greatest number of birds on the planet; 20% of all bird species in the world are found in one corner of South America. When I met some of the ProAves team in December 2016 in the fabled Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta I said, “I have to find a way to help this group.” After connecting with the Conservation Director Luis Felipe Barrera by email, we hatched an insane plan: we would teach their guardarecursos (park guards) to climb trees and palm trees so they could work with endangered parrots. And we would write grants to pay for all the gear, the travel, and the expense of the training. That, my friends, is a steep hill to climb.

Colombia, ProAves, canopy, rain forest canopy, rainforest canopy
Luis Felipe Barrera, Conservation Director of ProAves, and #1 reason that tree climbing came to Colombia. Photo © David L. Anderson

Consider: Felipe and I had never met face to face. He oversees all of ProAves’ more than 30 reserves and has his hands full. We had no money. I have a full time job already. The odds were stacked against us. It would have been far easier for Felipe to say, “Thanks, but I’m busy, ProAves is doing fine, and you are nuts.” But we did it. Because, like I said, some ideas are too good to fail. Master climber Jamz Luce offered to be co-instructor.  We got a grant from Rufford Foundation for endangered parrot conservation. The grant was smaller than we needed, but WesSpur Tree Equipment and New Tribe Tree Climbing Gear made up the difference, because good people do that. We purchased the equipment and shipped it, $3,000 worth, only to lose it all in Miami during Hurricane Irma. Yet somehow, everything worked out in the end.

Colombia, ProAves, forest canopy, rain forest canopy
Jamz Luce was the co-instructor of the course, and it is thanks to him that we succeeded in Mission Possible. Photo © David L. Anderson

And so I share the results with you. In September eight park guards and Felipe learned advanced tree climbing methods with all the lost-yet-recovered climbing gear. These park guards have little formal education and no prior technical climbing experience, but they climbed like pros. On the fifth day we gave them the ultimate mission – teach your bosses to climb. One of the best ways to learn is to teach, and in Latin American culture when you are telling your boss what to do it is a really big deal. They nailed it. I am proud beyond words.

Colombia, ProAves, rain forest, forest canopy
Alejandro (left) teaches his boss Eduardo to climb. There is no better way to learn than to teach another person to lay his life on the line. Photo © David L. Anderson
ProAves, Colombia
Paloma is her name, and she is ready for her first climb. Photo © David L. Anderson

Sometimes dreams come true. Some missions are too important to be impossible. On the last day of the course José Gregorio said it like this: “This was not only the best training I have ever had, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I feel like it made me not only a better employee, but a better person.”

Colombia, ProAves
Jose Gregorio climbing above the research station and visitor center, El Paujil Nature Reserve. Photo © David L. Anderson

Please visit the ProAves website and consider making a donation to save endangered birds in Colombia. Trust me, ProAves is worth it.

Good things happen when good people come together. This training succeeded because of the big hearts at WesSpur, a purveyor of tree climbing equipment located in Bellingham, Washington, and thanks to New Tribe, makers of fine tree climbing gear in Grants Pass, Oregon. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation non-profit that conserves birds of prey around the world, sponsored my time for this project.  Co-Instructor Jamz Luce is a special friend to me, and to tree climbers everywhere.  You are conservation heroes one and all. Thank you.

Parting shots.

Colombia, ProAves
Eight guardarecursos (park guards) of ProAves kicked major butt in their first ever tree climber training. Photo © David L. Anderson
Colombia, ProAves
Carlos Romero is a pro at climbing after only five days. Photo © David L. Anderson
Colombia, ProAves
Tree climbing makes us feel good. Photo © David L. Anderson.
Colombia, ProAves
ProAves and some NewTribe bling, a Yellowjacket Harness. Photo © David L. Anderson
ProAves, Canopy Watch, Colombia
Wax palms (Ceroxylon quindiuense), foothills of the Colombian Andes, are home to the endangered Yellow-eared Parrot. Photo © Alejandro Grajales.





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