The Harvest of Rain-Forest Birds by Indigenous Communities in Panama

By Smith, Derek A. | The Geographical Review, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Harvest of Rain-Forest Birds by Indigenous Communities in Panama


Smith, Derek A., The Geographical Review


Although our understanding of bird populations in the humid neotropics is far from complete, it is alarmingly clear that numerous species are critically endangered (IUCN 2007). The primary threat is the conversion of forest habitat to agricultural and other uses, but for some species hunting by indigenous peoples also plays a role in their vulnerable status (Stotz and others 1996; Sodhi, Liow, and Bazzaz 2004; Thiollay 2005). Accurately measuring the impact of hunting on game-bird species remains difficult, however. Despite the large number of ornithological studies that continue to accumulate, scientific knowledge of geographical ranges, population dynamics, dietary habits, and seasonal movements of neotropical birds remains limited, in part because of the sheer number of species that inhabit rain-forest regions. Our understanding of the varied interactions between indigenous communities and birds in the rain-forest setting is likewise limited. And we should also keep in mind that these interactions are not restricted to the use of birds as a food source; their broader cultural significance is reflected in the use of feathers in ceremonial dress and local crafts, the role of birds in stories and legends, and detailed ethno-ornithological taxonomies (Berlin, Boster, and O'Neill 1981; Reina and Kensiger 1991; Thomsen and Brautigam 1991; Descola 1994; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1996).

In this article I attempt to improve our understanding of the relationships between indigenous communities and bird populations in the rain-forest setting. The research presented consists of an ethnographic, quantitative, and geographical investigation of the use of rain-forest birds by five neighboring villages in western Panama. The study site, located on the humid, northern slope of the isthmus, has a tremendous diversity of bird species and is an area in which hunting plays an important role in local livelihoods. The findings demonstrate that, although the avifauna harvest measured by weight is relatively modest, the range of species and total number of individual birds captured is significant. Habitat, as well as the choice of hunting methods, strongly shapes the type and quantity of game birds captured. The spatial patterns of bird kill sites and an assessment of the impact of hunting on the more vulnerable species are also presented.

EVALUATING THE IMPACTS OF INDIGENOUS HUNTING ON BIRD SPECIES

The type and quantity of birds captured--and the sensitivity of different species to hunting--varies according to a combination of ecological and human factors, including the birds' population density, habitat preferences, foraging behavior, and wariness, as well as the technologies used, cultural game preferences, proximity to markets, and the amount of time dedicated to hunting relative to other subsistence activities (Nietschmann 1972; Hames 1979; Yost and Kelley 1983; Balee 1985; Bodmer and others 1994; Stearman 1995; Naughton-Treves 2002; Smith 2005, 2008; Gavin 2007; Parry, Barlow, and Peres 2009). Researchers have documented the harvest of birds by indigenous peoples, usually as part of broader studies of hunting (Silva and Strahl 1991; Vickers 1991; Grenand 1992; Begazo and Bodmer 1998; Mena and others 2000; Townsend 2000; Franzen 2006; Peres and Nascimento 2006). Typically, indigenous hunters focus on a limited range of bird species, and their importance as a source of food is secondary compared with larger mammal species. Nevertheless, large bird species with lower reproductive rates--in particular curassows, guans, and tinamous--are highly prized and are particularly sensitive to overexploitation, and they are among the first species to be depleted by hunters (Vickers 1991; Thiollay 2005; Ohl-Schacherer and others 2007). Parrots are also vulnerable, given their relatively slow reproductive rates, high chick mortality, and specialized diets (Inigo-Elias and Ramos 1991). In some regions, the harvest of eggs for food and the capture of juveniles for the multibillion-dollar international pet trade also have significant impacts (Thomsen and Brautigam 1991; Brooks and Begazo 2001; Gonzalez 2004).

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