For many years, Leo Marin hunted the forest-bound pawi (Pipile pipile). This pastime ceased, however, when 66-year-old Marin realised the pawi was endangered. Now he’s no longer a threat, but rather an ally, to the mysterious bird that is now protected on his 26-acre farm in north-eastern Trinidad.
Most mornings and evenings, Marin watches as the birds swoop down to feed on his nutmeg trees. He is very lucky; the pawi is so rarely seen that many people believed its existence was a myth. It is endemic only to Trinidad, a gregarious wild turkey which travels in flocks, and prefers remote pristine forests and clear water where human presence is at a minimum.
The pawi weighs about 3.3kg and has a wingspan of 60cm. It is also called the Piping Guan because of the thin piping sound it makes. It is black, with an iridescent sheen on its feathers. Its wing coverts may be mottled white or solid white; when flapped, the wings produce a sound like a machine gun. The bird has dark eyes, a black beak, and pinkish to red feet. Richard ffrench, in his much-respected book A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, describes the pawi as a “a rare resident of dense forests confined to remoter areas of the Northern Range and Trinity Hills, mainly above 1,500 feet.”
Two major forms of human activity have caused the pawi population to decline rapidly: hunting and deforestation. The birds were shot for their tasty meat at a rate faster than they were able to multiply, and lost much of their habitat because of deforestation, which limited their access to their natural diet of forest fruit, seeds, flowers, and insects. Hunters say that up to 30 years ago, they would see flocks of 15-20 pawi in the forests of north, central and south Trinidad. Hunters know that the pawi is an easy target, being notably indifferent to gunfire. Bird-watcher Gerard Ramsewak says: “The Piping Guan, I believe, is on the brink of extinction. It’s one of these silly birds which stands still and then people may shoot them. Some play dead, some freeze. They’re very easy targets for hunting, and it’s so sad.”
Ken Fournillier, a forester with 28 years’ experience, and co-ordinator of a one-year Pawi Education Conservation project, says the pawi has been sighted in the forests of north-east Trinidad in groups numbering no more than a few. “There’s no scientific research to determine how many are left. In Wildlife (the Forestry Division), we’re careful about revealing the pawi’s habitat because people may want to hunt them.”
His efforts to educate Trinidadians have produced some rewards. A comparison of two questionnaires filled out by 560 people at the beginning and end of the project revealed there was a 50% increase in their awareness of the pawi and its importance to Trinidad. Teachers reported that students’ awareness was heightened to the point where many chose the pawi for social science assignments.
Unfortunately, the pawi is not the only bird that’s threatened. Several species of forest birds — prized for their singing ability — are endangered, and sadly, the island has already lost the “chikichong”, a brown bird known as the Chesnut-bellied Seed Finch or “Bullfinch”; the “Twa twa”, a whistling cage bird; and the Horned Screamer, a cousin of the pawi.
The pawi was a natural choice for the project, however, “because it is an endemic specie,” Fournillier says. He remembers the first time he saw this brilliant blue-throated bird: “I froze immediately. I was elated. The sight of it grips you. It is a gentle bird; majestic and proud in how it stands.” He later made paintings of the pawi using watercolours, which he hung in the office of his old boss, Dr Carol James, former head of the Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land, and Marine Affairs.
“People hardly knew of the pawi until the 1980s when Dr James undertook to identify it in north and south Trinidad,” Fournillier says. “Her research staff conducted interviews with old hunters and rediscovered populations in north-east Trinidad and in the Trinity Hills. I myself believed it was a myth until it was discovered.”
Perhaps, now, the gentle pawi may possibly have a chance of survival.