Caribbean Beat Magazine

Bernadette Coutain-Plair: Lady of the Blue and Gold

In the late 1960s the blue-and-yellow macaws disappeared from Trinidad’s Nariva Swamp, victims of poaching and illegal rice farming. Then Bernadette Coutain-Plair made up her mind to bring these magnificent birds back to their native habitat. Natasha Ramnauth is inspired by the story of the "Macaw Lady"

  • Photograph by Jamie Thomas
  • Photograph by Jamie Thomas
  • Photograph by Jamie Thomas
  • Bernadette Coutain-Plair. Photograph by Jamie Thomas

It was worth the long drive from Port of Spain to the east Trinidad hamlet of Plum Mitan, one Friday morning in March, to witness a colourful event: dozens of children dressed in brilliant blue and yellow costumes, representing the magnificent macaws of the nearby countryside. Of course, Trinidad is the home of Carnival, and children parading in costumes is not a sight out of the ordinary; but this occasion was a couple of weeks after the national festival, and there was more going on here than just a good time.

The Plum Mitan Presbyterian Primary School was playing host to a special guest, and the costumes were partly for her benefit. Bernadette Coutain-Plair, founding member and director of CRESTT, the Centre for the Rescue of Endangered Species of Trinidad and Tobago, had come to check on one of her favourite projects, the blue-and-yellow macaw reintroduction programme in the nearby Nariva Swamp.

Trinidad is home to a remarkable variety of bird life, including many species found on the nearby South American mainland. But in the 1960s at least one flamboyant bird species disappeared from the landscape: the blue-and-yellow macaw. These large, majestic birds had been common in the Nariva Swamp along the island’s east coast, where they nested in stands of tall moriche palms, but poaching and illegal rice farming in the wetlands led them to the brink of extirpation. It seemed that blue-and-yellow macaws in the wild might become just a memory for older persons.

Enter Bernadette Coutain-Plair, a scientist at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, who happened to be born in Trinidad, and grew up spending vacations with relatives in Sangre Grande, near the northern edge of the swamp, the macaws’ natural habitat.

A soft-spoken woman, Bernadette’s eyes light up when she reminisces about seeing the macaws as a child. Little did she realise back then what an all-encompassing mission returning the macaws to the swamp would become.

Bernadette left Trinidad in the mid-1960s, about the time the last macaws were disappearing from Nariva. After university in Cincinnati, she married someone from that city, and though she returned to Trinidad briefly to fulfil the terms of her scholarship, she eventually settled in Ohio to raise her family. She was a biologist by training, and worked for years in human reproduction research. This would prove to be a stepping-stone to her present career in animal reproduction (which has included a behavioural study of the first endangered Sumatran rhinoceros to be conceived and born in captivity in 112 years, at the Cincinnati Zoo in September 2001).

While working at the zoo’s Centre for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW), Bernadette became interested in transferring her knowledge of animal reproductive physiology to her native country. This led her back to the start of the circle, to the blue-and-yellow macaws that had awed her when she was a child.

Trinidad and Tobago in the early 90s did not have a particularly good track record in the area of wildlife conservation. An abundance of poachers, a lack of game wardens and funding, and habitat loss due to illegal farming, were all still prevalent.  It seemed an ideal time to start a conservation organisation in Trinidad to partner with CREW, so, along with some concerned citizens, and with the cooperation of local wildlife officials, CRESTT was established. One of the first projects they undertook was the reintroduction of a sustainable blue-and-yellow macaw population.

Unsurprisingly, this was no easy task. Initial attempts to launch the programme with confiscated birds met with no success. Bernadette had to wade through the murky waters of bureaucracy as well as reach out to the local NGO community, and grass-roots citizens. Great tact and diplomacy were required, otherwise the project would have died away as surely as the macaws themselves. But despite the stumbling blocks, Bernadette kept interest alive on the necessary levels, both official and community, and set up educational opportunities for local veterinarians, zookeepers, and wildlife officials. This went a long way towards generating interest and approval. With the Cincinnati Zoo also involved as a consultant, the project was finally revived. CRESTT started to garner support from international agencies that might otherwise not have been keen to work with such a small organisation.

Like any good scientist, Bernadette went back to her research. She consulted the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose Congenitors Red Book provides guidelines for the reintroduction of species into natural habitats. She studied the application of these guidelines to local conditions, and did some more community groundwork, achieving what she calls a better understanding of the project. She won the backing of the Endangered Parrot Trust, Florida Avian Advisors, and private donors, to add to the enthusiasm of the local Wildlife Section and Forestry Division, the Cincinnati Zoo, and her own family.

With the help of all these, and the support of communities around Nariva, Bernadette was ready for her next attempt. In 1999, the pilot project finally got underway. This time, Bernadette located wild macaws that had been caught in Guyana, where there exist licensed traders. The birds were sexed, and tested for various avian diseases, and 18 macaws (nine potential pairs) were selected. Meanwhile, a comprehensive avian education programme was under way in local communities. After all, without the help of Nariva residents, the birds wouldn’t stand a chance against poachers and other human predators. The macaws were acclimated in a pre-release flight cage in the swamp for four weeks, under constant monitoring from locals, who had begun to treat the birds as fellow citizens. The Plum Mitan Presbyterian Primary School incorporated teaching about the blue-and-yellow macaws into its curriculum. The next generation of conservators was being trained, parents became involved in school projects, and awareness was raised through the whole community about the importance of the Nariva wetlands. The school even prepared a presentation on the swamp and entered it in the Environmental Management Authority’s Green Leaf competition in 2001, where they placed third in the nation.

Between December 1999 and March 2000, 14 macaws were released into the swamp. As with any project of this scope, there were casualties. Of the original 14 birds, nine have survived. The good news is that four pairs have managed to produce nine chicks over two nesting seasons. This may not sound like a lot, but compared with usual macaw reintroduction and reproduction standards, this is considered a fantastic return. Fortunately, some of the conditions that led to the extirpation of the birds in the first place no longer exist, as the Nariva Swamp was designated a protected wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, in 1993.

The success of this project has encouraged the Cincinnati Zoo to use it as a model for other Third World conservation efforts. Earlier this year a second phase was already in the works, leading up to the translocation of another set of wild birds in order to increase the genetic diversity of Nariva’s small wild population. Eventually, captive-bred chicks will be used to supplement this group.

Bernadette visits her beloved birds, the school children, and local villagers two or three times a year, but credits the efforts of the local communities with keeping up the project.  When asked how she keeps going in the face of all her challenges, she smiles quietly. “You reach deep down inside, and find the original purpose . . . you have faith, and believe that you’re doing what needs to be done.” She is voluble about the support she has received from her family and friends, and the Cincinnati Zoo, whose help in sustaining the project has been crucial.

Remember the children in their macaw costumes at the start of this story? To celebrate Bernadette’s visit, the school was recreating its conservation-themed Carnival band, depicting the macaws’ return to the swamp. Bernadette exuberantly participated in this “jump up” session, having just missed this year’s Carnival! But her visit was also an opportunity for more serious, though equally inspiring, business. CRESTT was launching a new conservation workbook for young students, and the Plum Mitan school was dedicating a conservation trail behind its premises to Bernadette, naming it the Bernadette Plair Trail. The children were thrilled by the occasion, by the chance to parade and dance and see their mentor once again. But the happiest ending of all is that, thanks to Bernadette Coutain-Plair’s unrelenting determination, the gorgeous blue-and-yellow macaws may yet return to their rightful place in Trinidad’s colourful avian landscape.