Historically, the range of the Trinidad’s very own Trinidad Piping Guan (pipile pipile) -or Pawi – was vast. This large bird could be found throughout both the northern and southern ranges of the island, as well as within lowland forest areas such as Aripo and Nariva. As you are probably well aware, the presence of humans is almost always bad news for any animal. Hunting and habitat loss have eliminated the presence of the Pawi from all its lowland habitats. So too it has been extirpated from its former home in the southern range. There have been reports of Pawi in the southern range recently, some more credible than others, but no concrete evidence has ever been provided. There have been some very interesting stories though. A hunter once claimed to have seen a large flock of Pawi flying from mainland South America into Trinidad’s south. I’ll get to this later.
The only remaining place in the world to see the Pawi is the eastern corner of the northern range. Turtlewatching hotspot Grande Riviere is one of the best spots to carry out a search. To avoid having to wake up at another ungodly hour in the morning, we decided to spend the night there. On the way along the scenic north coast we spotted lots of activity on the beach. A fully grown leatherback turtle seemed to be on the shore, which was very strange seeing that it was mid-afternoon. Hordes of vultures were also present, which told the obvious tale – this was a dead turtle. Seeing that its head and flippers were still attached, this turtle probably died of natural causes. Or more likely choked to death on a plastic bag.
After more than three hours driving, we finally reached the small village of Grande Riviere, and enjoyed some well deserved relaxation time on the beach as the sun dipped low in the west.
The following morning we checked the beach for any last-ditch laying attempts before heading into the forest. There were one or two adults now heading back into the ocean, all surrounded by curious onlookers. One hatchling escaped the eyes of all the people, dogs and vultures as it dug itself out of the loose sand. It’s funny how the tracks of an adult leatherback make mountains for the newly hatched. And yes, this little one made it to the water safely.
Before the day got too old, we headed up into the hill forest to look for our Pawi. We searched, and searched, but nothing. We decided to take a drive out of the forest and maybe stop by a river and have a dip. On the slow crawl out of the forest, we spotted some movements in the trees. Unnaturally quiet were these birds. Two Trinidad Piping Guans, walking deftly along branches picking off the berries of the wild tobacco tree (enjoying the fruit just as much as the birds here and here) and completely ignoring our presence.
Throwing all caution to the wind, we walked in through the bush to get a little closer look. I just love the blue in the wattle (that flap of skin that hangs from its neck) – some birds exhibit these wattles to attract a mate, the larger, more elaborate and richly coloured it is usually indicates high testosterone levels. I don’t know if any studies have been carried out on this particular species to confirm this though.
Now as you’ve seen the bird, you can clearly see that this is a bulky, turkey-like species that prefers to walk along the branches of the canopy to get where it has to go. The flight of the Pawi is clumsy at worst, tiring at best. Let’s just say that they aren’t the most efficient of flyers. Many years ago, when Trinidad was physically part of South America, species like the Blue-throated Piping Guan probably moved northward into the forests that later became Trinidad. Over thousands of years, the species were eventually separated. Piping Guans are not designed to fly long distances. It is with great conviction that I can say that the claim of the hunter referenced earlier in this post is grossly untrue, and likely to just be another falsity constructed by this respectable sect of the population to paint a picture that there are loads of animals in the forest that are just begging to be shot.
The unfortunate fate of the Trinidad Piping Guan is sealed by a culture that encourages taking from the lands, and only giving back concrete, steel and plastic. Any hope of the Pawi returning to its former lowland haunts are gone completely, as the northern range is completely cut off from the rest of the island by one of Trinidad’s major east-west roadways. The Matura National Park is its last corner where it’s consigned to spend its last days, a reminder that we had ONE BIRD to take care of, and we let it slip through our fingers. Recent studies have indicated that the genetic diversity is (I think) around 17%, which is actually below the minimum level required to sustain a population.
So bravo to all the independent organizations lobbying to save this previous bird, all the while the leaders of this country are planning to blast a further scar in the last remaining untouched forest to build a highway. Yes, you read that correctly. A HIGHWAY.
So maybe when you heard the story of how the last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog died recently, it didn’t quite hit home. But when our own Pawi disappears in the near future (there are currently less than 200 individuals left), Trinidad and Tobago will again be the subject of international shame. I hope we’re all proud. Proud just like the person who left bullet holes in the sign saying “Save the Pawi” at the entrance to Grande Riviere.
On the way back to civilization, we decided to pop in to the north-eastern tip of Trinidad, a common haunt of the extremely beautiful Lilac-tailed Parrotlet. And sure enough, it didn’t disappoint.