Martín Camacho is the founder of an organization of bird catchers and vendors working to protect threatened aviary species in Mexico from extinction. The groups aims include the defense of the ecosystem as well as assurance of bird catchers livelihood.
Capturing of and selling wild birds for pets is a venerable trade in Mexico, providing income for thousands "pajareros" (bird catchers) and their families. The profession predates the Spanish conquest of Meso-America and has roots in a deep cultural reverence for birds. Growing environmental and economic pressures, however, are depleting wild bird populations and causing economic hardship for many in the bird trade. In 1989, Martín Camacho founded the Union of Bird Fanciers to protect bird populations while preserving the livelihood of pajareros over the long run. It educates its members on the need to respect wildlife protection legislation and to restrict bird catching. Most importantly, it promotes the breeding of birds as an alternative to capturing them from the wild. Martín is convinced that, like the shift in civilization from hunting and gathering to farming, the future of his profession will be as bird "farmers" rather than bird gatherers. He is the first pajarero to see this next step for his profession.
Overcollecting of birds is not only a threat to bird species and the wider ecosystem, but also to the long-run well-being of the bird catchers. By law only 73 of the 1,050 wild bird species in Mexico can be captured and sold legally. The bird catchers unions are the only groups that have the government's permission to collect and sell them. Furthermore, the law allows each licensed pajarero to catch only 600 birds each year. Enforcement of conservation regulations, however, is lax. As a result, many independent trappers make money in the black market, capturing specimens of hundreds of protected species. At the same time, the populations of those species that can be legally caught and sold are also dwindling because pajareros often catch as many as three times their legal limit. This represents a threat not only to the species themselves, but also to the delicate ecosystem balance as a whole. It also means that earning an income as a responsible pajarero is becoming increasingly difficult. To solve this dilemma, it is necessary to protect the birds in their natural habitats, while maintaining or improving the income prospects for those committed to following the law.
Martín's first step was to create a new organization of pajareros that would stand in vivid contrast to the other 65 or so pajarero unions in Mexico. While today it claims only 85 of the approximately 1,500 pajareros in the Puebla region of Mexico, it is the only pajarero union to experiment with bird breeding. Martín's overall strategy consists of three strands: First, the Union is pioneering the practice of breeding birds in captivity. While proven commercially viable for a few species in other places, notably Holland and Australia, this method has not yet been demonstrated in Mexico, nor with the most marketable Mexican bird species. If effective, captivity breeding would decrease the number of birds captured from the wild, while sustaining the pajareros' incomes. Furthermore, since only birds that are bred in captivity can be legally imported into the United States, success in this area would give a substantial comparative advantage to Mexican bird breeders over bird catchers. Combining the practical skills of pajareros with the technical knowledge of veterinarians, another first for Martín's alternative pajarero organization, ten small breeding centers were constructed on rooftops and in backyards. The Union also developed a larger breeding ground in the mountains of Puebla. There, experiments with the gray silky flycatcher, brown-backed solitaire, slately solitaire, and blue mockingbird attracted television publicity that led to a 10-year contract for the Union to run Puebla's public aviary. At the Puebla Aviary, the Union created five mini-habitats including desert, tropical jungle, swamp, orchard and evergreen forest. Some 1,000 birds of 150 species are sheltered there. The Union now runs a multi-dimensional bird breeding program that combines the scale provided by the Aviary with the decentralized breeding centers managed by one or a few Union members. In addition to experimental breeding of small numbers of wild Mexican birds, the Union is launching its first commercial scale breeding using time-tested methods with Australian canaries, which have a strong international market. The Union's early efforts in captive breeding have already demonstrated success. Union members have reduced their off-take from the wild by twenty percent while maintaining earning levels. The second strategic strand supports and reinforces existing limits on bird catching. Unlike those in other pajarero organizations, Union members pay no dues. The only requirement for membership is that pajareros comply strictly with wildlife conservation regulations. The Union has set up its own policing system, and anyone caught is expelled. The possibility of being deprived of the technical knowledge and profits of the captivity breeding experiments creates a strong incentive for compliance. Finally, the Union's strategy includes an eco-recreation component to educate the public about the importance of conservation while providing an additional source of income for the pajareros. Members conduct guided tours through the aviary, parks and reserves, making use of their skills and experience. More than 600 people tour the aviary every week and learn about the various species as well as their importance in the ecosystem. They learn which species are legal to purchase and thus help to reduce demand for black-market birds. The education element is furthered with environmental conferences organized to raise public consciousness. By working with other private and public educational institutions and environmental groups, the Union spreads awareness of and enthusiasm for their new venture. This lays the foundation for replicating the practices around the country. The result should be a nationwide increase in captive breeding and a decrease in the number of birds captured in the wild, allowing threatened species to rejuvenate. This will also allow Mexico to compete more effectively in the United States live bird import market.
Martín's conservationist bent stems from childhood experience. When he was a boy, he couldn't go to school because his help was needed at home to support his family. Instead, he went with his father to capture birds in the countryside. "I learned to eat the plants and flowers that the birds eat. Sometimes my father would give me a bird's egg to eat. I knew what it was to live in nature," he says. As an adult, he carried on the family business, which had been handed down from his grandfather. His feeling for the birds grew even as their numbers decreased. He came to the point at which he had to act. Without any idea what might follow, in 1988 he created a public event in which he freed 450 illegally captured birds. He now looks back on this moment as the turning point in his life. "It was beautiful to be able to return something to nature," he remembers. "The birds have given us a living. They have made it possible for my children to go to school," he adds. "I would be an ingrate if I did nothing for them, when they have given me so much. Its a moral obligation I have to them."