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Raptor Conservation and the Kindness of Strangers
Marta Curti — in West Indies Project    Share

It was just past 7 p.m. and the sun was quickly setting behind the fields of sugar cane and grass that lined the narrow road. Roaring motorcycles, and buses with music blaring from their windows whizzed past me, their lights fading into the darkness as I made my way slowly towards La Herradura – one of the release sites for the Ridgway’s Hawk in the Dominican Republic.I was on my way there with two young hawks in tow and a large bag filled with frozen meat (hawk food). I was coming from Los Limones – the small town that borders Los Haitises National Park, where the last known population of this species exists. As part of The Peregrine Fund and the Hispaniolan Ornithological Society’s conservation efforts, we are conducting an assisted dispersal project whereby we take up to 10 chicks from wild nests and release them in other protected areas in the country, in the hopes that they will eventually breed and establish additional wild populations. That afternoon, my co-workers in Los Limones, Thomas and Christine Hayes, had just returned from the field with two healthy, beautiful chicks and my job was to get them safely to the release site.

Young Ridgway's Hawks prior to release

All was going well until, with still about an hour and a half to go, the truck I was driving broke down. Luckily, I had been able to ease it onto the non-existent shoulder before it completely stopped moving. Once on the side of the road, I popped the hood and peered inside. Of course, I know very, very little about cars, but was hoping that something would be obviously wrong and easy to fix, but my untrained eye saw nothing out of the ordinary. I removed the birds (safe in individual carriers), the hawk food, and my back pack from the truck, prepared to walk to a safe spot to wait for a passing bus. I hadn’t gotten very far when a man on a motorcycle stopped to help. He informed me that I shouldn’t leave the truck parked overnight as it surely would not be there the next day. So, with the meat tied to my backpack and a bird carrier in each hand, I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and he slowly and carefully drove me to the nearest gas station. At that point, the birds and their safety was my top priority, but I also knew I would not be very popular back at the office if I allowed the truck to get stolen! I grew up in a large city, so trusting strangers is not one of my strong suits, but in all the years of working on this job, I have relied on the kindness of strangers time and again, and I trusted that this time would be no different. So, without another thought, I handed him the keys to the truck, while I stayed with the birds. I watched as he made his way down the road with a few other people he enlisted to help. Unable to start the truck, they pushed it all the way back to the gas station where I was assured the night guard would keep watch on it until the next morning.

With the truck taken care of, I now had to make my way back to the release site and it was getting late. After a few more hours of shuttling the birds on foot, motorcycle and bus (and paying the last bus driver a little bit extra to take me the last 20 minutes down the bumpy dirt road to the house), I made it to La Herradura around midnight.I am happy to say that the next morning, with help from Pedro and Ulla, our hack site volunteers, we placed the transmitters on the birds and they were safely in the hack box (where they would remain for the next week, being fed and getting used to their new surroundings prior to release) by 9:30 the next morning. Leaving the hawks in capable hands, I focused my attention on the truck. As promised, it was still at the gas station the next morning. Everyone I met there, and in town, was extremely friendly. They helped me find a mechanic and a hotel when it turned out I had to wait over night for the mechanic to get all the parts and repair the truck. I spent a lot of my time over those two days talking about the hawks and our work to conserve them. What seemed like a frustrating situation at the time, turned into an opportunity to spread the word about this endangered bird and to gain local support for its protection. All in all, not a bad couple of days!

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