The wilds of Loxahatchee are wilder than most think. Tucked away behind tall, blacked-out fences lies a 30-acre tract of land that is home to some of the rarest and most endangered species, and could help preserve some of the most fragile ecosystems on earth. The work of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation [RSCF], a small outfit of conservationists doing groundbreaking work, is at the forefront of the ever-raging battle between civilization and wilderness.
Dr. Paul Reillo, director of RSCF, leads a group of dedicated field operatives, veterinarians, zoologists and researchers in survival and breeding programs of some of the most critically endangered species on the planet.
Speaking with Reillo on the topic of conservation is like speaking with a prophet. We live in a world at a crossroads. The days of free water are behind us. The times of untrammeled wildernesses are done. Development, overpopulation and apathy have depleted some of the most biologically diverse regions in the world, stripped the earth of her resources and left an unregulated growing population completely unchecked and uneducated. “There has been a disconnect between what nature is and what we, as a species, perceive nature to be,” says Reillo while walking along the Loxahatchee property, where skittish bongo hide behind the brush. “We cannot conserve and protect all on an equal footing. Biodiversity needs to be precise; when you start to know about the individual there is a spill-over effect that preserves many others.”
Reillo and the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation subscribe to a form of conservation targeting flagship species. This has an umbrella effect, saving ecosystems, protecting species that live in those ecosystems, as well as preserving the land for the people that share the habitat. The stretch of property in western Palm Beach County has a number of species that are currently involved in breeding programs and targeted conservation efforts. Some of RSCF's flagship species include the Red-Browed Amazon (Amazona rhodocorytha) parrot endemic to Brazil; the pygmy marmoset (Callithrix pygmaea) prevalent to South America; the mountain bongo antelope (Boocercus eurycerus isaaci) indigenous to Kenya; the Imperial Amazon (Amazona imperialis) and the Red-Necked Amazon (Amazona arausiaca) parrots, both indigenous to Dominica; the Bahama Parrot (Amazona leucocephala bahamensis) of the Bahamas; and the Golden Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia) of Brazil, just to name a few.
Rare Species Conservatory Foundation is a rare operation in the non-profit world in the sense that no one takes a salary; RSCF is truly a labor of love. The staff is on board for the simple task of saving critically endangered species and ecosystems from the brink of extinction. One hundred percent of the money raised and donated to the RSCF passes directly to the programs it is intended for, be it works in the field, the breeding facility in Florida, or to the ecosystems these animals call home. “The work we do here is tangible,” says Reillo, whose parrot-rearing nursery is helping stem the loss of the Red-Browed Amazons before they are completely lost in the wild. “Returns are immediate, they are in real time.”
The captive-breeding operations of the RSCF act as a safety net for their brethren in the wild. The foundation's main concern is for the animals and the ecosystems that are sometimes on the other side of the planet. In the case of the mountain bongo, the captive-breeding program has made a positive impact on numbers in the wild but this is not always the case, and Reillo is the first to point this out. “Captive components only work if you can put them back; a caged animal is not conservation. Saving an animal where it lives is 50 times easier than reintroducing it.”
Which is why the RSCF is proactive when it comes to preserving the last flecks of wilderness in the world. In 2000, Reillo and the RSCF leveraged themselves to the hilt in order to save one of the most biologically diverse stretches of land in the world. The Morne Diablotin National Park in the West Indian island of Dominica, one of the oldest Caribbean rainforests and home to the Imperial Parrot, would not be a national park without the RSCF raising $750,000 to help purchase land. Now, the RSCF, with the help of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, helps monitor populations of the critically endangered Imperial Amazon and the Red-Necked Amazon parrots. The work in the field not only gives these parrots a fighting chance at survival, but also acts as a catalyst to save more land, protecting sites where the parrots and other species nest, feed and live. “This is long-term and measurable," he says. "This is continuous because if you let up, it’s over.”
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