Remembering Gonzalo Cardona, Protector of the Yellow-eared Parrot

The Colombian conservationist was murdered in January after counting the birds he helped save from extinction.

Under a darkening sky on January 8, parrot conservationist and community leader Gonzalo Cardona guided his motorcycle along a rough mountain road toward his home in Roncesvalles, located high in Colombia’s Central Andes. Known for his upbeat, optimistic take on life, Cardona had good reason that night to be particularly happy.

Gonza, as his friends call him, was returning to his birthplace after wrapping up a census of the Yellow-eared Parrot. When he began his efforts to save the species in 1999, it had dwindled to a remnant flock of 81 individuals. But now, the tallies of his latest survey notebooks recorded 2,895 parrots in dozens of flocks scattered throughout Colombia's cloud forests.

“Without him, there would be no Yellow-eared Parrots,” says Sara Inés Lara, executive director of Fundación ProAves, which owns the reserve that Gonza managed for more than 20 years.

Gonza never made it home that night. Family and friends searched for days along his presumed route until his wife received a call telling her where to find his body. The searchers found him on a remote stretch of road, covered in sticks and dirt, his chest torn open by two bullets.

Barely a week into 2021, Gonzalo Cardona became the year’s first environmental leader to be assassinated in Colombia. For Colombian birders, his death was yet another reminder of the wrenching challenges that continue to afflict the world’s most bird-rich country.

Many areas of this South American nation have become calmer in recent years, safely hosting thousands who come from around the world to experience its unparalleled avian life. But for its own citizens who stand up for the environment, Colombia has the distinction of being the most dangerous place on Earth. According to Global Witness, 64 activists, rangers, and others working to protect and preserve nature were killed in 2019 (the most recent year for which statistics have been fully confirmed). Despite a growing awareness and support for conservation, Colombia continues to lose its frontline environmental defenders to violence.

After the last-known flock disappeared in Ecuador in 1997, ornithologists suspected that the Yellow-eared Parrot was extinct. In April of 1999, after a year of searching, a team of researchers followed a rumor to the cloud forests outside Roncesvalles. When the researchers told Gonza, who was then a dairy farmer, that the talkative, charismatic birds that kept him company each day were the last of their species, he decided to join the field-work team.

“His experience working and sharing with biologists in the field made him fall in love with that job,” says Andrea Beltran, a biologist and guide who worked with Gonza on several projects along with her husband, Alejandro Grajales.

When ProAves founded the Andean Parrot Reserve to protect the Yellow-eared Parrot and the remnant stands of palm on which it depends, Gonza became the organization’s first employee. Starting as a forest guard, he quickly took on the roles of conservation biologist and tree-regeneration expert—albeit without the academic degrees.

Yellow-eared Parrots are dependent on the endangered Quindío wax palm, which grows as high as 200 feet at altitudes up to 10,000 feet. It is also Colombia’s national tree. The parrots eat the palm’s fruits and nest exclusively in mature trees. But because the tree takes more than 80 years to bear fruit, it is extremely vulnerable to the indiscriminate clearing that has taken down 90 percent of Colombia’s cloud forests.

Yellow-eared Parrots nest in natural cavities in stems high above the ground. With mature trees in short supply, Gonza and his team built and tested artificial nest boxes, eventually landing on a configuration that the birds accepted—a development that has greatly helped the parrots recover their numbers.

Ben Freeman, a biologist who studies birds in tropical mountains, met Gonza in 2008 and accompanied him to a site where he was monitoring dozens of nests in trees growing on a steep pasture. “He’d set up ropes and climb the trees and bring the furry babies down to weigh and measure them, then he’d climb up to return them to their nests,” Freeman remembers. “He was incredibly passionate; each bird was a treasure to him and he knew their individual histories. He’d say, ‘This pair didn’t do so well last year, and look at them now—three chicks!’”

Gonza, whose walrus moustache stretched beneath a broad cattleman’s hat when he smiled, was intent on spreading his enthusiasm for birds. He hosted schoolchildren at the reserves and trained young rangers to monitor parrots. Gonza and his colleagues enlisted artists to paint utility poles with images of the bird and tree and organized an annual Festival of the Yellow-eared Parrot and the Wax Palm. Media campaigns, workshops, and even a brightly painted mobile classroom called the “parrot bus” spread the parrot-conservation message to more than 150,000 children.

Thanks to Gonza and those who supported his work, the Yellow-eared Parrot began to rebound, reaching 310 individuals in Roncesvalles in 2004. By 2010, the population had climbed to more than 1,000, and the species was downlisted from critically endangered to endangered.

But if the mountainscapes that eventually made up an 18,000-acre Threatened Parrot Corridor were good places for parrots—and other endangered species such as spectacled bears and mountain tapirs—they were often dangerous for humans.

Roncesvalles lies on a strategic route that combatants have used to move through the mountains from the Department of Tolima to the south of the country since Colombia’s civil war began in the 1960s. Residents, including Gonza, were sometimes caught in skirmishes between the military and the guerrillas, and citizens have been terrorized, displaced, and killed. Though the government and FARC guerrillas signed a peace agreement in 2016, the government has not stepped in to secure the area. The resulting power vacuum has been filled by drug traffickers, illegal loggers, and miners whose economic interests conflict with those who defend ecosystems and endangered species. 

By 2019, the parrot population had increased to more than 2,600. But threats and intimidation were growing. In January of this year, anonymously written pamphlets threatened community leaders and warned them to stay away from the mountainous area where Gonza’s body was found.

The vast majority of murders in Colombia go unsolved, resulting in a sense of impunity that does nothing to discourage those who would use murder to silence environmental and human-rights defenders or shut down conservation projects. Indeed, shortly after Gonza’s death, ProAves announced that it was closing its reserve near the murder site, at least temporarily.

“It scares us to be there because they can easily take the lives of other rangers,” conservation director Alexánder Cortés says. Without the presence of the reserve’s protectors, he fears for the well-being of birds and other wildlife. “What is going to happen to what is there, to the species for which no one speaks?”

Other conservationists say that Gonza’s death has only catalyzed their dedication to their work, and that his life serves as an inspiration by showing just how much positive impact one person can have.

“It was particularly hard for those of us who are concerned with the conservation of our natural heritage,” wrote Rodrigo Bernal, a Colombian botanist who specializes in palms, in El Espectador. “But this horrendous crime put the name of the Yellow-eared Parrot on the tongues of half the country.”

Gonza’s grieving friends in the birding and conservation community maintain that, in a sense, Gonza is not really gone; they point to a statement by ProAves that sums up the sentiments of many: “He lives in every Yellow-eared Parrot that flies joyfully through the skies, in every wax palm that was planted in his name, and in everyone whose life has been touched by his vision and actions.”