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Toa Kyle

Toa Kyle was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. After completing a bachelor’s degree in biology at McGill University, he took five years to work and travel abroad in Asia and Latin America.

Later returning to school, he completed a Master of Science degree in conservation biology and applied ecology at Frostburg State University in 2001. His thesis looked at the use of forest clay licks by mammals and birds in the Peruvian Amazon.

Toa has worked for the World Parrot Trust since 2003, conducting studies of Blue-throated Macaw and Red-fronted Macaw in Bolivia and Golden Conure in Brazil.
Future goals include setting up summer camps for urban youth in developing countries and eventually settling down in the jungle somewhere.

Dedicated Biologist Chats With FlockTalk

Toa Kyle is a rarity; one of the few with the confidence to travel to a new country and a completely new culture, and set up camp to study wildlife. It’s not as easy as it appears however appealing and exotic it looks on first glance. It is hard work, not for the faint of heart, and one needs dedication and a small amount of fearlessness to get the job done.

Toa decided he was one of those dedicated ones. Born and raised in Canada, Toa completed his bachelor’s degree in biology at McGill University and then took five years to work and travel around Asia and Latin America. Returning to North America he then completed his Master of Science degree in Conservation Biology and Applied Ecology at Frostburg State University in 2001, his thesis examining the use of forest clay licks by mammals and birds in the Peruvian Amazon. In 2003 Toa began working for the World Parrot Trust, conducting studies of the Blue-throated and Red-fronted Macaws in Bolivia and the Golden Conure in Brazil. Currently, he is training another biologist, Igor Berkunsky, to take over his role with the Blue-fronted Macaw. This will allow Toa to continue his studies with the Golden Conure in Brazil.

Toa recently took some time from his recent trip to Bolivia to talk to us about his work…

1) How serious is the need for the study of the Blue-throated Macaw?

I feel like we’re at a critical juncture right now for the species. Recall that it was only discovered in the wild by biologists in 1992. Research since then has been spotty due to lack of serious funding. WPT entered the picture in 2002 to concentrate on nest work which until then had remained unstudied. What our project is finding is that reproductive success for Blue-throats is low (under a third of active nests fledge young) and we still don’t know [what] proportion of chicks survive past their first year in the wild. What concerns me is that as older birds disappear either due to old age, predation or disease there will be fewer younger birds to take their place, possibly leading to extinction in the wild. Hence the need to continue our work and increase management techniques aimed at bolstering the number of birds in the wild.

2) What are the challenges you face in Bolivia, from local or national governments?

Since I began working with Blue-throats in 2003, the governments at both levels (national and local) [have] changed four times. This means we’ve had to start from scratch each time a new government official assumes their position. Building up a relationship of trust takes time, so in that respect things have been difficult over the past four seasons due to all of the political instability Bolivia has been experiencing. Throw into the mix the fact that at both levels of government the branches that deal with wildlife projects are under-funded and understaffed, things become even more challenging. Also, one has to take into account the desire for more regional autonomy by the lowland states (referred to as departamentos in Bolivia). Blue-throats are found only in the lowland department of the Beni. If the federal government in La Paz does not grant more freedom to these regions in the near future, civil war is not out of the question. From the perspective of our project we need to maintain positive relations with both levels of government and await the outcome of all the political turmoil that is occurring at present.

3) How responsive have the local people been to your work?

I think on the whole, our project has been received well where we work. The most important relationships we have are with the land owners where Blue-throats are found. At present all the birds we know of are found on cattle ranches. No permission from a cattle rancher to work on his ranch, no project to protect Blue-throats. Thus far we’ve been lucky to have come into contact with ranchers who are conservation minded and understand the importance of our project. At the level of the ranch, cowboys tend to come and go throughout each season but for those that I’ve known over the past four years, the assistance they’ve given to our efforts to save the Blue-throated Macaw has been essential to the success we’ve had thus far. This can come in the form of reporting sightings of birds at new sites or denying bird trappers access to ranches where we work. Unfortunately we still don’t have enough funding to work year round in the Beni, so the latter contribution is so important when we are not in the field keeping an eye on things.

4) Have you had any interesting experiences while working in the field that you would like to share?

Even though our project is focused on Blue-throats, the contact I’ve had with other wildlife has been unforgettable. I’ve spent a lot of time in blinds watching macaw nests so this also provides opportunities to spy on other animals. At one blind, I’ve had an anaconda (the world’s largest snake) poke its head in one side of the blind briefly before deciding that I was too big to swallow. A few days later a giant anteater walked right past me, passing briefly to look me right in the eye. They have terrible eye sight, so if the wind doesn’t carry your scent to them, you can often get really close to them. Unfortunately my desire to see a jaguar here has still gone unrewarded. It’s been almost comical how volunteers have been here for a few weeks and seen them and after four years, I’ve still never seen one.

5) What is an average day like for you? (ie: when you start in the morning, your main activities with the macaws, etc)

At the beginning of our field season it’s all about nest searching. One of the first things macaws tend to do in the morning at the start of the breeding season is visit their nest site, so we need to be up and out at dawn to increase our chances of locating potential nests. By around 10am things get too hot (for both us and the macaws) so we find some shade and a hammock to rest in until around 2 pm when things start to cool down a bit and macaw activity picks up again. My favorite times of the day are the first hour after dawn and the last hour of sunlight prior to sunset. That’s when things get intense in terms of bird activity and of course the colours of our surroundings are at their most spectacular.

6) What can the average person do to help Blue-throated macaws in the wild?

Send money! Unfortunately those countries with the richest wildlife are often the poorest economically. Bolivia is no exception to this generalization. There’s a real need for developed countries to help conservation efforts here via funding. As I mentioned before, we currently don’t have enough funds to work in the field year round, so I’d love to see more donations happen to enable us to better understand what needs to be done to bring these birds back from the brink of extinction. Compared to other countries in South America, Bolivia is a very economical country to work in. Every type of donation, large or small, goes a long way here. If anyone has a small airplane they’re not using anymore, that would help us immensely when the landscape starts to flood here come November!!!

As this article goes online Toa is training a new biologist, Igor Berkunsky, to take over the Blue-throated Macaw study in Bolivia. Berkunsky, an Argentine with his PhD in Blue-fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva) ecology, will continue vital work in surveying nest sites. Toa will spend the months of September and October surveying the Blue-headed Macaw and then leave for Brazil to continue his efforts to help the Golden Conure. For those who are interested in reading more, please visit Toa’s blog at http://www.parrots.org