Is the credibility of ProAves and ABC damaged?

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by Gunnar on April 20, 2011 · 11 comments

in Birding Neotropics

Unethical behavior

I have tried in a previous post to neutrally account for the sequence of events in the soap-opera like feud between academic ornithologists and conservation NGO ProAves in Colombia regarding the description of a new Grallaria Antpitta. Before my departure for a  birding in Colombia, almost three weeks two weeks ago, a letter from the editor, Michael Patten, of the well respected scientific journal Condor to the discoverer of the new Antpitta from north-western Colombia, Diego Carantón, was made public.

Michael Patton writes:

I had hoped the dispute would be settled quickly, and I looked forward to receipt of your manuscript at a later time. So imagine my surprise when I learned, on 26 May 2010 from Storrs Olson and Phil Unitt, that ProAves published its own type description this antpitta. At first I was confused, because I did not understand how ProAves felt they had the right to publish their paper. When I looked into the matter further, I became angry, a rare occurrence for me. It turned out that the one referee who raised concern – the one who claimed to be “unable to obtain further information” and also was compelled to contact ProAves directly even after the Condor said it was satisfied with your permits – worked with ProAves! As I dug deeper, I learned that this referee was on the editorial board for the ProAves magazine (my comment: Conservacion Colombiana) that published their type description and therefore was co-author of the rather distasteful commentary that the magazine published to accompany its type description. (My comment: The following people were part of the editorial board for ProAves Conservacion Colombiana: David Caro, Lina Daza, Thomas Donegan, Alonso Quevedo y Paul Salaman).

It was at the moment that I realized that ProAves had, in effect, manoeuvred to trick the Condor out of considering your manuscscript so that ProAves could publish its own type description of the antpitta. Their publication was in my view, and extreme breach of ethics and stands in direct defiance of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZC) in that ProAves did not allow you ample time to publish the type description yourself. Indeed, ProAves manoeuvred to ensure that you could not publish, which goes against the very spirit of the ICZN´s rules.

Read the rest of the letter here.

Birders sum to the critique

After reading this, Caranton’s own words about the situation (translated to English by Google Translate) and reading the comments generated in its wake, Colombian bird conservation organization ProAves does not come out in good light. ProAves’ credibility is hurt – and in length – so is also the US bird conservation non-profit ABC who has been supporting ProAves during the process and whose president, George Fenwick and his family,  have lent the name to the Antpitta in the ProAves’ rushed type description (Grallaria fenwickorum).

As if receiving the anger from Red Nacional de Observadores de Aves (RNOA), as well as the most neotropical ornithologists on NEOORN list was not serious enough for ProAves, perhaps the fact that birders and people outside the academic circles also commence to feel that they can’t remain neutral on the issue after the long discussion on BirdForum is even more serious. Even one of the authors of the ProAves description questions whether it was correct to rush the publication to scoop Carantón (sic!). Check out these comments:

Avery Bartels – second author of ProAves type description and guide for EcoTurs – writes on BirdForum:

The way I see it, neither side deserves to be applauded in this debate, Proaves for their scientific irresponsibility with their incorrect depositing of specimens, the lack of impartiality on the part of the “referee” with the Condor, and the question of should they have published in the first place (to name a few); and Caranton for the illegality of his collecting/reporting and the taking advantage of Proaves funding for personal gain …….

Richard Klim – who started the thread named Fenwick’s Antpitta on Birdforum – quotes himself:

As an impartial observer of this sorry affair…
Serious mistakes were made by Carantón. But the course of action decided upon by ProAves management has been a massive own-goal – a self-inflicted PR disaster for ProAves (and the American Bird Conservancy).

I need to revise that: “As a once-impartial observer…”

PS: I regret my choice of title for this thread!

The future of Colombian bird conservation

As for myself, I admit that I always felt the ProAves acted wrongly in scooping Diego Caranton, but to some extent I understood that the locked positions between the parties in Colombia maybe made it inevitable. Now with all this behind, it strikes me incomprehensible that ProAves does not realize that they screwed up, and start doing some damage control. Even more surprising is that ABC and the Fenwick family are not more critical. Do they want to fall with ProAves?

ProAves should maybe concentrate to do what they have shown they do best: Conservation and sustainable eco-tourism. I was writing the first draft of this post two weeks ago while on the road between two ProAves reserves. During the trip we visited five ProAves reserves.  There are fantastic people working here that have been attending us. The parkguards in the reserves know their birds and there are numerous projects that benefit the local people such as plant schools for reforestation, environmental education in the schools and training women to produce handicraft to sell to the visiting birders. Angela Gomez and Trevor Ellery of Ecoturs – ProAves tour company – have supplied excellent booking service and site info for the reserves.

By coincidence on our way back to Santa Marta from San Lorenzo ridge, when passing ProAves El Dorado Reserve and Lodge, we ran into the new director of ProAves Lina Daza,  Sara Lara International Programs director of ABC and David Younkman Chief Conservation Officer of ABC.  I had hoped to be able to make some iPhone interviews, but instead we had a short but interesting round table talk without microphones.

Maybe in my ignorance, I had hoped for recognition that the publication of the type description was an error. Instead the argumentation circled around Caranton’s work obligations and breach of contract. While the comments by Colombian ornithologist often mentioned the good projects and intentions of  ProAves, the clumsy insensitive  actions of ProAves’ executive council are highlighted (like and elephant in a crystal shop was one metaphor used) – who rarely gave credit to those involved (prior to the Antpitta affair),  I now learnt that those working for ProAves  also felt like they were being attacked with lies and exaggerations by RNOA.
What a mess! How can they come to a consensus at this point?


It is clear, as David Younkman pointed out, that mediating by a third neutral (Colombian) party is advisable. As I was asked for my opinion, I highlighted that Lina Daza had an excellent opportunity to put things right as new director of ProAves. The best way is to overcome insults and hard words is to simply let them pass, and try to put oneself in the shoes of the other party.

The essence of the ProAves program in Colombia purchasing land which threatened birds inhabit, and in the same time provide facilities for birding tourists is simply brilliant. As mentioned in my review of the new ProAves field guide, ProAves has been the catalyst of bird conservation and birding tourism in Colombia. I am fully supportive of the ProAves programs in the reserves and the ecotourism facilities offered. I am wishing and hoping for a new dawn of dialogue and that ProAves start working with Colombian ornithologists rather than against them. It will be a long process of self-scrutiny and there will be problems to commence a dialogue when the confidence and trust is at bottom low, but it needs to be done. Hopefully, also RNOA can be more approachable, officially giving ProAves some credit for the good things they have achieved.

Even if ProAves is the biggest bird conservation organization in Colombia, there are many other conservation efforts and reserves – both private, communal and run by local authorities – that deserves mentioning – and funding. Check out these fine birding sites: Rogitama, Cerro Montezuma, Anchicaya, Yotoco and Pedro Palo.

Funding bodies will start looking for alternatives. It is in ProAves best interest to be more gentle, and take the first steps towards conciliation. What is more it is in the best interest of Colombian bird conservation that RNOA and ProAves become “friends”. It will take quite a bit of self analysis and ability to step outside of one’s ego, but it needs to be done. As for the referee, I bet he won’t get many similar requests in the future.


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