At a dark hour between January 8 and 10, 2021, environmental conservation community leader Gonzalo Cardona Molina was killed in Valle del Cauca, Colombia. Gonzalo dedicated the last 23 years of his life to protecting the Yellow-eared Parrot, a wondrous bird that was in danger of extinction. (It has already been extirpated, or made locally extinct, in neighboring Ecuador.)
Colombia has become somewhat safer since the terrifying days of the narcos. It has become a more popular birding destination. It could be the greatest birding destination on the planet for its range of habitat and number of species.
Yet the South American nation is still the most dangerous place in the world to take a stand for the environment, according to Global Witness.
In 2019, 64 park rangers and others working to protect and preserve nature were killed. There is ongoing conflict between remnants of the FARC, which signed a nominal peace treaty with the government in 2016, the country’s official armed forces, and other militarized groups.
It was into this mess that “Gonza” (as his many friends called him) Cardona bravely stepped. He had been a farmer; he had no specific reason to protect an endangered species. He could have gone on with his life, as many of his fellow Colombians do every day. But he persisted.
When Gonzalo began counting the Yellow-eared Parrots in 1998, only about 80 were left in Colombia. Through his efforts — including tree planting, habitat protection, and educational programs — and those of Fundación ProAves, the number grew to more than 2,800 (35 times more the 1998 total) when he completed his last census in December 2020.
After the census, on January 8, Gonzalo was headed home to Roncevalles, a mountain town 2,400 meters above sea level. His birthplace, Roncevalles is a town that has been occupied by armed forces, its citizens terrorized and killed. A place to tread lightly.
There is a road connecting Barragán and Roncesvalles. A lonely road, and a no-go zone after 6 pm. “Everyone knows,” said the local papers. FARC holdouts, armed bandits, and others don’t like “their” territory compromised after dark. Gonzalo hopped on his motorbike and headed home for a well-deserved rest after completing the census.
He never made it.
A few days later, after his disappearance was reported, Gonzalo’s wife received a call from the perpetrators who shot and killed him. They can stop looking. You can find his body here. His body was found, covered in sticks and dirt, with two bullets in the chest.
Gonzalo Cardona died defending a species of parrot that otherwise may have disappeared forever. He never questioned why he did it. It simply had to be done.
Gonza gave people hope. He made Colombians proud of their natural treasures, just as the adventurous team at Expedicion BIO from the Humboldt Institute is reclaiming this heritage and giving the country a path forward in conservation and ecotourism. Gonzalo lives on in the work of Fundación ProAves throughout Colombia, and through the annual Yellow-eared Parrot Festival in Roncevalles, close to where he died.
“Colombia didn’t just lose a precious life,” ProAves said. “Colombia lost a champion for nature and our beloved Yellow-eared Parrots lost their father and savior.”
May he rest in peace.