When Horacio Matarasso started his own birding company, Buenos Días Birding, in 2003, he has been birdwatching for 20 years; has studied biology at Buenos Aires University; has been a professor and the director of Ornithology Center at Comahue National University in Patagonia; has visited countries as far as China; has worked in and led international organizations such as Wetland International. His expertise in ornithology and conservation, and his passion for birds, has made him one of the leading figures of South American bird watchers.
When and why did you start to watch birds?
I started birding in 1983 when I was in high school, about 15 years old. I wanted to be a biologist when I was in elementary school. In Argentina, there are organizations run by people who know about nature. These organizations are very important because they have the possibility of conveying the curiosity of adolescents, or even their families, who are starting to be interested in these topics. So, I was in Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina, which is a member of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and I was in Asociasión Ornitológica (Aves Argentinas), which is a member of BirdLife International. Therefore I got familiar to binoculars, guides, and I started to go traveling, doing all that fun stuff.
What’s your favourite places for birding?
Well, I think my favourite places are changing with time. For me I like wetlands and warm places such as Iberá (a National Park in Argentina) because these places have great concentrations of bird species. These days I’d like to see the birds clearly and take good photos of them. I also like Amazon rainforests, especially in Peru, where there are totally unspoiled and untouched reserves.
I like high-altitude regions in the Andes, where everything is in absolute silence. There are not a lot of species of birds to be seen, and most of them are endemic. But I like the sensation of being in a peaceful world.
I know that you’ve traveled to China for birding. What are the similarities and differences between Argentina and China in terms of birdwatching and culture?
I think that China has less traditions [when it comes to birding], but now the world is globalizing. I have Chinese friends, and when we go out to birding, we are on the same page. It feels the same when I travel to China to watch birds and when they come to Argentina. Maybe in China there is more emphasis on photographing the birds more than the study of nature, but I think globalization has connected us all.
There are certainly differences in what birds you see in China or Argentina. There are more people living in coastal areas [of China], where the environmental is more impacted. But in central China, there are very natural places. However, there are no totally untouched places in China, which can be found in South America. But nevertheless China is a fantastic place for birding.
China, Argentina, and the whole world actually, are common in the sense that the public doesn’t have enough consciousness towards the environment. The outbreak of Coronavirus is showing us just how disconnected people are to nature.
Why is developing ecotourism important in countries like China and Argentina?
In order for us to conserve, the local communities have to participate in the conservation, and they have to benefit from it. In general, people don’t conserve the environment in a poor society or country, while richer countries do conserve. We can see this in China: 50 years ago, China contaminated and destroyed its environment, but now, as the country becomes richer, the force of conservation is strong and unique in today’s world. I have seen gigantic spaces where people are planting native trees and restoring the environment.
So the poor destroys [the environment], while the rich conserves it. Therefore, we need to let the inhabitants near wetlands or other crucial places benefit from the conservation. One of the best way to achieve this is through ecotourism because it enriches the locals and incentivizes them to conserve. We say that ecotourism creates a virtuous circle because it generates wealth for locals, and it leads to effective conservation. It benefits both the people and the environment.
What is the importance of birdwatching in the context of environmental crisis?
First and foremost, people who go birding are those who likes to go out and experience nature, and those who are involved in conservation. Few groups have had an impact more profound and important on the conservation of nature than the community of bird conservationists. When these people go out into nature and see a problematic situation, they expose it to the public as well as the government, and they work in organizations that conserve nature.
The birding community that we are seeing today, with more than 80 million people around the world, is going out into nature and participating in conservation. This creates a very strong impact in today’s world.
Now, with the Coronavirus situation going on, we don’t know its origin yet, and there are many theories. Nevertheless, we all have a role to play on the market of wildlife trading. In lots of countries, the trading continues to go on despite being prohibited by the government. In Argentina, there are several markets that are similar [to the one in Wuhan]. And the group of people that are going against these markets are primarily the community of bird conservationists. This reinforces the importance of the birdwatching community.
The interview was conducted in Spanish and was later translated to English. It has been edited and condensed for fluency and clarity.