Because of an error in information supplied with a Chicago Tribune picture, a caption that appeared in some editions yesterday misidentified the man and the bird in a photograph with a story on illegal trafficking in endangered species. The man pictured was Alfredo Rackauskaf, not Tony Silva. The bird Rackauskaf was holding in the picture was a Redlord Amazon parakeet. (Published 2/3/96)
Tony Silva's fascination with birds started in childhood when an aunt gave him a pigeon as a pet. By the time he was in his twenties, he had become a self-taught expert on wild tropical birds and a world-renowned breeder and advocate for the conservation of endangered parrots.
In the tight-knit world of aviculture, Silva was a star, writing several books and numerous magazine articles and serving for a time as curator of Loro Parque, a parrot park in the Canary Islands. He helped found an organization to rescue the world's most endangered parrot, the Spix Macaw, from extinction.
"I'm a typical Virgo," Silva told an interviewer in 1985. "I get carried away. I never do anything in moderation."
Apparently not. On Wednesday, Silva, 36, pleaded guilty in Chicago to federal charges of illegal trafficking in the very birds he had campaigned passionately to protect. Among his crimes was conspiring to import dozens of Hyacinth Macaws, a critically endangered South American parrot that can bring up to $12,000 apiece on the black market, as well as conspiring as early as 1986 to smuggle other protected species such as Golden Conures, Vinaceous Amazons and Yellow-shouldered Amazons.
Silva's guilty plea, to charges of underreporting his income and conspiracy to violate federal laws prohibiting the importation of species listed as endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), capped a six-year undercover criminal investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into the lucrative trade in tropical birds.
Dubbed "Operation Renegade," the wide-ranging investigation of the illegal bird trade has resulted in the conviction of almost three dozen people involved in the smuggling of birds from Australia, Africa and South America.
Silva's indictment 13 months ago, on 15 counts of conspiring to smuggle birds and other wildlife worth $1.3 million into the United States, sparked an uproar among bird breeders and parrot fanciers. Some of his defenders, refusing to believe that a man who had campaigned against the black market in parrots could be a part of the world he denounced, accused the federal government of conspiring against him.
But with his guilty plea, Silva's double life has been fully exposed. Investigators working for the special operations branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service recorded more than 100 conversations with Silva and his mother, Gila Daoud, 63, who also pleaded guilty to an income tax charge related to the conspiracy.
In announcing Silva's plea, James B. Burns, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, called it "unconscionable" that someone of Silva's "stature in the avicultural community would contribute, ultimately, to the illicit process that threatens these exquisite creatures with extinction."
Although Silva enjoyed celebrity status in the world of bird breeders, his reputation was less bright in the scientific community, where he was regarded as a popularizer of the ideas of others. One parrot specialist yesterday called him "the Jimmy Swaggart of the bird world," a charlatan who embraced conservation "to cover up what he was really doing."
"The parrot scientific community looked on him with some skepticism," said Don Bruning, chairman and curator of the department of ornithology of the New York Zoological Society. He said he became suspicious of Silva as early as 1980 when, during a meeting of parrot conservation experts, officials from two Caribbean islands told him Silva was trying to obtain export permits for endangered parrots illegally. "It's a shame someone as talented as he was was using it for a lot of negative things," Bruning said. "He could have been a very significant positive force on the right side."
Silva frequently had denounced the illegal trade in tropical parrots, which along with destruction of habitat has been a key factor in the decline of many species. Of the 330 species of parrots, about two dozen are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The black market in parrots is a significant component of the international illegal trade in protected wildlife, estimated at $2 billion annually.
Writing in American Cage-Bird Magazine in 1991, Silva said illegal trafficking in Hyacinth Macaws "has brought this species to the brink of extinction and unless this situation is reversed, we will see its demise within our lifetime."
Why, then, would Silva become involved in an illicit trading scheme that the government contends resulted in the deaths of many of these birds, whose brilliant blue plumage, large size and intelligence have made them a favorite among aficionados? Perhaps Silva himself provided the answer in his 1989 book, "A Monograph of Endangered Parrots." The Hyacinth Macaw, wrote Silva, is "worth its weight in gold." CAPTION: Tony Silva's guilty plea capped a six-year investigation into the tropical bird trade. CAPTION: Tony Silva, pictured holding a Toco Toucan in 1987, had written that the Hyacinth Macaw, one of the types of bird he had conspired to illegally import, is "worth its weight in gold."