The hyacinth macaw makes a comeback
Posted on 21 April 2004
What does it take to save the world's largest parrot from extinction? Dedication, ingenuity - and love.A hot June day in the Pantanal, Brazil. It's the dry season. Although this is the world’s largest tropical wetland, the grass is now yellow, and there’s hardly any water to be seen. The few ponds that do remain after the wet season floods are full of caimans. A group of nandus have found shade under some trees on the rolling fields. I'm on my way to visit the Hyacinth Macaw Project at the Refúgio Ecológico Caiman, some 250 kilometers west of the city of Campo Grande.
Entering the project office, I see a poster showing all the parrots and macaws of Brazil. Four completely blue macaws catch my eye. Curious, I point to the first one.
"We call this Arara azul pequena, Anodorhyncus glaucus in Latin," says Cézar Corrêa, the project's Research Assistant. "It became extinct in 1950."
I point to the second blue macaw.
"Ararinha azul, Cyanopsitta spixii. It became extinct in the wild in 2000. Around 60 birds remain in captivity."
I point to the third.
"Arara azul de Lear, Anodorhynchus laeri, Lear’s macaw in English. Around 450 still live in the wild and some in captivity."
Three of these four beautiful blue birds gone or almost gone. I am shocked.
I point at the last one, the hyacinth macaw. It's the largest of them all, measuring 1m from beak to the tip of the tail, with a wingspan of 1.5m. I've traveled thousands of kilometres to see it, Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, or Arara azul as it's called in Brazil.
"We estimate 6,500 hyacinth macaws remain in the wild, of which around 5,000 live in the Pantanal." I sigh with relief.
But not long ago the hyacinth macaw, the world's largest parrot, was also in great danger. In the 1980s an estimated 10,000 specimens were illegally captured and sold as pets, mainly on the international black market. A single bird could bring in US$12,000.
On top of this, the species' natural habitat was being destroyed by deforestation, burning, and planting of pasture for cattle. Local Indians used fire weapons to kill the macaws, taking their feathers to make souvenirs for tourists. By the end of the 1980s, only 2,500–3,000 remained in the wild.
Then, in the 1990s, the Brazilian Pantanal population of hyacinth macaws recovered. In one 4,000km2 area, the number doubled within 10 years — from 1,500 in 1990 to 3,000 in 2000. How did this come about?
At the end of the 1980s, 27-year-old biology student Neiva Guedes was on tour in the Pantanal. Watching a flock of large, deep-blue macaws flying by, her professor said: "These hyacinth macaws are likely to become extinct during our lifetime."
Neiva was struck. At that very moment the course of her life changed forever. Determined not to let this extinction happen, she started the Hyacinth Macaw Project.
Cézar, a former car mechanic, is not a man you will run down easily. Strong and supple, with a short goatee and dark eyes under a hat, he seemed pretty tough in the project office. But I soon discover he's a man full of love.
Cézar drives me across the rugged terrain of the Refúgio Ecológico Caiman. It's a place of permanent and temporary lakes and ponds, with rolling fields of grass and shrub broken by corridors and islands of forest.
Wooden fences indicate this is cattle country. It's also the land of jaguar, ocelot, caiman, tapir, and giant anteater. More than 600 bird species live here too — ibis, storks, toucans, and, of course, macaws.
There they are, three hyacinth macaws! Two adults and a young. "A family," Cézar explains. "The young stay with their parents for around 18 months."
I train my binoculars on them. Blue, so very blue! Golden eye rings and cheeks. There they go, flying away with power and grace, their long tail behind them.
In the Pantanal, hyacinth macaws — highly social and faithful birds that mate for life — prefer to make their nest in the manduvi tree, whose soft trunk is easily hollowed out by a macaw beak. In the process of enlarging natural cavities, the birds also create a lining of small woodchips and sawdust for the eggs to rest on.
We arrive at the first nest, about 8m above the ground. A small rope hangs down from a branch higher up. This nest has been monitored before.
After attaching a longer rope to the one on the tree, Cézar snaps on a harness seat. Stretching my neck, I watch him quickly haul himself up. He puts a hand into the cavity and feels around.
"The birds are preparing their nest," says Cézar after he’s come back down. "I felt the wood chips." If the cavity had been too deep for the future young to get out, Cézar would have added extra woodchips to raise the floor of the nest.
Two black vultures sit on guard next to the second nest we visit. A hyacinth macaw appears in the opening of the cavity. Head slightly tilted, it calmly watches the predators. This macaw has no invasion to fear. Cézar has fixed boards of wood around the nest opening, making it too small for the vultures — and other predators like hawks and large owls — to get in.
The third nest we visit is not a cavity at all, but rather a wooden box placed high up in a tree. Cézar constructs these artificial nests because there are too few natural nesting sites.
These interventions were all developed by Neiva Guedes. With support from the University for the Development of the State and Region of the Pantanal, she created the Hyacinth Macaw Project in 1990. She then taught herself how to climb trees and began monitoring the macaws' nests and chicks.
Neiva found that the survival rate of hyacinth macaw chicks is generally low. Breeding pairs lay two eggs on average, but usually only one survives. The eggs and chicks are often taken by predators, and also, the second chick will not survive if it hatches more than four days after the first.
Neiva’s ideas to increase the breeding success of the hyacinth macaw have been very successful. Artificial nests and the use of boards to keep predators out of natural nests have contributed considerably to the species' recovery in the project area.
Chick management has also been effective. In nests that have a history of unsuccessful breeding, Cézar replaces the macaw eggs with chicken eggs. The macaw eggs are incubated in the field laboratory. After hatching, the chicks are fed for a few days and then reintroduced to the original nests or to another nest with chicks of the same age.
Despite the success of these measures, some disapprove of interfering like this.
"Artificial nest boxes are a short- and medium-term measure," counters Neiva. "We use them because one of the biggest problems for hyacinth macaws is a lack of natural nests. We also work with the ranchers for long-term solutions, like preserving native trees such as the manduvi."
"We only manage chicks in nests where there would be no chick survival without our interference," she continues. "And before we do this, we first limit ourselves to managing the nest, for example by making the opening smaller to protect against predators."
Neiva is the hyacinth macaw's equivalent of Jane Goodall. Besides being a gifted researcher, she's also a successful ‘warrior for the hyacinth’, as one cattle rancher puts it. In between collecting data over the past decade, Neiva has tirelessly paid visits to the cattle ranches in the region, raising awareness of the birds and what they need to survive.
Expanding cattle ranches — whose pastures replace the macaw's natural habitat — are the major threat to the species today in the Pantanal. The highly specialized birds have a high-energy diet, based on the nuts of two palm tree species, acuri and bocaiúva. Safeguarding these two feeding trees plus the macaw's favourite nesting tree, the manduvi, is a priority.
Thanks to Neiva, ranchers are now beginning to be proud to have a macaw nest on their property. The awareness raising has also diminished the threat of the illegal trade in hyacinth macaws in the project area.
"The Hyacinth Macaw Project has brought hope to this species in the Brazilian Pantanal. The results are outstanding," says Bernadete Lange from the Brazilian office of the global conservation organization WWF, which has supported the project since 1999.
"But unfortunately, the species is not doing so well in other areas of Brazil, such as the Cerrado savannahs and the eastern Amazon," says Bernadette. "Seventeen years ago there were 1,500 individuals in these areas, but today only 1,000 remain. This is due to conversion of their forest habitat to pasture and soy crops. The Brazilian government must treat the hyacinth macaw as an endangered species, and work to protect its natural habitat."
One incentive for the government and local landowners to protect wildlife and natural habitats could be ecotourism. The Pantanal is one of the best places in the world to watch birds and animals. Neiva and her team are thinking of organizing field trips for ecotourists to experience the hyacinth project.
The money from such trips is desperately needed. The staff of the Hyacinth Macaw Project lack people and resources to adequately monitor macaw nests. More money is also needed to properly preserve macaw habitat.
Despite the difficulties, Neiva remains full of passion.
"The purpose of my work, which means my life, is to preserve the hyacinth macaw in the wild," she says. "I don't care about having 100, 200, or 300 birds in captivity, 50 or 100 years from now. I care about a sustainable population of hyacinth macaws flying free in Brazil."
* Meindert Brouwer is Communications Manager at WWF-Netherlands
The Pantanal is the world's largest continental wetland. The size of Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal, and the Netherlands put together, it covers over 210,000km2 in Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
The Pantanal is mostly flat, and comprises a complex system of rivers, lagoons, lowlands, and different types of forest. During the annual floods, up to 80% of the area is covered by water.
The area is extremely rich in flora and fauna. More bird species are found in the Pantanal than in all of North America, and more freshwater fish species are found here than in Europe. In 2000, UNESCO recognized the Pantanal biome as a Biosphere Reserve. The Pantanal is also one of WWF's Global 200 Ecoregions — a science-based global ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats and the regions on which WWF concentrates its efforts.
Although large areas of the Pantanal remain untouched, it is threatened by expanding human settlement, unsustainable farming practices, illegal mining, hydroelectric power plant construction, unregulated tourism. The area's wildlife is threatened by habitat loss.
Hyacinth Macaw Project
The Hyacinth Macaw Project was started by biologist Neiva Guedes in 1990. WWF-Brazil became the project's main supporter in 1999. Other partners in the project include the University for the Development of the State and Region of the Pantanal, Refúgio Ecológico Caiman, Toyota Brasil, Brasil Telecom, and Brazilian NGOs Manoel de Barros Foundation and Vanzin Escapamentos.
The project works with local landowners, local communities, and tourists. About 42 farms are part of the project, which covers 4,000 km2 and contains some 540 nests, both natural and artificial. The landowners help with the monitoring of the hyacinth macaws, as well as with ensuring their protection. Tourists, landowners, and local communities are informed about the importance the hyacinth macaw and the Pantanal as a whole, and the responsibility that each person has for their conservation.
The Hyacinth Macaw Project forms part of WWF-Brazil's Pantanal Forever programme, which is part of WWF's global Partners for Wetlands programme. The Pantanal Forever programme promotes the conservation of biodiversity in the Pantanal by creating and implementing conservation units, supporting economic activities with low environmental impact, and implementing sustainable development.
To donate money for the project, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information
Rogerio dy la Fuente
Communications Officer, WWF-Brazil Pantanal Forever Programme