Mount­ing a de­fence for macaws

What’s be­ing done to save this strik­ing bird species?

World of Animals - - Contents - Words Nina Seale

Emer­ald plumage with flashes of blue above and wings of gold be­low, a fam­ily of mil­i­tary macaws fly­ing through the for­est is a re­mark­able sight. Like other macaws, they are ex­tremely clever and so­cia­ble birds, but their beauty, com­bined with in­tel­li­gence, has made them highly de­sir­able for the pet trade.

The mil­i­tary macaw is the most sought-af­ter species in Mex­ico’s il­le­gal cage bird trade. They are known in the ex­otic pet trade for their chat­ti­ness and their in­quis­i­tive, so­cia­ble per­son­al­i­ties, and they form a strong bond with their own­ers. How­ever, like many other threat­ened par­rot species, the high de­mand for these char­ac­ter­ful and hand­some birds as pets has re­sulted in a large num­ber of mil­i­tary macaws be­ing stolen from their nests as chicks and stuffed into small con­tain­ers to be de­liv­ered to pet shops and traders.

For­tu­nately, due to their moun­tain­ous habi­tat (they are typ­i­cally found at much higher el­e­va­tions than other macaws), they of­ten nest in in­ac­ces­si­ble cliff walls where poach­ers can­not eas­ily reach them. This has pos­si­bly pro­tected them from the kind of ex­treme ex­ploita­tion that typ­i­cally tree-nest­ing species such as the blue-throated macaw and yel­low-headed par­rot have suf­fered. How­ever, in some ar­eas, such as the states of Jalisco and Na­yarit in Mex­ico, mil­i­tary macaws nest in tree cav­i­ties and are there­fore heav­ily poached for the pet trade.

The other ma­jor threat to the wild pop­u­la­tion of mil­i­tary macaws is the sig­nif­i­cant loss of suit­able habi­tat across their range in Mex­ico and north­ern South Amer­ica. They are typ­i­cally found in arid wood­lands and sub­trop­i­cal forests at a wide range of el­e­va­tions that reach up to

2,600 me­tres (8,530.2 feet) above sea level. They feed on a range of food items from dif­fer­ent plant types, but they are strug­gling to sur­vive in ar­eas where habi­tats have been cleared for agri­cul­ture, live­stock farm­ing or min­ing.

They are listed un­der Ap­pendix I of the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (CITES), which pro­hibits the cap­ture of wild spec­i­mens and ex­port into coun­tries like the United States. As well as di­rect in­ter­ven­tion through the seizure of traf­ficked birds, one of the most ur­gent con­ser­va­tion actions to save this species from be­com­ing crit­i­cally en­dan­gered is habi­tat pro­tec­tion.

Block­ing a road to de­struc­tion

One of the im­por­tant habi­tats still re­main­ing (and largely un­pro­tected) for the mil­i­tary macaw is the Ama­zo­nian An­des, the trop­i­cal forests found on the foothills of the An­des where the rain­for­est meets the moun­tains.

“The wildlife there is ex­tra­or­di­nary,” says Charlotte Beck­ham, con­ser­va­tion pro­grammes manager at World Land Trust, a char­ity that spe­cialises in the con­ser­va­tion of wildlife habi­tats around the globe. “As it con­tains species from both the alpine and wet trop­i­cal habi­tats, it is one of the most species-rich wild ar­eas on Earth, where Ama­zo­nian species such as the mag­nif­i­cent harpy ea­gle, low­land tapir and two sloth species can be found along­side an­i­mals known from the An­des, such as the spec­ta­cled bear and An­dean cock-of-the-rock.”

World Land Trust has just com­pleted a pro­ject to raise £165,000 (ap­prox­i­mately $221,602) for the pur­chase and per­ma­nent pro­tec­tion of 400 acres of this habi­tat in Ecuador to cre­ate the start of a wildlife cor­ri­dor be­tween a pri­vate re­serve owned by their part­ner or­gan­i­sa­tion, Fun­dación de Con­ser­vación Jo­co­toco, and two large na­tional pro­tected ar­eas: An­ti­sana Eco­log­i­cal Re­serve and Su­maco Napo-Galeras Na­tional Park.

“It is an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment,” Beck­ham ex­plains to us. “We had a mas­sive re­sponse from our sup­port­ers, and we needed to raise funds as quickly as pos­si­ble as our part­ner in Ecuador had iden­ti­fied a cru­cial prop­erty that would oth­er­wise have been sold for agri­cul­ture. Im­por­tantly, the prop­erty lies within a cor­ri­dor be­tween Jo­co­toco’s Narupa Re­serve and neigh­bour­ing na­tional parks. The pur­chase also re­duces the need for a planned road, which would fur­ther iso­late the re­serve, which isn’t cur­rently large enough to sus­tain vi­able pop­u­la­tions of the threat­ened species.”

The mil­i­tary macaw is one of the threat­ened species that can be found in this re­serve, as well as the black-and­ch­est­nut ea­gle, cerulean war­bler, neotrop­i­cal ot­ter and three species of en­dan­gered frog, in­clud­ing the Puyo gi­ant glass frog.

World Land Trust has al­ready sent funds for Fun­dación Jo­co­toco to pur­chase 261 acres be­tween the re­serves, which is an­other step to block the planned route for the road, and they have hired a new ranger to pa­trol the ex­tended re­serve. This is a cru­cial part of the pro­tec­tion process, as land that is se­cured with­out a pa­trolling ranger is still at se­vere risk of il­le­gal log­ging and poach­ing, so hir­ing some­one to guard the area en­sures the safety of vul­ner­a­ble species like the macaws.

“Sierra Gorda is home to the last colony of mil­i­tary macaws in cen­tral Mex­ico, with just about 40 pairs”

Roberto Pe­draza Ruiz

The on­go­ing pro­tec­tion of re­serves cre­ated and man­aged by World Land Trust’s part­ners is main­tained by their Keep­ers of the Wild pro­gramme, which funds the salaries, equip­ment and other re­sources needed by the men and women pro­vid­ing a frontline de­fence for wildlife.

Sav­ing the forests in the sky

Fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the Ama­zo­nian An­des cam­paign, World Land Trust is now work­ing hard on sav­ing an­other habi­tat that is ab­so­lutely cru­cial for the mil­i­tary macaw in the moun­tain­ous land­scape of the Sierra Gorda in cen­tral Mex­ico.

World Land Trust has worked with a lo­cal con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), to pro­tect this habi­tat for ten years, and they have so far saved 10,000 acres for Mex­i­can wildlife to­gether.

The typ­i­cal land­scape of Sierra Gorda is the moun­tain range cloaked in clouds, un­der­neath which lies an eco­log­i­cal par­adise of veg­e­ta­tion, rang­ing from ever­green and de­cid­u­ous trop­i­cal for­est to the hardy cacti that can sur­vive in more arid ar­eas. There are also a num­ber of pine oak forests and cloud forests dot­ted through­out this var­ied ter­rain.

Roberto Pe­draza Ruiz, head of GESG’s Land Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram, says, “We have made walk­ing through the re­serves like trav­el­ling in time, back to when Mex­i­can forests were ruled by the jaguar and filled with species we con­sider rare to­day. Through our work pro­tect­ing and restor­ing these forests, we are slowly giv­ing it back to them.”

In his work en­sur­ing the con­ser­va­tion of this habi­tat, Ruiz spends a lot of time ex­plor­ing the forests and doc­u­ment­ing the wildlife with his ar­se­nal of cam­eras. Of the many species he is for­tu­nate enough to wit­ness in the wild, the mil­i­tary macaws are his favourite birds.

“Sierra Gorda is home to the last colony of mil­i­tary macaws in cen­tral Mex­ico, with just about 40 pairs. Threat­ened by habi­tat loss and in­creas­ing hu­man pres­sure in their for­mer ter­ri­to­ries, they face an un­cer­tain fu­ture. Wit­ness­ing and pho­tograph­ing them is one of my big­gest priv­i­leges. They are noisy, funny and have com­pli­cated so­cial be­hav­iours and rules among them. By far they are my favourite birds to see here.”

Sadly, cat­tle ranch­ing is an ever-in­creas­ing sight in the Sierra Gorda, and de­for­esta­tion to make way for live­stock graz­ing is one of the key threats con­fronting these forests. They are also sub­ject to slash-and-burn clear­ance, a prac­tice that is highly dam­ag­ing for the ecosys­tem but is used to pro­duce faster (though short-term) crop yields. As land is still rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive com­pared to many other bio­di­verse ar­eas, GESG has been able to build up a net­work of re­serves by pur­chas­ing land as it be­comes avail­able, with vi­tal sup­port from donors to World Land Trust play­ing a huge role. Yet there is only so much land that can be pur­chased af­ford­ably.

“We are rac­ing against time,” warns Ruiz. “Land prices are only ever in­creas­ing, and we are just try­ing to pro­tect as much of these wild ar­eas as we can be­fore it is too late. I have lived in these moun­tains all my life, and one of the is­sues I try to re­mind peo­ple of is that we are not just do­ing this for the wildlife.

“Ob­vi­ously I care about wildlife and be­ing able to see mag­nif­i­cent crea­tures like the macaws fly­ing above our cloud forests, but ev­ery acre of for­est we have been able to save with World Land Trust sup­port­ers has been an in­vest­ment in our fu­ture too. Pro­tect­ing the world’s forests en­sures we will have wa­ter, oxy­gen, cli­mate reg­u­la­tion and, of course, the beauty of these nat­u­ral land­scapes. With­out these most ba­sic needs we have noth­ing.”

Time to act

Habi­tat pro­tec­tion has proved to be one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to con­serve species in the wild. Rein­tro­duc­ing lo­cally ex­tinct species is much more dif­fi­cult than pre­serv­ing their habi­tat and main­tain­ing their pop­u­la­tions in the wild, so pre­vent­ing fur­ther habi­tat loss is a pri­or­ity in or­der to pre­serve the pre­cious re­sources of en­vi­ron­men­tal agen­cies and or­gan­i­sa­tions ded­i­cated to con­serv­ing wildlife.

If you would like to help save im­por­tant wildlife habi­tats for vul­ner­a­ble species such as the mil­i­tary macaw, visit

world­landtrust.org and do­nate to pro­tect the forests of Sierra Gorda in Mex­ico from de­for­esta­tion.

The stun­ning colours of the mil­i­tary macaw’s

plumage have sadly be­come a curse due to the at­ten­tions of the ex­otic pet trade

A fad­ing fortress

The bat­tle is on to pre­serve this macaw’s range

Mil­i­tary Macaws are

very so­cia­ble and are of­ten ob­served in their fam­ily groups,

squawk­ing nois­ily, play­ing and groom­ing

The moun­tains of Sierra Gorda have an in­cred­i­bly wide range of wildlife habi­tats, in­clud­ing ever­green and de­cid­u­ous trop­i­cal for­est, shrubs and cacti, oak forests, pine forests

and cloud forests.

Sierra Gorda, Mex­ico

ama­zo­nian an­des, Ecuador

Where the Ama­zon rain­for­est meets the An­dean moun­tain range is a re­mark­able habi­tat with one of the high­est di­ver­sity of species in

the world.

That lov­ing preen­ing From clean­ing each other’s plumage to work­ing to­gether to raise chicks, these loyal birds re­ally look out for their mates

Love at first flight In the wild, macaws can choose their part­ner be­fore they reach the age of ma­tu­rity at two to four years old, and once they have cho­sen they mate for life.

Care and at­ten­tion Mu­tual preen­ing is one of the ways a pair of macaws will strengthen their bond, as well as call­ing to each other and for­ag­ing to­gether.

Birds of a feather Un­like many other brightly coloured birds, male and fe­male mil­i­tary macaws can­not be dis­tin­guished from each other by their plumage. This may be be­cause they are monog­a­mous and fe­males do not need drab colours to cam­ou­flage them­selves when in­cu­bat­ing, un­like ground-nest­ing birds.

Pro­vid­ing for the fam­ily Fe­males lay one to two eggs in the cav­i­ties of tall trees or holes in cliff faces and in­cu­bate their eggs for about one month. Dur­ing this pe­riod the male will bring her food, some­thing he will then also do for the chicks once they’ve hatched.

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