Area where scarlet macaws are trained before being released into the wild
Colorful flights of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) once brightened rainforests from northeast Mexico, south through the Amazon region and all the way to Chile. Today, isolated and depleted communities of the large parrot reflect ongoing fragmentation of the bird’s Latin American habitat.
But in Mexico, where the species in recent decades approached extinction, a successful reintroduction program is turning the tide in the Los Tuxtlas region of Veracruz state, which fronts the Gulf of Mexico. There, scarlet macaw numbers are making a comeback after disappearing in the 1970s.
Ricardo Baxin, a native of Los Tuxtlas, says that as a young boy he thought everyone was lying about scarlet macaws having inhabited the region’s tropical rainforest because he had never seen any of the birds in the wild. He later researched the question while a high school student and learned they had last been seen in the region in 1973, but that in the old days hundreds-strong flocks of the birds studded the jungle canopy.
Now a trained biologist, Baxin works in the Nanciyaga Reserve—a protected area in Catemaco, one of eight municipalities in Los Tuxtlas—to build scarlet macaw populations in the wild. He is doing so under the auspices of “Reintroducción de la Guacamaya Roja en los Tuxtlas, Veracruz” a Mexican nonprofit project that has carried out macaw reintroduction in the region since 2015.
“In my lifetime I have witnessed the deforestation of their habitat, poaching, illegal trafficking and hunting of scarlet macaws and decided I had to do something about it,” says Baxin. “I will never forget the first time I ever saw a wild scarlet macaw flying freely in the jungle in Los Tuxtlas. It was a dream come true.”
The initiative has so far introduced 189 adult scarlet macaws into the wild in Los Tuxtlas. The bulk of its funding comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, but critical collaboration has come as well from a variety of Mexican organizations and institutions. These include the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the Xcaret eco theme park near the Caribbean resort city of Cancún, the Nanciyaga Reserve, and Bosque Antiguo, a Mexican nonprofit dedicated to conservation in old-growth forests.
Heading the reintroduction project is Patricia Escalante, a Mexican biologist who holds a doctorate in ecology and evolution from the City University of New York and has conducted parrot research at UNAM’s Biology Institute for three decades.
Escalante says that although the scarlet macaws are also found in Central and South America, efforts to conserve the bird are particularly important in Mexico. That’s because in Mexico, she says, “a higher human population density means its habitat is at greater risk than in other countries in Latin America.”
Baxin considers the scarlet macaw “a victim of its own beauty and charisma.” The bird’s innate ability to mimic sounds and its eye-catching colors have made it a favorite target of animal traffickers serving the international pet market. Poaching of macaws and their eggs have flourished with little interference from Mexican authorities.
Loss of habitat has made the species more vulnerable as large-scale cattle ranching and other forms of industrial agriculture consume woodlands across Latin America. When scarlet macaws are isolated in small islands of intact habitat, their gene pool can quickly become impoverished.
Parrots in the wild tend to nest in the hollows of large trees, so their reproduction is also compromised by the dearth in heavily logged areas of the older trees that typically develop cavities.
Subspecies north and south
There are two subspecies of scarlet macaw. Ara macao cyanoptera, which has blue and yellow markings on its tail, once inhabited rainforest areas ranging from northeastern Mexico’s Tamaulipas state all the way south to northern Chile. Today, reduced populations of this parrot occupy isolated islands of habitat.
In Mexico, the Ara macao cyanoptera population had dwindled by the 1970s to one small community in the Lacandón rainforest in the state of Chiapas and another in the Chimalapas woodlands straddling Chiapas and Oaxaca states, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.
In El Salvador, the subspecies is extinct. And although Honduras still has communities of the bird, experts say increasing cruise-ship visits have spurred poaching and illegal trade of macaws, which are bought and displayed by restaurants and other businesses to amuse tourists. Both Honduras and Costa Rica are using nesting boxes to help offset the loss of suitable trees for breeding.
The second scarlet macaw subspecies, Ara macao macao, extends further south, inhabiting woodlands stretching from the Amazon region to southern Chile. These birds, which have more green markings than their northerly cousin do, are less exposed to human activity thanks to their more extensive swaths of habitat.
The result is larger, healthier populations, which is why the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts the scarlet macaw species overall in its “Least Concern” conservation category, meaning the bird is still plentiful in the wild. (See IUCN distribution map below.)
Escalante says that the scarlet-macaw conservation effort has given her a way to put her genetic research to practical use. Using blood samples taken from birds selected for the reintroduction project, her team conducted a genetic study to help gauge the prospects of building a viable population in the wild.
The study also gave the scientists a more nuanced understanding of the background of the birds.
“Genetic mapping is essential for successful rehabilitation and reintroduction of a species,” she says. “Genetic data identifies each specimen so we know its origins, its genetic history. We can decipher migration and breeding patterns, evolutionary history and other details essential to the success of conservation in the medium and long term.”
The eco theme park Xcaret has become a key project partner in genetic mapping of scarlet macaws. After creating a program to conserve the species in 1993 and starting out with a small number of the birds, the park received private donations of scarlet macaws and took in others confiscated by authorities.
By 2010 Xcaret held the Guinness World Record for possessing the world’s largest number of scarlet macaws in captivity—1,000 at a time when in Mexico only an estimated 250 remained in the wild.
The eco-park hired Escalante to study whether its macaw population was genetically diverse enough to support a breeding and reintroduction program. Analysis was also needed to convince authorities that the birds, presumed to be genetically pure specimens of Ara macao cyanoptera, did not show signs of past interbreeding with the southerly Ara macao macao subspecies.
It took two years to determine whether the Xcaret birds were genetically viable for introduction into the wild. “It is important to release specimens with sufficient genetic variation,” Escalante says. “Otherwise, once released they cannot resist natural selection, climate change and any new pathogens that might emerge.”
Rodolfo Raigoza Figueras, a UNAM biologist who heads Xcaret’s conservation program, notes other research had to be done.
“Once it was determined that it was viable to use the captive population of scarlet macaws from Xcaret,” he says, “further studies were conducted to determine the ideal composition of males and females, ages and partners, while also taking into consideration variables such as environmental factors.”
Project scientists also needed to confirm that the birds carried no diseases that might be passed on to other birds in the wild, and that they were physically healthy enough to survive in the wild.
Then began the work of raising scarlet macaws in Xcaret in a way that would equip them for the transition.
“We have to teach them to be macaws because they are raised in captivity by captive macaws,” Raigoza says. “We need to teach them to fly, to feed themselves, and, very importantly, not to come down to the ground, as that will put them at risk from humans or predators. We need to breed and raise specimens that are prepared for life in the wild.”
Since receiving its first macaws from Xcaret’s conservation program in 2015, Escalante’s team has conducted eight releases of macaws raised at the eco theme park, freeing 189 birds in all. Genetic mapping allows subsequent identification of released macaws and their descendants, so birds found in the possession of people can be tested to determine whether they have been taken from the wild.
This system has already provided the evidence needed to confiscate one specimen that had been poached after being reintroduced. Project organizers hope it will help deter poachers and one day be used to protect other reintroduced animal species.
The team’s work is far from done when scarlet macaws are released. Baxin and his colleagues spend long days in the field tracking the freed birds as they acclimatize to life in the wild, retrieving those that stray from the flock, monitoring where the flock choose to settle and protecting them from poachers and predators.
To boost the chances the birds will reproduce amid the lack of large trees with natural cavities, Baxin and his team maintain about two dozen nesting boxes in the forest. They have placed these on trees at a height of 15 to 25 meters, and monitor them regularly.
Scarlet macaws reach maturity at three to three and a half years of age, and Escalante estimates their lifespan in the wild ranges from 30 to 35 years. They mate for life, though only 20% of pairs breed in any given year. Females produce one to five eggs, of which one or two will likely survive.
Natural predators such as boas have also hampered conservation efforts by raiding nests. During recent monitoring, Baxin discovered that toucans had stolen macaw eggs, so he is now designing a nesting box with a tunnel entrance that can accommodate macaws—but not toucans, on account of their large beaks.
Other means of safeguarding the project, organizers say, include educating local communities on the benefits of a healthier, more diverse ecosystem and introducing initiatives that create economic incentives to ensure habitat conservation.
The scientists are also attempting to incentivize local habitat conservation by promoting economic activities that require it—apiculture, for instance. They also plan to promote the cultivation of vanilla and cocoa crops, which require shade and thus would be compatible with tree cover needed for macaw nesting.
Baxin refers to the scarlet macaw as an “umbrella species,” saying that by protecting its habitat, “you will also be protecting a world of organisms that live in each tree.”
With the scarlet macaw reintroduction showing signs of success, Escalante’s team aims to use its expertise and learnings to reintroduce other parrot species in their historic habitats. Among those being considered are the white crowned parrot (Pionus senilis); the northern mealy (Amazona guatemalae) and the yellow-headed amazon (Amazona oratrix).
“Our genetic studies indicate we need to free a total of 500 scarlet macaws in order for them to breed and get up to 800 in the wild,” says Baxin, who forecasts that once the young of reintroduced adults are themselves breeding, nesting boxes will no longer be needed. “This would protect the population from [inbreeding].”
Escalante calculates that of the 189 parrots that were introduced into the wild in Los Tuxtlas, some 150 have survived. She adds that the total population count is heading upward, however, because some of these scarlet macaws have been actively breeding. Her team calculates that in the last four years, some 28 to 30 young macaws have been born to the reintroduced population. Says Escalante: “We have seen flocks of 20 in the wild, which are a great joy to see.”
- Lara Rodríguez
In the index: Checking macaw’s wings before bird is released at Nanciyaga Reserve. (Photos courtesy of Xcaret)