Sustaining a Splendid Species

CAUTIOUSLY WE PLOD THROUGH a cattle pasture trying to avoid slipping in the mud or stepping on piles of dung. In the treetops above us, we hear raucous screeching, and the closer we get, the louder and more insistent the screeching becomes. Our guide, Alexander, sets up his spotting scope and waves to us eagerly while we stumble through the tall, wet grass to reach him. Suddenly a large bird with a 3-foot wing span bursts out of the tree canopy and flies overhead. With much squawking and branch shaking another follows and then another. We stare in awe at the great green macaw, one of only 270 left in Costa Rica—a magnificent rare bird that is in danger of extinction.

Citizen conservationists such as Alexander Martinez are playing an important role in the fight to save the great green macaw. A wiry 61-year-old in constant motion, Martinez works daily on saving not only the green macaw, but also other bird species as well. He operates a small bed and breakfast in the town of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. He and his son, Kevin, guide bird hikes and take people into the hills to visit the wildlife reserve and rescue center Martinez and a friend run. In addition, Martinez volunteers with a group of local park guards who monitor and protect green macaw nests.

In his youth, Martinez was an avid hunter, but after living in Canada for a decade he returned to a very different Costa Rica. The country had gone through a logging boom in the 60s and 70s, and the introduction of chain saws and heavy equipment greatly accelerated the process. “I was shocked that everything I left behind that was so beautiful and so green was gone,” he explains. It was then he put down his gun and picked up a pair of binoculars.

The great green macaw (Ara ambiguus) lives in wet lowlands in small pockets of forests from Honduras to Ecuador. Deforestation has shrunk their habitat and concentrated their population into 5 areas: the border of Honduras and Nicaragua, the border of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the Darien region of Panama and Colombia and two small populations in Ecuador. Scientists estimate that there are only 7,000 of these birds living in the wild.

One of the first people to sound the alarm about the status of the bird was World Wildlife Fund scientist George Powell. Little was known about the bird and its behavior in 1994, so Powell, who was working at the RARE Center for Tropical Conservation, started the Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project. He determined that Costa Rica had already lost 90% of the great green’s nesting territory and that there were only 210 birds left in the country. Even more alarming was his calculation that the species needed at least 50 breeding pairs to survive. At that time, Costa Rica only had 25 to 35.

What makes the macaw so vulnerable is its preference for the Almendro (Dipteryx panamensis) tree for feeding and nesting. At nearly 164 feet tall the almendro is a giant in the forest. When the massive branches break off, they leave behind vast tree cavities ideally suited for macaw nests. Their height and depth keep chicks safe from predators. Smaller tree cavities and bromeliads serve as watering holes, while the nuts provide a nutritious food source.

Unfortunately the almendro tree has become a popular tropical hardwood for patios, decks and floors. During Costa Rica’s initial logging boom, the almendro was safe because its wood was too hard to cut into. Loggers would clear all the other trees in the forest and leave the almendro alone in a field of grass and tree stumps. Once steel blades that could penetrate the wood became available, even the great almendro tree fell victim to the everpresent chainsaws.

In 1998 Powell recruited two young conservationists Olivier Chassot and Guisselle Monge Arias to take over the conservation aspect of the macaw project. Their conservation strategy depended heavily on community involvement and educational programs.

Chassot and Arias traveled to small rural communities in macaw habitat to talk to people about the importance of the bird and the almendro tree. They enlisted the help of local schools and recruited citizen conservationists to be nest caretakers. “When you talk to people and take the time to visit their communities, they understand the idea [of conservation],” Chassot explains.

Realizing that the only way to save the bird was to save the forest it lives in, the conservation team identified the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, a 246,000-hectare geographical area connecting the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua with Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Station in the north to the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Reserve and Tortuguero National Park on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast.  In addition they lobbied for the creation of the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge to protect the breeding range of the macaw.

The macaw population began to stabilize in Costa Rica between 1998 -2003 and increased from 210 birds in 1994 to 275 birds in 2010.

Part of the conservation strategy in Costa Rica is to provide financial incentives for protecting the birds and their habitat. Chassot’s organization, the Tropical Science Center, has been able to provide small payments to nest caretakers.  An adopt-a-tree program pays farmers fair market value to protect their almendro trees. “Most of [the farmers] who are willing to set aside land for conservation can receive payments from the government to preserve their forest,” Chassot explains. He reports that the macaw population began to stabilize in Costa Rica between 1998 -2003 and increased from 210 birds in 1994 to 275 birds in 2010. “It shows that we have been able to reverse the trend and that the population is slowly increasing.”

NICARAGUA
IN THE SMALL community of Buena Vista, Nicaragua, brightly colored awnings provide protection from the sun. A wooden stage sets the scene for music and dancing, and a poster board display of photographs showcases tropical birds. Buena Vista was the site of the 8th annual Festival Binacional de las Lapas. Since 2002 Nicaragua has joined with Costa Rica to sponsor a yearly festival in honor of the great green macaw.  Alternatively held in Costa Rica or Nicaragua, the festival includes an equal number of Costa Rican and Nicaraguan farmers, schoolchildren, nest caretakers and government officials.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have forged an unprecedented partnership in the name of the lapa verde. “The great green macaw has no country and needs no passport to cross the border,” explains Chassot.  “[We] make sure that conservation actions on one side of the border have no negative impact on the other.”

The Nicaraguan Conservation organization, Fundación del Río has concentrated their work in the buffer zone of Nicaragua’s Indio-Maíz biological Reserve. A dense jungle with limited access, Indio-Maíz is considered one of Nicaragua’s best preserved tracts of land and one of the most important expanses of pristine rainforest in Central America. Located in the southeast corner of the country on the border of the San Juan River, this buffer zone has recently been under assault from loggers in search of lumber and clear cutters intent on planting African palm trees for bio fuel.

Fundación del Río has been monitoring macaw activities since 2002 and has documented 35 active nests. With the help of Nicaraguan citizen conservationists and local farmers, they have recorded more than 1,500 observations of macaws for their database.

Macaws are delightful birds that captivate people with their beauty, intelligence and playful nature. In Nicaragua, as in all the other countries in the macaw’s range, macaws are victims of the pet trade. Macaws are listed in the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) as Appendix 1 which is the highest classification of protection for the most endangered species on the list. Even so, poachers capture the macaw nestlings to keep as pets, to sell to others or for export to other countries.

The removal of one or two nestlings has a great impact on the entire population because macaws are slow-breeding birds. They can take four or five years to mature, lay only two eggs at a time and nest every few years. Trading in macaw nestlings is a lucrative business with the birds selling between US $150 to $300.

To foster a love for the macaw as a special resident of Nicaragua and not as a commodity, Fundación targets the youngest members of the community. Through Radio Voz Juvenil,  Fundación Del Río broadcasts a Sunday morning program titled “Arita, the Great Green Macaw” that teaches young people and adults about the Great Green Macaw and the forest it lives in. The radio program is complemented by “Arita visita tu escuela,” a lively in-classroom educational program with games, songs, drawings and videos featuring the Great Green Macaw. Arita, a human-sized macaw mascot, has visited more than 11 schools in the municipality El Castillo so far.

ECUADOR
IN THE TROPICAL dry forests outside of Guayaquil, Ecuador, a small population of great green macaws struggles to survive in the shadow of 2.1 million people. Their sole sanctuary is the 6,000 hectare Cerro Blanco Protected Forest with 54 mammal species, 221 bird species and 100 of Ecuador’s most endangered endemic plant species. Logging, poaching and land grabbing have threatened to wipe out this population, but due to the efforts of the Pro-Forest Foundation—the NGO in charge of the reserve—the population is stable and even increasing.

The director of the Pro-Forest Foundation, Eric Horstman, has a 20-year history of conservation work in Ecuador. In 1993 after completing his 3-year assignment with the Peace Corps, he became director of the newly-formed Pro-Forest Foundation. He had heard that there were great green macaws in the reserve, but had only seen them stuffed into cages in local school zoos. “I finally saw a pair of them in the wild,” he recalls. “I was enthralled. It is a world of difference seeing a macaw in a cage as opposed to flying free in the wild.”

Horstman describes the great green macaw population in Ecuador as critically endangered and says the official estimate of 60-90 birds in Ecuador is optimistic. In addition to Cerro Blanco’s population of 11, there is another small group living in the humid tropical forests of the Esmereldas province in the North. The situation in Ecuador is so acute that scientists have recommended captive breeding of great green macaws.

Although La Fundación Ecológica Rescate Jambeli—a conservation organization that partners with the Pro-Forest Foundation—has successfully bred 17 chicks with their captive population of macaws, Horstman explains that they are holding off introducing captive birds into the wild until they establish a scientific protocol. One concern is that captive birds might introduce disease into a wild population, and of course there is the threat of injuries: macaws are fiercely territorial.

The great green macaw is officially protected in Guayaquil. But even though the city appointed the macaw their natural symbol with a strict set of regulations and ordnances concerning traffic of the species, clandestine sales of macaw fledglings continue. Fledglings are stolen from their nests in pigio trees, members of the bombacaceae family with smooth gray trunks.

The trees are hard to climb. Rather than risk [an] accident, people will just cut down the tree and hope that the chick will survive the fall. That’s just a double whammy,” Horstman explains.

Another threat to the macaw’s population is the rapid expansion of Guayaquil. Squatter settlements pop up on the city outskirts and push against the forest. Land grabbing is a problem and squatter communities have attempted to take over property within Cerro Blanco. “When we work with squatter settlements, we work with the leader,” Horstman explains.

First he obtains permission to enter the settlement, and then goes door to door with community leaders to ask people if they are interested in becoming honorary park guards. In one nearby settlement, the Pro-Forest Foundation has 11 people and one school on duty. Horstman has found that the best deterrent to logging and poaching seems to be education, and the most compelling argument for saving the forest concerns water. There are at least 6 permanent sources of water in the reserve that the surrounding communities rely on. Horstman simply explains that without the forest, there will be no water. “When we have engaged these people they, themselves, have recognized the ecological services of the reserve,” Horstman says.

To strengthen the macaws’ chance for survival, the Pro-Forest Foundation has restored more than 200 acres of macaw habitat by planting native trees. “Trees that we planted in 1993 are now flowering and producing fruits. It’s not that long of a turnaround time,” Horstman explains. In that same time period the macaw population has grown by nearly 50% from a low of 6 to a high of 11. “The population seems to be slowly increasing,” Horstman says. “That is a hopeful sign.”

Efforts to protect the great green macaw have a ripple effect across its 6-country territory. To save the bird, the forest has to be saved first. In doing so, all the other smaller, less dramatic species retain their forest homes as well. In that respect the impact the bird has on its surroundings is truly great and truly green.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman

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