January 8, 2014

The scarlet macaw is one of the most spectacularly colored macaws in the Americas. There are two subspecies: the larger one distributed from Mexico to northern Nicaragua, and the smaller from Costa Rica to Brazil and Bolivia. Here in Mexico, the scarlet macaw used to be found in tropical evergreen rainforests in southern Tamaulipas (bordering Texas) south through the slope of the Gulf of Mexico to the rainforests of Chiapas. Unfortunately, habitat destruction and overexploitation for the pet trade decimated the parrot to the point of being extirpated (driven locally extinct) from most of its range. The species was extirpated from Tamaulipas in the late 19th century, and by the 1970s it was gone from all of Mexico except Chiapas in the southernmost tip of the Lacandona rainforest. It has been estimated that the combined scarlet macaw population of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize consists of only 400 breeding pairs. In Mexico, the wild population is estimated to be only around 250 individuals!

Scarlet macaw, © María Elena Sánchez

Scarlet macaw (© María Elena Sánchez)

Illegal take of scarlet macaws has been one the most important factors driving the species into oblivion. In the 1970s to 1980s, these actions were driven by the demand in the U.S., and the macaws would be smuggled into the country through the extensive border with Mexico. No legal capture has been permitted in Mexico since the late 1970s, and the species was legally protected in the early 1990’s. Nevertheless, in 2007 we estimated that in Mexico, as many as 50 scarlet macaws may be taken from the wild each year – that’s 12% of the entire wild population! Many of these go to the domestic pet trade in Mexico, but some still find their way to U.S. markets.

Defenders joined the Mexican National University’s Institute of Biology in a project to reintroduce the scarlet macaw to the rainforests of Los Tuxtlas, in southern Veracruz. The species was extirpated from the area in the 1970s, mainly by illegal take (capturing) for the pet trade. Luckily, a good patch of evergreen rainforest was maintained when the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve was created, making it a perfect site to bring back the macaws into wild. If successful, this would become the northernmost distribution site of the species on the continent.

Scarlew macaw comic book, © Defenders of Wildlife

Scarlet macaw comic book (© Defenders of Wildlife)

Using captive-bred specimens from the breeding center of Xcaret in Quintana Roo, the project aims to release several dozen macaws starting later this year until a sustainable population is achieved. Flight cages have been constructed, and our partners have developed a plan for the release based on past successful reintroductions of the species in several Central American countries.

All capture of parrots was banned in Mexico in 2008 (thanks in good measure to our study of the illegal trade in Mexican parrots), and since then, the rate of parrots disappearing from the wild has declined . Unfortunately, illegal take still occurs in Veracruz. This is a rural area, and many of its people are poor; a large parrot or macaw can fetch the equivalent of several months’ wages if a person is willing to capture one. We knew that before we could begin reintroduction – before a single macaw was released – we would need to teach the local communities more about the project and why it was important. They would need to understand how allowing and encouraging the macaws to recover could benefit their entire community, and once they understood that, they would not only help put a stop to the poaching, but denounce to the authorities any attempt to do so. It was the knowledge that was the key. So we got to work.

Macaw poster, © Instituto de Biología, UNAM

Our posters went up all over the town. (© Instituto de Biología, UNAM)

We created posters, coloring books for children and comic books for youths and adults that have information on the natural history of the Scarlet macaw. They describe the threats the species faced until it was extirpated, and how the people who live in the bird’s range have the power to help protect it. The materials also show that bird/parrot watching is a sound economic alternative for poor rural communities, and can bring very beneficial ecotourism into the area.

The materials are already being distributed in schools, stores, municipal offices, bus stops and in many other places. Our partners will meet many times with the people of these communities to talk more about the project and explain the conservation messages and benefits before and after the macaws are released.

With this important conservation foundation in place in the local communities, we hope to see a successful reintroduction here soon. Later this year, after being gone for more than 30 years, scarlet macaws will be flying again in Veracruz!

Juan Carlos Cantu, Mexico Program Manager 

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