Return of the Scarlet Macaw

Illegal Trading Thwarted — Defenders ends misleading ad campaign in Mexico

On the backs of porters trudging single file up a Mexican mountain path, a species missing from its native habitat since the 1970s returned to the rainforest in March.

Each crate carried one of 29 endangered, captive-bred scarlet macaws to the release site in Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, Mexico. After they learn how to recognize local seeds, nuts and fruits in a temporary aviary, they will fully return to the wild this summer, thanks to a reintroduction project involving the Mexican National University Institute of Biology and Defenders.

Extirpated from nearly all its range because of the pet trade, the species is now down to only about 250 individuals in Mexico and about 400 in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico combined. If the reintroduction succeeds, this site would become the northernmost range of the species on the continent and could lay the groundwork for future reintroductions for this macaw and other parrots.

“The government banned all capture of parrots in Mexico in 2008, thanks in large part to the work we did to expose the illegal trade,” says Juan Carlos Cantu, Defenders’ representative in Mexico. Defenders’ 2007 study estimated that Mexican trappers illegally captured about 65,000 to 78,500 parrots a year. Since then the numbers have declined, but illegal trade remains the second-biggest threat facing parrots in the wild. The top threat is habitat loss, although in some areas the habitat exists while the parrots are gone, as in the case of Los Tuxtlas. About 75 percent of the illegally captured birds die from stress, disease, rough handling, crushing and asphyxiation or dehydration during capture and transport before they ever find a home.

That’s also why when an online selling and trading company began a million-dollar ad campaign in March featuring a federally protected yellow-cheeked parrot, Cantu began a no-holds-barred campaign to get the ads removed.

The company, called Segundamano—similar to CraigsList in the United States—ran TV commercials with the head coach of the national soccer team sporting the protected parrot on his shoulders followed by the company’s slogan “where you safely buy and sell.”

“These ads implied that even though this bird is illegal to sell, ‘you can do it safely with us,’” says Cantu. In fact, a few days after the first commercial aired, during a soccer match watched by millions, people began posting ads offering endangered and threatened parrots on the website.

Joining with Mexican environmental groups, Cantu began a three-week public relations campaign and filed a complaint with the consumer protection agency, arguing that the ad misled the public into committing a crime.

The efforts soon ended the company’s campaign. Not only did it agree to stop running the TV commercials, it also agreed to prohibit sellers from advertising endangered or protected species on its website. “This is a huge step toward eliminating illegal trade of wildlife online,” says Cantu. “I hope the media uproar we created helped to teach more people about the illegality of trading parrots and the threats these parrots are facing.”

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