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The Tropics Newsletter


BLUE VELVET:

On the Conservation of Hyacinth and Blue-throated Macaws in South America

Stewart Metz, M.D.
University of Wisconsin Medical School

Blue Velvet

A family of three Hyacinth macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) sits high on a palm tree as the sun rises over the Brazilian landscape. They seem unconcerned about our presence and go about their business preening, playing, and even copulating. As the sun strikes them, the beauty of their cobalt-colored feathers is highlighted--they seem to be dressed in gaudy, blue velvet waistcoats. These resplendent Hyacinths (referred to locally each as arara azul) have flown to this tree after eating from local pines (Acrocomia aculeata or alternately Acuri Palm). Cracking open the shells reveals inside, the sweet, tasty, orange fruit which tastes (at least to humans) like a combination of banana and cantaloupe melon. The macaws must go through this pulpy outer fruit coat to reach the inner seed and at times enlist the digestive tracts of cattle to remove the ectocarp/mesocarp. The macaws play happily; their beauty and their raucous squawks, uninhibited by the presence of non-threatening humans, instill a sense of awe and a feeling of tranquility. These are among the most intelligent, beautiful and charismatic of Earth's creatures, surely a very special gift from the Creator. Then they fly directly overhead to another tree directly behind the Lodge. They are close enough to see that they appear to be smiling. Perhaps Freedom - and an admiring public - have that effect. Exuberance for life, joy, beauty . . . flying in close formation in Blue Velvet . . .

The Sites

We are towards the southern end of the Pantanal in Brazil, the largest wetland in the world (55,000 square miles). We are there to investigate the possibilities of developing an ecotourism site at the ranch having the largest concentration of Hyacinth macaws known to exist in the wild. This is the work of Dr. Charles Munn, III, Senior Conservation Zoologist of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Guests currently stay at the modest Pousada Pantaneira, operated by a family of Pantaneiros (local cowboys) who own large tracts of local land, mostly for cattle. The second part of the itinerary will take Dr. Munn and the group to a site three hours outside of the frontier town of Trinidad in Bolivia, in the Pantanal-like part of that country referred to as "Llanos de Moxos". There, the highly endangered Blue-throated macaw (perhaps 100-120 left in the wild) was first sighted by an ornithologist in 1992 - by Dr. Munn. This is the only area where they are known to exist still in the wild (the central Beni district is only 15,000 sq. Km). Visitors again stay at extremely modest accommodations at a local ranch by a river, to assess the possibility of future development of a more formal ecotourism spot. The area is currently being surveyed by Fellman Cuellar Bogart (known as "Pocho"), a former trapper with a lifelong love of wildlife, who has now turned his life's work to protecting the Blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis, known locally as the Blue-Bearded Macaw or sometimes, incorrectly, as the Caninde Macaw in avicultural circles). The best place to site this rare bird is in a small clump of protected forest affectionately referred to as Papayo Island; this forest island stands in the middle of what otherwise is a large plain which has been almost totally deforested. We are able to spot the macaws briefly in Motacu Palms on three of our four trips to Papayo Island; we are also rewarded by many close views of blue and gold macaws (Ara ararauna), as well as Severe or chestnut-fronted macaws (Ara severa). But the continuous burning of the savana (to stimulate re-growth of grass for cattle grazing), threatens all this.

Funding for Conservation at These Sites

The basic approach taken by Dr. Munn at each of his ongoing 7-8 macaw conservation projects is the fostering of ecotourism. His philosophy seems soundly based on the principal that endangered species cannot be conserved without the help of the local and/or indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the local people will only conserve wildlife which is indigenous to the area when they can make more money by doing so than by hunting or trapping that wildlife and/or when their local pride in the flagship species is sufficient to motivate them to conservation in the absence of a strong economic incentive. (The latter approach has been used with great success by Paul Butler working with RARE in St. Lucia, Dominica and other places.) Manu and Tambopata in Peru are two notable examples of sites where such incentives have resulted in the protection of a variety of wildlife, including endangered parrots. I tried to ascertain on my visits to Brazil and Bolivia whether the local inhabitants had any particular pride in the beauty of their indigenous species or could perceive any particular esthetic or cultural reasons per se to conserve these species. As far as I could tell, there was no particular sense of respect, no less awe, for the local wildlife, but only a perception of the potential economic benefits to be accrued from them. Perhaps only the wildly popular nightly TV drama in Brazil "The Pantanel" (1990) has created some local sense of the importance and grandeur of the area. Environmental education is sorely need. Hesse writes that "the privilege of owning the only lands in the world on which occur a species of Macaw as rare as Ara glaucogularis is a concept entirely new to the property owners." That view could change if visitors traveled thousands of miles to see these parrots, and left a more secure economic future behind. It is currently widespread practice to hunt jaguars in the Pantanal (one of the few remaining habitats of the cat in the wild) because of its purported tendency to kill cattle. On the other hand, Dr. Munn is working to increase the perception that ecotourism can bring in more dollars than can the one-time-only trapping or killing of large parrots and other wildlife. Evidence of the success of this approach can be seen in the recruitment of Pocho, a former trapper who is now the "steward" of the Blue-throated macaws.

Can ecotourism sites be set up at these locations in Latin America? Clearly, at both sites the infrastructure for ecotourism is lacking. However it could be established relatively easily if sufficient income was derived from tourists coming to view these magnificent macaws. However, to develop the sites as ecotourism spots requires a considerable initial investment. Both of these projects (to conserve the Hyacinth macaw and to preserve the Blue-throated macaw) have only limited funds currently. The Bolivia project has received funding from the Wildlife Conservation Society, IAS, FaunaLink and particularly from Harrison's Bird Diets (see below). The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Loro Parque Foundation have funded the Bolivian Conservation Society, Asociacion Armonia (see references) to work with the Blue-throated macaws, in addition to Dr. Munn's own work. The Pantanal project is in desperate need of funds; much of the limited contributions to date have come from Doug Trent of FocusTours who has visited this area of the Pantanal over a hundred times. Kaytee Avian Foundation is helping to fund a second, more northern Hyacinth project ("Hyacinth Cliffs") and this parrot has also received aid via the Hyacinth Fund of the World Parrot trust. There is every reason to believe that if the initial infrastructure can be put into place, these sites could be successfully developed for ecotourism and the macaws thereby protected. For example, a few hundred feet from Pousada Pantaneira, the Hyacinths rest and feed most days in full view in exposed trees. Furthermore in addition to parrots, both sites offer a variety of birds and other exotic and enchanting wildlife which can be readily viewed (see Table 1).

For further information on trips to either site, or for donations and contributions, the reader may contact Dr. Charlie Munn at CharlesMunn@compuserve.com or Doug Trent at FocusTours@aol.com or (phone) 612-892-7830.

Conservationists and Aviculturists: Friends or Foes?

I have heard aviculturists say, or read their opinions, that conservationists, by fighting exportation of wild parrots and (allegedly) opposing companion bird ownership, are at cross-purposes with them. Need this be the case? It is my impression that the vast majority of aviculturists, like conservationists and most owners of companion birds, are aware of the imminent extinction of a number of parrot species and support a ban on any further importation of endangered species. In other words, they promulgate the view that the well-being of the parrots must be placed as the paramount goal. However, a vocal, but I believe small, minority of aviculturists has taken a strident tone, implying that the work of Dr. Munn and others is designed to thwart their profession by limiting their stock. On a recent television show, it was implied that Munn holds the view that parrots should not be kept in captivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Dr. Munn has very clearly stated that the ownership of pet birds is a major driving force for people to support conservation (His views on this issue are presented in more detail in Pinfeathers, a publication of the International Aviculturists Society; July-August, 1997). However, there are felt to be perhaps only 1,000-2,000 Hyacinth macaws in the wild and perhaps as few as 100-120 Blue-throated macaws. Clearly, we will decimate these populations, as well as those of other birds (such as the Moluccan cockatoo), unless we find both legal means and economic incentives to totally halt the trapping of these birds ; at the same time, we must halt the destruction of their natural habitat (a second goal of ecotourism). I find it, personally, disingenuous for anyone to say that on the one hand they "love parrots," but on the other hand are willing to see them subjected to the abuse, if not death, required for their exportation (in order to satisfy a need for financial gain or ego, or just to own the birds). There need be no conflict, then, between the Conservationist, the enlightened Aviculturist, and the companion-bird owner.

However, even if these three camps can unit, it will require more than a lack of conflict if we are to preserve these magnificent creatures in the wild. Throughout this trip, we met local biologists who eschewed all personal gain, and are devoting their life (even most of their meager salaries) to the conservation of endangered wildlife. In addition, people like Charlie Munn, Doug Trent, and Greg Harrison have put their professional lives and/or money on the line to demonstrate concretely their appreciation, even "respect", for the "rights" of these remarkable birds. I feel that it is a moral imperative for the rest of us who claim to be "parrot lovers", to pass the baton amongst ourselves and to future generations, so that we may assume our stewardship role as modern day "shepherds of the flock." As Nigel Collar (a pre-eminent ornithologist/conservationist who works with BirdLife International) wrote in the Foreword to The Large Macaws:

"To have lost the great spirits of the Neotropical forests and savannas, their harlequin plumage and ringing voices, will be a negation of one of the first meanings of America . . . now is the time to start. The macaws are still with us, but they are some way off in the distance and traveling away from us, toward an empty horizon."