Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Macaw Finds Safety in the Pantanal

Adalberto Marcondes* - Tierramérica

CAMPO GRANDE, Brazil, Jan 13 2006 (IPS) - Biologist Neiva Guedes fell in love with hyacinth macaws when she first saw them perched on the branches of a tree in the southern Brazilian Pantanal in 1989. Her conservation efforts since then have produced some important victories.

“It was a vision of great beauty,” Guedes recalled in an interview with Tierramérica. She has dedicated the last 16 years to saving this endangered species.

In 1990 there were some 1,500 Anodorynchus hyacinthus, and now the population reaches 5,500, thanks to Guedes and her team, who search daily for the nests of the “arara azul”, as they are known here, deep in the Pantanal in the southwestern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Covering 250,000 square kilometres, the Pantanal holds several watersheds and is considered a true ecological wetlands sanctuary, and extends into Bolivia and Paraguay as well.

“We are checking more than 500 nests, working very closely with the landowners and the ranch workers,” says Guedes, who the Netherlands declared a Knight of the Order of the Golden Ark in recognition of her conservation efforts.

The “pantaneiros”, who live or work in the Pantanal, are the best allies for preserving the macaw, one of the most threatened species on the planet, she says.

Thousands of these birds have been identified and tagged with subcutaneous computer chips implanted by Guedes and her team, who are thus able to collect valuable information about the species and determine new ways to protect it.

There are also populations of macaws in northwestern Amazonia and in the states of Piauí, Tocantins and Bahia, in the Brazilian northeast.

But only in the Pantanal is there a preservation effort like this. Organised through the Arara Azul Project, it has support from the local university and the Region of Pantanal, which hired Guedes as a researcher, along with her lead assistant, a former military officer Cezar Correa.

In other areas the macaw’s situation is more precarious, says Guedes. In the Amazon, the species is one of the top targets of hunters and animal traffickers, and of indigenous peoples who use the feathers in their crafts.

Animal trafficking is the biggest enemy of this majestic bird, which is the largest of the macaws, measuring an average of one metre from beak to tail, and weighing about 1.3 kilogrammes.

A healthy hyacinth macaw can fetch 10,000 euros (14,124 dollars) on the European market. But the arrival of one safe and healthy bird usually represents the deaths of dozens en route, because the traffickers take the nests when the birds are very young or even as unhatched eggs.

The macaw reproduces every two years, and the hatchlings need care from the parents until they are 18 months old, says Guedes. “Once they are in captivity, they are like kittens, and that docility is highly valued on the black market,” explained the biologist.

The actions of official agencies against animal trafficking are still lacking in effectiveness, she says.

In the 1980s, traffickers in Brazil caught some 10,000 hyacinth macaws. Trafficking has fallen off somewhat in the Pantanal, and despite the many threats against the species, visitors to the area can see these birds in their natural habitat, always flying in pairs.

These monogamous birds choose their mates and stay with them for life. One can spot them looking for food in acuri and bocaiuva palm trees, whose nuts are their exclusive source of food.

Their habitat is also highly specialised: they only nest in manduvi trees, in which the birds expand the small holes found in the smooth trunks.

The specificity of habitat is a problem for preserving the species, comments team member Correa, who visits 10 nests per day. For a manduvi to be big enough to hold a macaw nest it has to be almost 100 years old. “Before that age, the wood is very hard and sometimes (the birds) are not able to make a hole for a nest,” he explained.

The trees that the macaws are using today date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Any project for expanding naturally available nesting sites has to be thought out in terms of the next century, Correa said.

Deforestation poses a serious threat for the macaw and for hundreds of species living in the Pantanal, one of Brazil’s most fragile ecosystems. Thousands of hectares are flooded, and the plant life has been devastated, leaving the fauna without food sources and shelter.

According to a Jan. 5 report by the non-governmental organisation Conservation International, livestock grazing and soybean cultivation have destroyed 17 percent of the Pantanal’s original area.

Carlos Camilo, born and raised in the Pantanal, has been in charge of running a ranch in the area for the past 15 years. There used to be more panthers, deer and other large animals, he says. “Today they are increasingly rare,” and deforestation is the leading cause of their absence, he adds.

To make up for the shortage of trees, the Arara Azul project is working on building artificial nests. After several experiments, Guedes and her team were able to create wooden boxes that can be hung among the branches of the manduvi tree, to resemble the natural holes of the trunk – and they have had some positive results.

The project has the support of the World Wildlife Fund, which pays salaries for the apprentices to the project, and from the Caiman and Ararauna inns, which serve as logistical bases for the technical teams and for visitors who come to learn about their work.

The effort also has the backing of companies and private foundations, including Toyota, Telecom Brasil, Hyacinth Macaw Fund and the Smart Family Foundation.

(*Adalberto Marcondes is the director of Agencia Envolverde, Brazil. Originally published Jan. 7 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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