Battle of the bird breeders

A report by Giles WHITTELL in The Times dated Friday, 11th January 2002

The Spix's macaw is on the brink of extinction. But the bird's fate is in danger of being sidelined by the warring factions competing to save it.

The bird is less than a year old. It can fly, but not well. In the next-door cage its neighbours are flapping round the balding head of a man who has let himself in to coo at them. The young bird seems to want to intervene and launches itself off its perch. It hits the mesh wall of its own cage and falls to the ground, momentarily stunned.

Near by, snow falls on a frozen pond on which two red-billed black swans pick at the ice. The cold is numbing. It could be a scene by Breughel; in fact, it's a glimpse of a private aviary in northern Switzerland, and of a parrot collection that includes 18 Spix's macaws, probably the rarest birds on earth.

The Spix's macaw is not big nor iridescent nor particularly vocal, but it is more critically endangered than the giant panda or the Javan rhino. Its pale grey head and petrol blue body have not been seen in the wild for 15 months. As far as is known, it exists now only in captivity, and can be seen in public in only one zoo, in Sao Paulo.

Uniquely for a critically endangered species the rest of the 60 or so surviving examples are in private hands - in a commercial bird farm in the Philippines run by an industrialist, Antonio de Dios; on the estate of a Qatari sheikh; and in Roland Messer's large garden in the rolling farmland north of Freibourg, 3,000 miles from the Spix's natural habitat of north-eastern Brazil.

Messer is the man who likes to coo. He made his money in the construction business and parted with a good deal of it in a recent divorce. He got into exotic birds, he says, as a hobby. De Dios, too, calls his bird business a hobby, an "overgrown" one. (He is the world's biggest pet bird breeder.) Now the survival of a species may depend on these men.

This fact - that some of the planet's most precious genes are, entirely legally, in the hands of private individuals without a biology degree between them - has left many in the international conservation community so furious that they can barely think straight. They have begged them to leave the saving to the experts.

The breeders' insistence on owners' rights over the birds has triggered the collapse of an international effort to reintroduce them to the wild. A meeting in Brazil last year degenerated to shouting, and almost came to fisticuffs.

There is still hope for the Spix's macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), but only if homo sapiens can stop squabbling over him. So far, however, the pattern has been the reverse. The rarer the bird has become, the more intense and acrimonious the human drama over its fate has become. It is a drama involving the good, the egotistical and the unimaginably rich, in which the true hero, the bird himself, often gets pushed to the wings.

The latest instalment began harmoniously, 13 years ago, on the north shore of Lake Geneva. Four years before that, in 1985, Birdlife International had counted the wild Spix's macaws still flying in their only known habitat, the riverside forests of Brazil's Bahia province, and had come up with a depressing number: five.

By the end of the decade, the number of regular sightings had fallen to zero. So when Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) convened a meeting on South America's most threatened species in Lausanne in 1989, on the subject of the Spix's macaw there was little to argue about. In the wild at least, it seemed to be extinct. The only hope lay in getting captive birds to breed.

De Dios, who had most of them, was at the meeting. So was Wolfgang Kiessling, a German millionaire with a fondness for parrots and a flair for displaying them to Europe's holidaying hordes. In the early 1970s he established a parrot park at the foot of a volcano on Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. In addition to the world's largest parrot collection, he has put on display a family of gorillas and an entire colony of penguins living on an indoor island cooled by a gigantic ice machine.

Loro Parque quickly became, as its own website declares, "el MUST de las Canarias". As one of Kiessling's advisers put it this week: "His great idea was nature tourism for all the Swedes and Germans visiting Tenerife who get horribly sunburnt by day two of their holiday and then need something else to do."

At the Lausanne meeting Kiessling conferred with de Dios, and, he says: "We decided to help to save the Spix's macaw."

Kiessling had legally acquired a prized pair in the early 1980s and encouraging them to breed as a prelude to returning them to the wild seemed the most natural thing in the world. "I thought it was a beautiful idea, a wonderful opportunity to do something extraordinary, " he says.

Thirteen years on that goal remains achievable but remote, and Kiessling's relations with de Dios are, according to Kiessling, less than cordial. There are many reasons why - none of them personal - but most can be traced to one moment of birdwatching bliss in the Bahia woodlands the year after the Lausanne meeting.

In 1990 one of the world's top parrot experts, a Briton named Tony Juniper who is now the director-designate of Friends of the Earth, mounted what seemed like a supremely quixotic expedition to establish once and for all whether the Spix's macaw really was extinct in the wild. He and a Brazilian colleague (Website Ed: this was Carlos Yamashita) scoured Bahia by four-wheel-drive vehicle and on foot, asking every farmer, poacher and schoolboy they met about the bird with the grey head and long blue tail-feathers. Eventually, in a tree on a riverbank near the city of Curaça, they found one -- and only one.

"Having spent six weeks looking for him, finding him at first brought a sense of triumph and relief;" says Juniper.

There was every reason to hope that the bird had a mate. In Brazil's vast expanses "people use the word `rediscover' too lightly", explains Dr Nigel Collar, of Cambridge University and Birdlife International. "They just don't realise that people haven't been looking properly." But that hope quickly faded. No mates were seen and Juniper's triumph "turned to tragedy".

What happened next elevated the last wild Spix's macaw to the totemic status of the panda and the rhino. In one of the most moving displays of stoicism in the face of enforced celibacy in the annals of natural history, he flew on along the rivers of Bahia for ten years, alone.

Human efforts on his behalf were in a sense successful: no one poached him. The Loro Parque Foundation donated $600,000 (£4l8,000) to reintroduction and conservation efforts, including myriad programmes to protect the last: wild bird by re-educating local Brazilians, who in turn came to believe that the creature had supernatural powers of survival. But all attempts to end his solitary state failed. He was introduced to an Illiger's macaw, but did not bond. In I995 be was offered a real girlfriend: the world's last fertile captive female, which had been born in the wild. She kept up well at first, then flew into some power lines. The long-flying male was last seen in October 2000.

American wildlife officials estimate the turnover of illegal trafficking in rare and endangered species at $l0 billion to $20 billion a year ---- third only to drugs and black-market weapons. It is a favourite sideline for South American cocaine smugglers seeking to diversify. Brazil's porous borders help the trade along, and well-heeled buyers, mainly in the United States, make it all worthwhile.

For delivery, the birds are drugged and stuffed into poster tubes or elasticated vests worn by their couriers. Their price is set by market forces operating at their simplest: the rarer the bird, the more expensive it is.

Spix's macaw is the rarest of the rare because its habitat has been shrinking since the last Ice Age and under mounting human threat for the past 500 years, first from settlers, then from trappers. The bird was already rare and highly valued by collectors in the 18th century, and at the dawn of the 21st, according to Collar, it really is extinct.

Except, of course, that it isn't. The legal captive populations in the hands of de Dios, M:esser and others mean that its genes live on. Conservation biologists know from experience with birds such as the Californian condor that survival instincts can be rekindled, which is why an international meeting on the Spix's macaw held in Houston in 1999 took place amid cautious optimism.

Everyone was there: breeders, the conservationists, Kiessling and a representative of the Houston Zoo, Natascha Schischakin, who for most of the 1990s had served as an international studbook keeper, logging every known birth, death and pairing.

It was agreed that all transfers of Spix's macaws between breeders or zoos would be approved by a committee, the CPRAA, set up by the Brazilian Government to save the bird. Schischakin appeared to endorse this arrangement. Then, a few months later, she allowed - some would say encouraged - the lawful transfer of four birds from de Dios's facility in the Philippines to Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar.

The effect was electric. The next CPRAA meeting was cancelled. The one after that, last February, turned into a shouting match. Kiessling, through a spokesman rounded on Schischakin for, in his view, supporting the breeders in bird dealings outside the CPRAA.

Schischakin says the home that the Sheikh has created for his macaws is "impeccable". But it did not help her case that he appeared to fit the stereotype of an Arab billionaire obsessed with owning the rarest of the rare. He is reported to have spent some $5 million on a hand-illustrated copy of Audubon s Birds of America, whose New York auctioneer had estimated that it would fetch half as much. He also owns several Lear s macaws, cousins of the Spix's and almost as endangered.

Collar, who has met the Sheikh, found him "wholly genuine" and saw no reason to doubt his sincerity as a conservationist. Nonetheless, the idea of de Dios shipping birds to Qatar without the CPRAA's approval was more than Kiessling could bear. He suspended his foundation's funding of the committee's field programme and warned, with the clout that came from being its biggest donor, that it would not rejoin as long as Schischakin was a member.

"I have always advised the committee that it might face difficulties with certain private holders," Kiessling said this week. "When I learnt de Dios had sent four birds to Qatar I realised it was no longer worthwhile spending $60,000 to $100,000 a year on a project in which no one seems interested now."

Kiessling is a millionaire who puts birds on display; de Dios is a millionaire who breeds them. In the 13 years since their meeting in Lausanne, Kiessling has taken what he considers the high road, handing ownership of his birds back to Brazil and pressing for swift reintroduction efforts overseen by world-class scientists. De Dios stuck to what he knew, and now owns 27 birds, or nearly half the global population. Messer has 18, descended from 15 he bought from a Swiss dentist. Kiessling has three.

The numbers tell the story that some purists cannot bear to hear. If this bird is to be saved, it will be thanks to those who consider it their private property.

Schischakin understood this, but in dealing with the owners she has managed to offend everyone in the Spix's human orbit except de Dios, Messer and the Sheikh. Last month Houston Zoo relieved her of her Spix's conservation duties. The Brazilian Government has produced a proposed new structure for the CPRAA, but for now co-operative international efforts to save the world's rarest bird are in total disarray.

When among his Spix's, Roland Messer is an odd mixture of hard and soft, one moment trying to kiss them, the other grabbing them with surprising roughness to return them to warmed nesting boxes from the bitter cold. "The heart is big," he says repeatedly in broken English. "This bird is my life."

Later, over filet mignon in a restaurant owned by a friend (Messer chooses horsemeat), he sets out his position more starkly. "I can do with these birds what I like. Me and de Dios are the owners. I could sell them in a month if I wanted."

They would fetch at least £50,000 apiece if he did, netting him a tidy profit since he says he bought his original 15 for £70,000. But he swears that he never would, and I believed him.

Others are more sceptical. "What the hell is this man in Switzerland doing with 20 per cent of the world's population of this bird," asks the normally urbane Collar. "What are his credentials? What other parrots has he bred? Who is he? Just someone, who happens to have bought some birds from an old dentist. We need everyone with a Spix's macaw sitting at a table agreeing on a plan thought through by experts. These people exist."

Messer has other ideas. He believes that his seven breeding pairs could produce up to 25 offspring next year and more than 200 over five years. He says he will accommodate them in a brand-new, 8,000-square-metre aviary, and that when he has 250 he will give half his offspring every year to the CPRAA.

De Dios has similar plans, and Schischakin, in her first comments since leaving Houston Zoo, backed both breeders yesterday. She has also attacked the Loro Parque Foundation for its "remarkably poor" breeding record and its desire for a reintroduction programme in Brazil. Such a strategy would be "great for a public relations ploy", she said, but "could doom a population to extinction" if launched too hastily.

The ghost of the last wild Spix's macaw lives on in a world of passionate humans with, between them, huge expertise and bottomless resources. But they can agree on almost nothing beyond the fact that, if they agreed on more, the species could be saved.

"There's everything to play for," says Tony Juniper. Which is to say prestige, science, the moral high ground and the little matter of a bird.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)