Press release by Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

Press release by Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) dated 10th April 2000

The case which in the RSPB’s opinion involves the most serious allegations of wildlife smuggling ever brought before a British court nears its climax.

The jury in the trial of well known parrot collector Harry Sissen is expected to reach its verdict later this week at the end of a four week trial at Newcastle Crown Court. Three Lear’s macaws were seized, along with over 140 other parrots, during a raid by HM Customs officers at the North Yorkshire farm of well known parrot collector Harry Sissen in April 1998. Mr Sissen has been charged with smuggling the Lear’s macaws into the UK, and also with smuggling six blue-headed macaws into the country. Two further charges of selling a palm cockatoo and a hyacinth macaw have been dismissed. The RSPB believes these to be the most serious allegations of smuggling of endangered wildlife ever to have been brought before a British court because of the rarity of the species involved.

One of the world’s most endangered birds

Lear’s macaw is a beautiful, large, long-tailed blue parrot which is officially classified by the world conservation authorities as ’critically endangered’. This is because the current wild population, restricted to a small area of north-east Brazil, is thought to number only about 160-180 individual birds. In addition, because they are threatened by trade they are also listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which effectively makes all trade in wild specimens of this species illegal. The Lear’s macaw is closely related to two other highly threatened ’blue macaws’ of similar appearance - the Spix’s macaw, the world’s rarest bird with only one wild male left in existence; and the hyacinth macaw with about 3,000 individual birds left in the wild. Both of these species are also threatened with extinction by illegal bird smuggling.

Lear’s macaw - a great ornithological mystery

The story of Lear’s macaw has long been one of ornithology’s great mysteries It was first described as a new species to science in 1858 by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew. The description originated partly from an illustration of a captive bird painted by Edward Lear the famous British author of nonsense verse who was also an accomplished illustrator. However the species’ wild existence remained a mystery for over a century during which time individual birds would occasionally turn up in shipments of blue parrots from Brazil. This led some experts to question whether it was a valid species and it was even suggested that those which had turned up were hybrids between the closely related glaucous macaw (now extinct) and the hyacinth macaw.

Finally after a number of unsuccessful expeditions the Brazilian ornithologist Helmut Sick at last located the only known wild populations of the Lear’s macaw on the Raso da Catarina plateau in a remote area of NE Brazil in Bahia Province in 1978. The macaws inhabit dry thorn scrub and feed principally on the fruit of the licuri Palm. They roost in cavities in the sandstone cliffs of the river canyons which dissect the plateau and fly out each day to feed in the palm groves.

Threats to Lear’s macaw

Lear’s macaw is thought to be a naturally rare species with a geographical range of only about 15,000 sq. km and seems to be dependant on its principal food plant the licuri palm with only about 30 groves providing food for the birds. The wild population is thought to number only about 160-180 birds with very low breeding productivity, only about 20% of the population attempting to breed each year. The species is threatened with extinction by trapping for the bird trade, hunting, loss of the licuri palm groves due to livestock grazing, disturbance, and possible inbreeding depression.

The Brazilian government has initiated an action plan to aid the species’ recovery, which includes protecting the birds from trappers and preventing further habitat destruction. In spite of the fact that all capture and trade in Lear’s macaws is banned by Brazil, there are nevertheless some birds in captivity. The whereabouts of eighteen individuals are known - eleven in Sao Paulo Zoo, two in Singapore, two in Florida and the three birds which were at Harry Sissen’s premises. Apart from the two in Florida, all the others are held as the result of seizures by the authorities. There are believed to be a number of other Lear’s macaws held captive by private collectors in secrecy in the Middle-East, Europe and North America. A breeding pair of Lear’s macaws are thought to be worth up to £50,000 on the black market.

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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)