The future's bright, the future's blue. The Lear's Macaw and its conservation

A report by Sam WILLIAMS published in Parrots in February 2002 (Issue 61, Pages 24-33)

(Website editor: Sam sent me some wonderful images of the Lear's macaws he saw during his visit and I have placed them on a separate website page. You can see them by clicking here)

There can be no doubt that safeguarding the future of the Lear's Macaw is going to be a mammoth task. This incredible species is now one of the world's rarest and most critically endangered parrots. Low breeding success appears to hinder the wild population and this is almost certainly linked to the habitat loss and degradation that the area has suffered. Despite struggling in the harsh environment, the number of humans is growing. To further pressurise the Lear's, they are one of the most prized parrot species by unscrupulous collectors worldwide. Conservationists believe that saving these wonderful birds, no matter how large a task, is still within reach.

The Lear's Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) is the world's rarest wild macaw. With a current estimated wild population of 240 individuals and only 26 pairs apparently active each year, conservationists face a real challenge to save this species from extinction. Lear's macaws were known in collections from as early as the 1700s when occasionally they would arrive in shipments of Hyacinthine macaws (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus). It is perhaps a mixed blessing though that the Lear's have always been a rarity in collections. Had there been a greater number in captivity, we would probably know considerably more about their biology, but on the other hand, it would almost certainly have been disastrous for the wild population. This has been the case for the Spix's macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) which, resulting from the demand of collectors worldwide, is now widely believed to be extinct in the wild.

Naturalists had searched for over 100 years before the location of the wild Lear's macaw population was finally confirmed in 1978 by Helmut Sick.. It is incredible that these noisy blue parrots could remain un-located for so long. Their range is restricted to the northeast of Bahia state, Brazil. The term 'restricted' is used very loosely, as this area is several times the size of Britain! A quarterly survey of the Lear's population is run by the Brazilian Natural Resource and Park Service (IBAMA) with the assistance of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the BioBrazil and Biodiversitas Foundations. These population counts have become increasingly effective, however, considering the size of the area it is not entirely impossible that there may be other small populations, which even now have not been located.

Description

Typically, the Lear's is thought of as the smaller and less glamorous brother of the Hyacinthine macaw. The Hyacinthine is, indeed, the bluest of the blue macaws and is certainly the prouder of the two even though the Lear's has more of the attractive yellow facial skin. Beauty only runs as deep as the feathers and the Lear's overshadow their brothers in another area. If the Hyacinthine fly like jumbo jets then the Lear's are jet fighters! Their long thin wings allow them to twist and turn in the air to perform all kinds of stunts, seemingly just having fun. At the nest cliffs their aerobatics are shown off to other pairs in displays, and dive-bombing one another is a fairly common occurrence.

Both the Lear's and the Hyacinthine are palm nut specialists. The Lear's macaw is almost totally dependent on the licuri palm (Syagrus coronata) the nuts of which form around 90 per cent of their diet. Each year most adult licuri palms will produce two racemes of fruit simultaneously. These are large bunches with many small fruit on them. Inside every ripe fruit is a hard nut and inside that is the all-important white 'meat'. The fruits are essentially miniature coconuts and the white 'meat' is very similar in taste but a little sweeter than that of a true coconut. Although Lear's macaws have been observed eating other food it is this rich white 'meat' within the licuri fruits that is their clear favourite.

Breeding Behaviour

Lear's macaws nest in cavities high on the side of rock mountains. (Website editor: These are sandstone canyons) These cavities have been formed over many decades through erosion of the sandstone and they vary in size and shape. To a certain extent the macaws excavate them to suit their own requirements. When doing this they stand facing into the cavity and push the debris behind them and out of the nest entrance with their feet. This creates large dust clouds and is hilarious to watch. Only two nesting sites are known, these are Toca Velha and Serra Branca and are managed by the Biodiversitas and BioBrazil Foundations respectively. The sites each have guards employed by the respective NGOs to protect the nesting birds. The Serra Branca is much larger and has the majority of nesting birds. Some of these nests stand isolated on their own rock face whereas on other rock faces there may be several cavities grouped together. Most have other cavities nearby which appear to be used by non-breeding birds as roost sites.

The guards at Serra Branca informed me the 2001/2002 breeding season had been a good one with many chicks. They suggested that this was due to high rainfall and consequently a relative abundance of licuri fruit. Unfortunately next year is predicted to be an El Niño year which usually brings drought to the region and may ultimately cause poor breeding success for the macaws. The problem is that the reproductive ecology of the Lear's Macaw is largely a mystery. With greater insight we could determine if for example, it might benefit the macaws to provide supplementary food on a large scale at these times. Unfortunately maximising Lear's macaw reproductive success is only one of a variety of issues and effective conservation must tackle all these problems, if it is to be a success.

Habit and Ecology

Lear's macaws live in a habitat known as caatinga, or white forest. In the many months that do not receive rain, indeed appears white. However, in the rainy periods this is not at all the case. Plants everywhere put out new leaves and the whole area soon looks lush green. Frogs and toads seemingly appear from nowhere at the waterholes and chime the nights away. Flowers and then fruits are quickly produced providing a plentiful supply of food for the breeding birds and animals. All these changes occur virtually overnight, as the evolution of every species of plant or animal has programmed them to exploit this short productive period and quickly get their annual business sorted out!

Unfortunately the caatinga ecosystem is very much under-appreciated and has suffered badly through degradation and reduction. Free range grazing of cattle, often within large ranches, and subsistence farming are the main land uses in the region. Vast areas have been burned to clear them of the naturally occurring thorny scrub and allow relatively unproductive pastures to form. Adult licuri palms are fortunately able to survive the repeated fires, however, cattle will eat the unripe fruit and this dramatically reduces the amount of food that would otherwise be available later for the Lear's.

In certain areas that have a high concentration of mature palms, and only suffer low grazing pressure, many seedlings can be found. What becomes apparent in these areas is that there are very few palms in-between these ages. Licuri from about four years old develop a woody base and consequently become vulnerable to being stood on by cattle. If that happens it is likely to be fatal for the young palm. Only at around eight to ten years old are they thought to be sufficiently robust to hold their own. The lack of licuri between 4 to 10 years old suggests that many have died this way.

Within the caatinga licuri is widespread but only in low abundance. The combination of burning and cattle foraging is believed to have effectively halted their regeneration and already their reduced number is thought to have a limiting influence on the Lear's macaw, especially in drought years. For the Lear's macaw this is a very important issue because their long-term survival is inextricably linked to the successful continuation of this palm and therefore the caatinga habitat.

Habitat Restoration

In a combined effort to supplement the apparent lack of wild Licuri regeneration the Cetrel Corporation, Biodiversitas Foundation and BioBrazil Foundation cultivated several hundreds of Licuri palms from nuts. Ultimately these palms will be transplanted to feeding areas. This approach cannot be doubted in terms of safe guarding the licuri palm, but there may be more immediate methods of increasing wild palms. At the Serra Branca site a small number of individual palm protectors have been put in place over naturally occurring young licuri to see whether protecting seedlings individually could prove to be a worthwhile and economically viable.

Lear's Macaws as Crop Pests

Lear's macaws are known to feed on cultivated maize in times of low availability of licuri nuts. For the farmer, producing any crop in the harsh caatinga environment is very much a lottery with poor odds. Drought is a continual threat and whilst irrigation is essential for guaranteeing a crop it is typically out of reach of these small farms. Crop raiding parrots no matter how rare, are not the best friend of a farmer who has little money and a family to feed. Macaws that were destroying crops have, in the past, been shot by farmers. This conflict still presents a risk to the population.

Protecting foraging Lear's macaws is a difficult task because they range so widely from their roost and nesting cliffs. An established federal reserve, the Raso de Catarina Ecological station lies to the north of the Serra Branca estate and plans to enlarge it in the future have been made so that it will include the nest cliffs and local feeding sites. Strangely though cattle are said to feed on the unripe licuri fruit within the reserve and consequently the macaws only visit sporadically. The BioBrazil Foundation is currently working with the landowner of the Serra Branca estate to protect the nests and provide a safe area where the Lear's feed. In one area of the ranch tall vegetation surrounding licuri palms was reduced to ensure the Lear's fully exploited all available fruit. BioBrazil is also taking a long-term interest and working to change land use on the estate for the benefit of the ecosystem.

Trapping

The greatest threat to the survival of the Lear's macaw is illegal trapping. The damage this causes to the wild population is considerable, particularly now as the number of wild Lear's macaws has been reduced so perilously low. Demand continues showing this simply does not concern the collectors. In previous years trapping activity has been high but now guards are maintained at each of the nest cliffs by the respective NGOs. At the Serra Branca site this appears to be have been a successful measure, in the 2001/2002 breeding season there was no evidence of trapping activity.

In an attempt to make a further impact on trapping the BioBrazil Foundation converted known poachers into guards. These men have now been employed for over five years, working alongside others in the protection of the Lear's macaw. At the time it was a highly controversial move, but it has proved effective. Life in this part of Brazil is hard and the people are generally poor. Trapping parrots was, for these men, simply a method of making money when nothing else presented itself. Now they have a steady, reliable income, a precious commodity in this region. Furthermore it is much safer than climbing down rock faces to catch birds at the nest.

What I found surprising and humbling when talking with these men was that, before they were employed by BioBrazil, they had never been more than 150 kilometres from their village, or more pertinently beyond the known range of the Lear's macaw. They told me they had not known that the Lear's macaw was found only in this small part of Bahia and at that time simply did not understand their rarity. I found that, like myself, these men took great pleasure from being outdoors surrounded by fascinating wildlife. It is just unfortunate that trapping had for them, been the only way to gain something from their interest.

In an attempt to make a further impact on trapping the BioBrazil Foundation converted known poachers into guards. The ex-trappers now protecting Serra Branca had only operated on a relatively small scale. Other trappers from Brazil, and other countries worldwide, have travelled and collected many different species of birds becoming wealthy as a result of their success in work. Stopping trappers that currently operate at all levels is essential. Similarly, greater action is needed to halt the smugglers and those responsible for the organisation of this trade. This is a huge issue that lies with the source country, airline companies and those countries not adequately controlling the importation of rare species. Effective enforcement of the laws that in many cases exist only on paper in source countries would surely make a significant difference. Unfortunately due to the economics of many parrot host countries, this issue simply isn't a high priority. However, these people and the political issues are only the symptoms of the problem.

Our Responsibility

The cause of the rare species trade problem is the demand, and it is an unfortunate situation that within the avicultural community the private ownership of rare and endangered parrots is not viewed as socially unacceptable. We keep parrots because among other things they are intelligent, comical and beautiful birds. The relationship between humans and parrots has a long history and one cannot deny that parrots in many ways form status symbols, rare parrots in particular. If there is to be a long-term solution for the Lear's macaw and other rare parrots, the social acceptability of keeping them in collections has to change.

Awareness and Eco-Tourism

Until very recently few within the local community knew of the Lear's macaw and its plight. There can be no surprise that as a consequence, its conservation has received little attention or been given much value. Fortunately public awareness is rising with the help of poster campaigns run by all the groups involved. In this small community the presence of foreign Eco tourists does not go unnoticed and this has also contributed in a positive way to raised awareness.

In an effort to provide a sustainable method of raising money for Lear's macaw conservation the BioBrazil foundation have been working to develop eco-tourism. Parrot enthusiasts visit Serra Branca to watch the Lear's and other parrots such as Illiger's macaws (Ara maracana) another CITES I species, Blue-fronted Amazons (Amazona a. aestiva), Blue-crowned and Cactus conures (Aratinga acuticaudataand A. cactorum respectively) and Blue-winged parrotlets (Forpus xanthopterygis)

Viewing hides have been constructed so that the Lear's macaws can be watched as they feed in licuri palms. The guards collect licuri racemes from areas where it is apparent the Lear's do not feed.

Perfectly cracked nuts beneath a licuri palm are an obvious sign that Lear's have found food there sometime in the past. By collecting from non-visited areas, the men help take full advantage of available licuri for the benefit of the macaws. Furthermore, the Lear's are feeding in a safe location where they know licuri nuts will be available, as opposed to crop raiding. The birds are wild and are clearly relaxed and comfortable with the situation otherwise they would not return.

People within the local community tend not to see a great deal of the eco-tourists. Those who do, at first generally wonder why these strange people want to spend time in the middle of nowhere! Upon discovering that the visitors are there to see Lear's macaws, the locals are typically amused and then very proud. The local community also benefits directly from the development of eco-tourism. Materials for the viewing hides and accommodation, as well as food and water, are all required and these have to be purchased. This consequently brings a new source of money into the local economy.

The main drive of eco-tourism is that a proportion of the large sum paid by the visitors to watch these birds goes into their conservation. If ecotourism is to be a success then it must be developed and managed ensuring that it never loses sight of the primary goal, to benefit the conservation of the Lear's macaw. This, because of the major issues surrounding Lear's macaw conservation, is dependent on the continuation of the positive view held by the local community at present.

Research is the Future

In the IUCN Parrot Action Plan (Snyder 2000) it is suggested that, following protection from illegal trapping, one of the most important actions for the conservation of the Lear's macaw is to study their nesting ecology. Finding out what goes on in the depths of Lear's macaw nest cavities and for example, the influence food availability has on chick survival could make the difference between extinction and recovery. Using this kind of information on other projects has allowed conservationists to make informed decisions and maximise reproductive success thereby increasing the number of individuals of that species as rapidly as possible. In the case of the Lear's macaw there can be no doubt that building on the precious little information available at present is essential if we are to optimise future conservation efforts and save this species.

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Quotes

 " 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)