The military macaw (Ara militaris) is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN and has been endangered in Mexico since 1991. It was once widespread throughout Mexico from the states of Sonora (neighboring Arizona) south to Guerrero on the Pacific side, and from Tamaulipas and Nuevo León (neighboring Texas) south to Queretaro and Oaxaca on the eastern side. Today, this bird only exists in very small, fragmented areas isolated from one another because habitat destruction and capture for the pet trade have eliminated the populations from wide areas of several Mexican states.
The most recent field survey of the military macaw in Mexico estimated a population as low as 3,072 individuals in seven aggregated populations. The second largest of these populations occurs in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco in the Pacific, which also harbors the largest nesting population. The military macaw nests high up in large trees in rain and temperate forests, but hunting and trapping have decimated many nesting populations, and cornered them into nesting in inaccessible cavities in canyon walls in some parts of Mexico.
Capture of this species is illegal – in fact, no capture has been allowed for the past 35 years. Nevertheless, the military macaw is still one of the most sought after parrot species in Mexico for the illegal pet trade. It is the fourth most seized species by the Environmental Enforcement Agency (similar to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and it is the most seized of the endangered parrot species in Mexico. Although a total trade ban was decreed for all 22 Mexican parrots in 2008, the situation has not changed for the military macaw; in fact for many years the annual seizure trend has been climbing, proving that illegal trade in this species has not been abated.
The military macaw is sought after because of its large size and colorful plumage. It is the cheapest of all macaws native and foreign, legal or illegal, being offered for sale in Mexico, with prices ranging from as low as $100 US dollars up to $500 dollars. In some cases, the price of a military macaw is even lower than the price for an Amazona species of half its size, like the endangered yellow-headed or yellow-naped parrots.
Poachers illegally capture these birds as nestlings, juveniles and adults, but one of the biggest problems this species faces is loss of nesting trees when poachers cut them down to reach the nestlings more easily. Adequate nests for this large species are in very short supply in rain or temperate forests, which means the majority of breeding pairs do not nest during the breeding season. Adult breeding pairs of military macaws must wait many years before a nest becomes available for them. The destruction of a nesting tree affects the whole population, reducing the number of breeding pairs nesting in a given year and the number of new young macaws being hatched.
Defenders of Wildlife partnered with a team of scientists working in the Bahia de Banderas region in the state of Jalisco on the Pacific coast in a program to monitor nests of the military macaw. Our purpose was to study their breeding, but most importantly to dissuade poaching. The presence of our investigators around the nesting tree area, taking notes of the coming and going of the macaw parents, was enough to convince would-be poachers to stay away. The nest monitoring program for the 2013-2014 season was successful and no monitored nest was poached. The project monitored a total of 14 nests, from which 15 macaw chicks survived the nesting season. One of the successful nests had been poached constantly for the last ten years, and this is the first time it has produced chicks that left the nest on their own!
Of other nesting sites that have been studied in Western Mexico, this one is now the most productive of them all, making it the most important nesting site for the military macaw. And all because of the protection we were able to provide for the nests.
We are accompanying this project with a very extensive on-the-ground environmental and information campaign by distributing posters, comic and coloring books for children, which convey information on the species, its plight and the many ways communities can benefit economically by helping to keep them safe. Municipal authorities have joined the program, and are distributing posters while local NGOs are providing lectures in schools for children using our comic and coloring books.
We are also providing the area with its own quick bird ID guide to promote birdwatching projects that in turn provide income to the local landowners where the nests are. We are hoping to fund this program for several years until the local communities fully understand and accept the importance of helping this species survive and thrive amongst them, so that they can all benefit from this beautiful and magnificent macaw flying free in the sky.
If you visit Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco to enjoy its beaches, do hire a bird watching tour to see the military macaws. Your money will help fund conservation programs in the area.
Juan Carlos Cantu is the Manager of Mexico Programs for Defenders of Wildlife