The scarlet macaw has returned to the rainforests of the Gulf of Mexico after being wiped out half a century ago. Last month, 27 scarlet macaws were successfully released into the wild in the Biosphere Reserve of Los Tuxtlas in southern Veracruz. This release was the first step of a project that plans to create the largest wild population of these birds in Mexico.
The scarlet macaw is one of the most spectacularly colored macaws in the Americas, but intense transformation of its natural habitat into agricultural land and cattle ranches, as well as over-exploitation for the pet trade, devastated its populations, driving it towards extinction throughout most of its range. The species was wiped out from Tamaulipas (near the Mexico–Texas border) in the late 19th century, and by the 1970s it was gone from the Gulf of Mexico.
In Mexico, the remnant population living in the wild has been estimated to be only around 250 individuals. That means that this release has increased the wild population of scarlet macaws by 10%! The largest population (about 200 individuals) is found in the Lacandona rainforest in Chiapas, at the border with Guatemala. A smaller (and still not studied) population of about 50 macaws is found in the Chimalapas rainforest between Chiapas and Oaxaca.
The Veracruz reintroduction project is being led by Dr. Patricia Escalante from the Mexican National University’s Institute of Biology, using captive-bred specimens from the breeding center of Xcaret in Quintana Roo. Defenders of Wildlife has supported this project for years, both through funding and by creating and spreading environmental education materials to teach local communities about the importance of restoring this species to the wild, and of keeping the macaws safe from poaching.
This was a highly difficult operation from the beginning, since the macaws had to be transported in individual cages from the coast of Quintana Roo in the Caribbean Sea, across the Yucatan Peninsula, and up north to the lake of Catemaco in Veracruz. Then each cage had to be carried on foot by porters up the mountain, across forest and streams, to the remote rehabilitation aviary, where the birds could get accustomed to living in the wild, and learn to recognize local seeds, nuts and fruits. The release site is in the buffer zone of the biosphere reserve, inside the private reserve of La Otra Opcion, which used to be a cattle ranch. Through an intense reforestation program, it has gradually brought back the forest.
An important element of the project that Defenders helped fund were the radio transmitters that several macaws are wearing so that the team of biologists working with Dr. Escalante can follow them and monitor their movements. Especially this early in the reintroduction, it is important to know where the macaws are finding food, resting sites during the night, and if they are staying close to the release site or even inside the biosphere reserve. This will give the biologists the information necessary to make future decisions about keeping or changing the release site.
Several federal, state and municipal environmental authorities attended the release and pledged their support to the project, so that the scarlet macaw can become the flag species of the region. The plan is to keep on releasing macaws every three or four months during the next five years or so until a stable population of 300-500 individuals is reached. When this happens, Veracruz will be home to the largest wild population of scarlet macaws in Mexico!
Now that the first group of macaws has been released, our program to inform and educate the area’s rural communities about the project gathers urgency – it’s important that we reach as many people as possible. It is vital that the local communities support the project, and are willing to denounce any threats of poaching to the authorities. We will continue to support the project with more educational materials, as well as a series of bird ID guides for the area to boost local bird-watching programs, which will bring income to the local communities and foster interest in the conservation of the macaws and their habitat.
This macaw reintroduction in the Gulf of Mexico has now created the northernmost population of the species on the continent, and the nearest one to the USA. It is just a short flight from Texas to Veracruz, a short drive to the Catemaco Lake where hotels can be found, and about an hour to the release site. If you visit, be sure to take advantage of the local bird-watching tours, and perhaps you’ll see a scarlet macaw flying free once more.
We will keep you posted on the progress of this project as this group of endangered macaws grows, creating a future once again for this colorful species in the wild.
Juan Carlos Cantu is the Mexico Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife