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Wild Blue-Throated Macaws Slowly Returning From The Brink Of Extinction

More conservation good news: a macaw species once thought to be Extinct-In-The-Wild is now recovering its numbers, thanks to intensive conservation efforts

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I’ve recently shared several stories about Critically Endangered macaw species and the intensive conservation efforts underway to restore their populations in the wild (for example, here, here and here). But there is yet another macaw species that is so rare that it was thought to be Extinct-In-The-Wild until a population of 50 individuals was discovered in Bolivia in 1992. This vanishingly rare parrot is the blue-throated macaw, Ara glaucogularis. Also known as the Caninde macaw, Wagler’s macaw — or locally as barba azul, or ‘blue beard’ in Spanish — this parrot appears to be slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction, according to a recent report by Asociación Armonía, which is The Rainforest Trust’s partner in Bolivia (ref).

These critically endangered macaws are severely range-restricted parrots that exclusively live in a small portion of Bolivia’s Bení Savanna. This is a vast tropical savanna covering an area of 126,100 square kilometers (48,700 square miles) in the lowlands of northern Bolivia, with small portions extending into neighboring Brazil and Peru (Figure 1).

Located in the southwestern corner of the Amazon basin and surrounded by moist tropical rainforests, the Bení Savanna ecoregion experiences pronounced wet and dry seasons. The wet season generally extends from December to May, and subjects the savanna, which is relatively flat, to such heavy rains and snowmelt from the nearby Andes Mountains, that it floods.

The Bení Savanna ecoregion is crossed by numerous rivers that drain the Amazon forest and the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains (Figure 2). This ecoregion features a patchwork of dry forests, gallery forests, which are moist forests found along rivers or wetlands that project into sparsely treed landscapes such as savannas, short- and tall-grass prairies, and more than 20 Motacú Palm “islands”, a tree whose nuts serve as an important food source for these macaws.

As with most parrots, this macaw was decimated by the twin threats of the illegal pet trade (in the past, before it disappeared) and habitat destruction. It breeds on private cattle ranches where logging, burning and grazing have severely reduced the number of suitable nest and food trees. These macaws were also hunted in some regions for their feathers, which are used in Indigenous headdresses. Further, it takes years before these macaws reach maturity, so recruitment into the breeding population is slow. Additionally, diseases always pose a threat, particularly for tiny populations.

To help these Critically Endangered macaws, the 1,680-acre Laney Rickman Reserve protected area was created by Asociación Armonía in 2018 in the southeast portion of the Bení Savanna. This reserve was specifically situated where the largest group of wild blue-throated macaws in the world were known to nest. After the land was purchased, the cattle were removed, hunting, net fishing and logging were all stopped, and grassland burning was reduced, allowing the land to recover naturally.

A nest box program that had been initiated in 2007 for these macaws under the guidance of Laney Rickman was so successful that it was expanded into this region. As of 2021, 105 blue-throated macaw chicks have successfully fledged from nest boxes. According to the most recent reports, there have been 16 nesting attempts in the 100 monitored nest boxes that successfully fledged 8 chicks this year.

“Rainforest Trust and our donors care about all endangered birds — indeed all endangered species”, said James Deutsch, CEO of The Rainforest Trust in a statement. “But Blue-throated Macaws are special — spectacular, brilliant, social. Our world would be vastly impoverished without them. That’s why we are so privileged to support Asociación Armonía in their highly professional and successful efforts to pull this species back from the brink.”

Thanks to their combined conservation efforts, the total wild population of blue-throated macaws is estimated to number somewhere between 350–400 individuals today. This is roughly the same number of individuals as those living in captivity.

But working towards saving the habitat and growing the numbers of this species of Critically Endangered macaws is helping hundreds of other species as well. The Motacú Palm, Attalea phalerata, which is widespread in Bolivia, is an economically valuable species. In Bolivia, it is used as a construction material, for food, medicine, cosmetics, and edible cooking oils.

The Motacú palm also is fairly common in the Amazon rainforest. It has been suggested that the structure of the Amazon rainforest may have wild macaws to thank. Research has shown that blue-throated macaws play an important ecological role as seed dispersers. The macaws’ preferred food are the nuts of the Motacú palm, which also are their preferred nesting and roosting tree. Parrots are sloppy eaters, typically dropping about half of the food that they pick up and transport over large distances (more here). This sloppiness, combined with their fondness for Motacú palm nuts, makes them influential seed dispersers in the Amazon forest ecosystem, especially for the Motacú palm, which they distribute widely (ref).

Additionally, conserving this savanna benefits a variety of threatened and endemic species that live there. For example, at least five wild macaw species, as well as many hundreds of other bird species, and 146 mammal species live there.

Asociación Armonía’s conservation work has also benefitted the local human communities. As part of these conservation efforts, Asociación Armonía is working to raise the local community’s awareness of the Blue-throated Macaw’s plight, stop hunting by creating synthetic feathers for traditional head-dresses, and stop poaching and illegal trade of this rare parrot through education and monitoring efforts.

Let me remind you that, despite the success of this nest box program, a recent study that I shared with you a few months ago predicted that birds with the most unusual and extreme traits are likely to go extinct first, whereby removing their unique traits and ecological roles from ecosystems (more here). This is a worrying scenario that could easily lead to the extinction of this important parrot.

“As their environment is continuously threatened by agricultural expansion and fires, the Laney Rickman Reserve provides a safe space for the birds to live and reproduce. The blue-throated macaw continues to breed at these sites each season, an encouraging sign that the hard work to protect this area is working. The success of this reserve gives us great hope for future populations and for the future of the species.”

I encourage you to make a donation to support the conservation of this ecologically important and Critically Endangered macaw species.

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