The Plight of the Great Green

Many species are facing rapidly declining numbers for a variety of different reasons. Habitat loss, climate change, and poaching are a few of the issues that many species are facing on a daily basis. Bringing these issues to light, working to create awareness, and educating communities to inspire change are a large part of the work I do. Both locally and globally my mission is to connect people with the biodiversity in the area and the current threats they are facing. By empowering communities to work toward coexistence, we can create an environment that supports both human life and that of our wild friends.

Recently, I had the privilege to work closely with The Ara Project, a nonprofit organization in Costa Rica that is working to understand and save macaws throughout the entire country.

The Ara Project was legally established as a non-governmental association nonprofit organization in 2012, however, the work to save these species began decades earlier. The project is currently active in two regions within Costa Rica: Manzanillo and Punta Islita (“Who We Are”, 2016). The organization works to ensure the livelihood and future of all wild parrot species that are found in Costa Rica. At this time, the focus is on both the Great Green Macaw (GMM), Ara ambigus, and the Scarlet Macaw, Ara macao. The project supports these species through wild population management, captive breeding for release, community outreach, and collaboration with other members of the scientific community.

The Ara Project has been directly involved in the conservation of the GGM through captive breeding and the reintroduction of populations back into the wild. The reintroduction site is located in Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast. The release birds were produced at Ara’s captive breeding center in Punta Islita on the Pacific coast and all the individuals in the captive breeding center have either been confiscated or donated. Every bird in their care is fed a nutritionally balanced diet, and to pair and breed when given the opportunity. It is their offspring that are released into the wild when ready. The organization employs countless volunteers, both local and international, to work on various projects and assignments within the organization.

I was fortunate to be a part of an incredible journey (…) to better understand the community, the illegal pet trade, and the macaw itself.

In the beginning, the organization’s focus was on the scarlet macaw, and as they began to expand their research, they took on the great green macaw. I was fortunate to be a part of an incredible journey as they worked to better understand the community, the illegal pet trade, and the macaw itself.

The great green macaw is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful species of tropical birds. Mostly because of their striking colors, their ability to thrive in captivity, and of course, their ability to imitate the human language (Guedes, 2004). The GGM became listed as an endangered species in 2015 and is thought to be a flagship species for conservation (“Great Green Macaw”, 2017). It can be found in lowland forests and along the tropical edges of both Central and South America (Guedes, 2004). The most recent data estimate the current population to be around 3,500 individuals across all regions (“Great Green Macaw”, 2016).

The GGM faces many threats that are related to the environment, the ecosystem and the species itself. For several hundred years, these birds were hunted for their feathers and were taken from the wild for the pet trade. Currently, poaching of their nests has driven the populations to critically low levels. Nest poaching is an issue that must be addressed to conserve this species. A macaw will typically lay one clutch of eggs per year (Young, 1998), and if these nests are not protected, the survival of the species is in trouble.

In addition to the threat of nest poaching, habitat destruction is another large concern. The macaw depends greatly on the mountain almond tree for food and nesting (Chassot and Monge, 2012). The diet of the great green macaw consists mostly of nuts, seeds, fruits, and flowers (Ridgely and Gwynne, 1992). Unfortunately, the mountain almond tree (Dipteryx panamensis) is being cut down for wood, and to make room for agriculture and mining; although it has been classified as endangered, it is still cut down at an alarming rate (Guedes, 2004).

The objectives of the survey were to help determine how to best move forward with community outreach initiatives in the different regions of Costa Rica…

After speaking with The Ara Project team, we began to develop a project to assess the attitudes, knowledge, and awareness of the people of Costa Rica about the illegal pet trade and the great green macaw. This was done through in-person interviews and random surveys throughout the communities in Costa Rica. The target was to hit as many communities and gather as many surveys as possible all over Costa Rica.

The survey objectives included determining:

  1.  the awareness ‘level’ about the great green macaw
  2. the attitude and behavior towards wild animals, such as parrots kept as pets, and
  3. the knowledge and awareness level about nest poaching and the illegal pet trade.

These objectives would help The Ara Project determine how to best move forward with community outreach initiatives in the different regions of Costa Rica. The survey was launched at the GGM festival at the end of August 2017 and then expanded into local communities.

The results are encouraging and show an interest of the local communities in protecting the bird…

We were fortunate to survey over 100 participants spanning 22 different communities. Overall, the results were favorable. The survey participants saw the benefits of conservation and were interested in protecting the great green macaw as well as the land they share.

Our major first finding revolved around the lack of awareness about how many GGM remain in the wild. The range of the survey responses was large, showing that there is an opportunity for education about just how many GGM actually remain. This also opens up a larger consideration: if there is a lack of knowledge about the number of those macaws GGM surviving in the wild, then there is likely a similar lack of knowledge about other endangered species.

Our second important finding is that while many know and understand that it is illegal to poach nests, very little is done about it. The survey respondents see a lack of education and absence of law enforcement as reasons for continued poaching. But perhaps the greater picture is that those who are aware it is illegal do not feel empowered to do anything about it.

Third and last, the survey revealed an issue regarding the mountain almond tree. Many recognize that the tree is necessary for the GGM. However, the tree is also a valuable resource to exploit. Such human-wildlife conflict is happening all over the world (Madden and McQuinn, 2014), and is part of a greater discussion for establishing coexistence and working toward living in a harmonious way that supports both human life, and the wild species in the area.

Successful conservation initiatives cannot happen without the involvement and commitment of the local communities…

There is much that can be done to help the great green macaw thrive in the wild. Their population is currently dwindling, and there is a great concern for their long-term existence. However, the surveys show us that there is hope. Many people are passionate about animals and are open to the idea of protecting them. Many also understand that there are laws about the pet trade, and they agree these birds should not be caged.

A survey of this kind is important and would benefit even more if it was pursued over a longer period of time. At the minimum, the survey data that has been collected so far may be used to create an educational presentation to help the communities to understand not only what is happening, but also how they can help.

There is currently no support from local law enforcement and government regulations. having the community itself makes a conscious decision to be involved, stand up for the great green macaw and make a difference is an important step in the right direction. The ability to motivate and inspire communities and individuals to take action is what is needed if these species are to survive.

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References & Further Reading

The Ara Project: “Background”, “Where We Work”, “How We Work”, (2016)

Baxter-Neal, Leland (2008). Endangered almond tree gets court protection.

Chassot, O., & Monge Arias, G, (2012). Connectivity conservation of the Great Green Macaw’s landscape in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (1994–2012). Parks, 18(1), 61. (2012)

“Great Green Macaw” (2016) from American Bird Conservancy

Guedes, N. M. R., (2004) Management and conservation of the large macaws in the wild. Ornitologia Neotropical, 6(15), 279-283.

Madden, F., & McQuinn, B., (2014) Conservation’s blind spot: The case for conflict transformation in wildlife conservation. Biological Conservation, 12(178), 97-106.

Ridgely, R. S., & Gwynne, J. A. (1992). A guide to the birds of Panama: with Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rothman, Andrew. (2008). Costa Rica protects green macaw by banning logging of mountain almond tree.

Vaske, J. J., & Manfredo, M. J. (2012). Social psychological considerations in wildlife management. Human dimensions of wildlife management, 4(2), 43-57.

Vaughan, C., Gack, J., Solorazano, H., & Ray, R. (2003). The effect of environmental education on school children, their parents, and community members: A study of intergenerational and intercommunity learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, 34(3), 12-21.

Young, B. E., DeRosier, D., & Powell, G. V. (1998). Diversity and conservation of understory birds in the Tilarán Mountains, Costa Rica. The Auk, (115). 998-1016.

June 1st 2018 | by  Samantha Sullivan 

The photos in this article are either published under a creative commons license, labeled for non-commercial reuse (with or without modification), or are directly linked to their source.

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