The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It’s also included in Category Two of Guatemala’s List of Threatened Species and in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which bars the commercial trade of wild-caught birds.

This species is closely linked to Mayan culture, featuring in a wide range of art and cultural relics, and serving as a mascot of sorts for the local tourism industry. Yet despite its key role in life here, it’s being rapidly stripped of a habitat in which to live and corridors through which to move.

The scarlet macaw population was once widely distributed across Mesoamerica. Now the last refuges that remain for the bird within this corridor of Central America are in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve of Mexico, Chiquibul National Park (Belize) and the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Guatemala).

The Guatemalan reserve is home to the country’s largest national park, Laguna del Tigre. Inside the park is El Perú, or Waka’, a well-known archaeological site where the number of scarlet macaw nests indicates it’s an important place for the conservation of the species. Here, in the middle of the jungle, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has set up camp, working for more than 15 years now to preserve the species by helping improve the chicks’ chances of surviving into adulthood.

But even here, in an ostensibly protected national park, the threats to the scarlet macaws are very real. Laguna del Tigre suffers an annual loss of habitat of 1.2 percent year, the equivalent of 38 square kilometers (15 square miles), according to a study by the Rainforest Alliance.

The daily struggle for the scarlet macaw

The scarlet macaw nests tend be spread out, and it requires long trips to locate and monitor them. It also calls for those studying the birds to have a head for heights. Researchers must regularly climb trees to check the nests, inspecting and counting the eggs, the number of chicks, even installing cages with a double space (an artificial nest with a cavity to accommodate the chicks and another that remains empty to trick predatory falcons) and removing dangerous swarms of Africanized bees.

Patience is another virtue when it comes to monitoring macaws. The researchers wait, hidden in the vegetation, until they hear the majestic call of the mother macaw approaching to feed her chicks. Once snack time is over, they climb the tree again to bring the chick down and give it the once over, before returning it to the nest with the hope of seeing it again at the next check.

This routine is repeated over and over, more so now that the scarlet macaw population has declined so considerably.

“Very early on, we realized that their reproductive success rate was very low,” says Rony García, director of biological investigations at the WCS, during one of his work days in El Perú. “There were very few chicks coming from the active nests we were monitoring, which is why we decided to begin our maintenance activities.”

It’s important to preserve the few existing nesting spaces, he says, “mainly in the Laguna de Tigre National Park and the surrounding areas where the macaws build their nests.”

“If we lose these nesting sites, it is very probable or certain that we will lose the scarlet macaw in Guatemala,” García says after checking the condition of one of the chicks.

“Once he leaves the nest, he will fly and stay with his parents all the time. They will stay here for a few weeks before flying southeast to the Montes Azules, joining up with the rest of the macaw population in the Mayan jungle.”

The regions in the Maya Biosphere and Montes Azules “form a narrow doorway that maintains the [scarlet macaw’s] genetic flow,” according to Parks Watch, a North American organization dedicated to observing protected areas in several countries.

One of the most important tasks in the conservation of this emblematic species is constant monitoring, which is why hidden cameras have been installed to detect furtive nest thieves. The problem is that many of these hunters are armed. For García, this is the greatest threat to the scarlet macaw and those fighting for its conservation.

The department of Petén in northern Guatemala, where Laguna del Tigre is located, is home to active drug-trafficking gangs, a factor that must also be taken into account by those dedicated to conservation in this part of Central America.

García and his team suffered the loss of five chicks stolen from their nests in 2017; armed thieves had discovered a hidden camera and shot it down.

Guacamayas recuperadas del tráfico de fauna por autoridades de Guatemala en noviembre de 2016. Foto: Conap.
Macaws rescued from wildlife traffickers by authorities in Guatemala in November 2016. Image courtesy of CONAP..

A study carried out between 2015 and 2017 by environmental organizations and the governments of Belize and Guatemala found scarlet macaws are trafficked across both countries, with lax border controls a major problem.

“The species’ population in both countries is currently at risk of extinction as a consequence of this illegal trading,” the study says; García says he believes the trafficking is worse in Guatemala.

“People steal the chicks for the black market in pets,” he says. “[They are] illegally sold to private collectors, [and] we believe that the main market is here in Guatemala, but they do certainly go to other places where they fetch a higher price.”

Chicks are also stolen on the Mexican side, rendering the scarlet macaws’ last corridor for movement under permanent siege by humans.

Guacamayas rojas incautadas en mayo de 2018. Foto: Cortesía Conap.
Trafficked scarlet macaws seized in May 2018. Image courtesy of CONAP.

The vice president and the missing macaws

In 2015, Guatemala’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti, was forced to step down amid corruption allegations, and arrested soon after. During a raid on her home, investigators found two scarlet macaws; Guatemala’s special court dedicated to prosecuting crimes against the environment was duly informed.

But when environmental officers went to rescue the birds, they were surprised to find that someone had already removed them from the scene. To date, the whereabouts of Baldetti’s macaws remain unknown. How the birds came to be there in the first place is another story.

Sources close to the case told Mongabay the two birds were acquired through middlemen who were in contact with traffickers. Wildlife traffickers typically don’t work for a specific criminal organization, but they know how to remove chicks from their nests. They’re responsible for the illegal trafficking of 70 percent of the scarlet macaws in Guatemala, according to estimates by the WCS. What exacerbates this problem is that eight out of 10 birds that fall into the hands of the traffickers die in transit.

Baldetti was convicted of corruption in October of 2018 in one of several cases she faces, and sentenced to 15 and a half years in prison. She is also wanted by the U.S. government on cocaine-trafficking charges. The president she served, Otto Pérez Molina, also faces trial for corruption in Guatemala. The political storm has pushed the case of the macaws to the periphery of public interest, and although there’s an ongoing investigation, the special environmental court says it cannot release any further details.

Baldetti was not the first official to be found in possession of macaws in her home. In 2014, as Baldetti was leading an interinstitutional summit to coordinate a crackdown on wildlife trafficking, Diego Thomas Giesemann Widwann, an official with the National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, or CONAP) was arrested for having 31 specimens of endangered animals in his home, including scarlet macaws, according to a report by the environmental court. He was released shortly after and never faced charges.

Trafficking within the corridor

According to José María Castillo, a researcher with the Balam Association, a Guatemalan group dedicated to conservation, El Perú is the sector of the macaw corridor most frequented by wildlife traffickers.

Castillo says an organized criminal “structure” exists, implemented by rural people and middlemen. The former raid the nests while the latter take the lion’s share of the money they receive from selling the chicks. “There are middlemen who have as many as 15 specimens,” Castillo tells Mongabay.

People on the ground say it is these middlemen who are the main promoters of wildlife trafficking in the Maya Biosphere and it is they who should be detained.

But this problem isn’t limited to Guatemala. In the Mexican part of the corridor, the removal of scarlet macaws threatens nests in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, according to Rodrigo León, coordinator of the NGO Natura Mexicana, which runs the Scarlet Macaw Conservation Project in the reserve’s Lacandon Jungle.

“We’ve tried everything — barbed wire, hidden cameras — but nothing works,” León says. Natura Mexicana now promotes “community protection” for the nests, but in doing so, León says, they’ve had to deal with complicated issues such as the traffickers threatening local people.

He adds that to protect the nests, researchers have no other option than to take them to a laboratory, given the futility of trying to protect the trees.

León and García describe identical scenarios regarding the trafficking of scarlet macaws in their respective countries: These are regions hit by poverty and drug trafficking, involving locals who know where the nests are and who live with the permanent temptation to hand the chicks over to the middlemen.

The middlemen always come out on top, says Castillo from the Balam Association, because they receive huge amounts of money, paying for a chick that already has a buyer.

After years of using different methods to combat illegal trafficking in the Maya Biosphere and Montes Azules, conservationists in both areas have managed to involve local people to help look after the nests. Castillo says they’ve tried to create an organization that mirrors how the macaw thieves work, to better understand how they operate and prevent them stealing the chicks.

“It is an illegal activity that people carry out on a massive scale,” he says.

In Montes Azules, the education program they’ve implemented has already borne fruit, says León. “We have gained ground in many areas of environmental education,” he says.

The sale of a single macaw can net a local the equivalent of what they would earn from months of work. For the middleman, the take is exponentially higher. (Castillo asked that Mongabay not publish the earnings that the Balam Association has estimated for the trade, so as not to promote the illegal activity.) Information gathered over the years by organizations working in the three countries indicates that most of the birds are sold to people in the middle and upper income brackets.

The magnitude of the problem is highlighted by cases like that of Baldetti, the vice president who kept scarlet macaws in her home.

Kurt Duchez, the director of wildlife trafficking for WCS, said that “although they are not big criminals, the macaw thieves traffic 70 percent of the specimens in Guatemala; it’s trafficking on demand.” He added: “This is how the macaws came to be in Baldetti’s home.”

Mongabay requested an interview with CONAP to ask about confiscation figures and enforcement strategies developed on the Mexican border, but received no response by the time this article was published.

The macaws’ charm

Antonio Xol says that when he was little, he never dreamed of leaving the area of Izábel. He loved the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, but 14 years ago he became devoted to the scarlet macaw. Since then, he has remained in the jungle, caring for the birds.

“We hope he’ll be top-class,” he says, holding a newborn chick in his left hand and a syringe loaded with food in his right. “We want their numbers to increase. It really matters to us. We’ve fought and we’ve striven to be able to see these little animals.”

WCS researcher Pedro Díaz is in charge of climbing up to the nests each week to check on the chicks. If he discovers more than two eggs in the nest, he removes them and takes them to Xol for him to look after.

The conservation team works in a total of five areas within Laguna del Tigre National Park. Dense jungle separates these areas, making it difficult to move between them. “The most difficult thing is getting in,” Díaz says, “the paths are very bad.”

On these journeys, as well as seeing the macaws as they arrive at their nests and the chicks in their little caves, they are also witnesses to the advance of deforestation that threatens the species they care so much for.

“Many people come to fell the trees,” Díaz says. “As much as one person cares for something, others try to take the little that remains. It’s a real shame. Imagine how great it would be if we all tried to save everything that lives in the forest.”

Una guacamaya llega por la mañana al árbol donde tiene el nido de su pichón para alimentarlo. Foto: Rodrigo Soberanes.
In the morning, a macaw arrives at a tree where its nest contains a chick waiting to be fed. Image by Rodrigo Soberanes.

For dozens of scarlet macaws, their first experience in the world is the touch of Xol’s hands, which stays with them until their release into the Mayan jungle.

“We’ve seen many that have flown. For me, this species is beautiful, they really are worth it,” Xol says. “Before this, I knew nothing about conservation and now I see the importance of the wildlife, and that makes me happy.”

García of WCS and León from Natura Mexicana agree that if the nesting success in their respective laboratories continues, within 10 years the species will be able to sustain itself in these three linked regions.

It’s a hope that depends on “stopping the threats and creating more economic opportunities for the population,” León says. Confiscation figures from the Guatemalan government don’t paint an optimistic picture, however: CONAP reported 23 seizures between 2005 and 2015, and other sporadic captures since then.

These issues, as with fires and logging, are factors that Xol and his colleagues in the jungle can do nothing about.

The Belize-Guatemala study recommends that civil society should take the responsibility for environmental protection, given the “low capacities” of both governments, and that they should work to develop collective, non-isolated action.