- The northern subspecies of the scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) has disappeared from much of its former range in Mexico and Central America due to habitat loss and wildlife trafficking. Researchers estimate there are between 150 and 200 scarlet macaws remaining in Guatemala.
- Fire, used to clear land for agriculture, is the biggest driver of habitat loss in Guatemala. So far this year, NASA satellites have detected more than 40,000 fires in Guatemala, many occurring in scarlet macaw habitat.
- The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is trying to protect Guatemala’s macaws through a program that monitors nest sites and places lab-hatched chicks in adoptive nests.
- Mongabay caught up with WCS Lead Medical Veterinarian Luis Fernando Guerra as he was working in the field in Laguna del Tigre National Park to chat about his work and the outlook for scarlet macaws.
Laguna del Tigre National Park sits in the northwest corner of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, encompassing about 3,367 square kilometers (1,300 square miles) of jungle, lagoons and ancient ruins. But it is also the site of some of the country’s worst deforestation, losing around 30 percent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2018, according to satellite data collated by the University of Maryland. Just since May, around 60,000 deforestation alerts have been recorded in the national park and more than 180,000 in the reserve.
Impoverished rural communities, often with no land of their own, set fire to the jungle in hopes of establishing farms and cattle ranches. Officials in the park say many cattle ranches are also a front for cocaine traffickers, who need large swaths of hidden space to land planes arriving from Colombia and Venezuela. So far this year, NASA satellites have detected more than 40,000 fires in Guatemala, with more recorded in Laguna del Tigre’s municipality of San Andres than in any other municipality in the country. And the vast majority of San Andres fires are happening in the national park.
Researchers say the fires spreading across Laguna del Tigre and other parts of the biosphere reserve are having a direct impact on the area’s biodiversity, most notably for the northern subspecies of the scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera). The bird once occupied southern Mexico, as well as Honduras and El Salvador, but its habitat has shrunk significantly. In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to list the subspecies under the Endangered Species Act.
All of Guatemala’s scarlet macaws—estimated at 150-200 individuals—now reside within the reserve. But due to the ongoing fires even this small area is under threat. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is working to recuperate the population through nest observation and laboratory incubation.
In May, Mongabay visited the WCS lab at its campsite near the ancient Mayan city of Perú-Waka’ to talk about the fires’ effects on scarlet macaw habitat. There, Lead Medical Veterinarian Luis Fernando Guerra was finishing up a long day of monitoring macaw chicks in the lab, as well as visiting to nests located high in the canopies of Cantemo trees where full grown birds were flying back and forth in search of food.
Mongabay: Earlier this morning, we visited a scarlet macaw nest less than a mile from camp. The most striking thing about it for me was how close the damage of a recent forest fire had come to the Cantemo tree it chose for its nest—only about thirty feet away.
Luis Fernando Guerra: The fires are destroying the primary forest and the regeneration of those forests. Replacing a tree of that size takes years. That’s a problem because scarlet macaws won’t have anywhere else to nest.
Mongabay: Losing nests to forest fires appears to be a common occurrence in Laguna del Tigre.
Luis Fernando Guerra: Yes, it has happened. And in fact that’s why the macaw is such an important species for conservation—because it’s not just conserving those large trees; you also have to conserve a large amount of the surrounding forest and that can help preserve additional species.
Mongabay: If we lose all of the Cantemo trees, could the scarlet macaws live in other kinds?
Luis Fernando Guerra: Here in Guatemala, about 80 percent of them use those trees. Yes, they can use other trees but they do have their preference.
The loss of habitat caused by fires is a big threat to the scarlet macaw population. That nest you visited is a very good nest. It’s active every year. If the fire had taken it, it would have been a great loss because it’s a nest that is active year after year. We always get the chicks to fly from there. It’s very easy to monitor because it’s so close, too.
Mongabay: What strategies are WCS taking to help bolster the scarlet macaw population?
Luis Fernando Guerra: The idea for us is to work with the populations on-site—which is here in the jungle—and to get more chicks to fly. Normally the macaws put three to four eggs in each nest but not at the same time. The third chick sometimes dies because the macaws are feeding the two older ones, and the smaller one almost never gets food. We’ve started to work a little on species management. We take the third bird, feed it in this laboratory over here and then we look for an adoptive nest, other nests where maybe there is only one chick, of about the same age, and we place the chick there.
Mongabay: But does the mother always accept the new chick?
Luis Fernando Guerra: They almost always accept them. We haven’t had problems with them not accepting a chick, or with the macaw not wanting to return to the nest due to human presence. They are a very manageable species.
The nesting season starts more or less at the end of January until the end of August, which is when the last chicks finish flying. Then … the nests are checked, the nests are cleaned, some nests are occupied by bees, which is reported. We manage about 90 to 100 nests and then we only work with the active nests. An active nest is one where the macaw lives and lays eggs.
In the end, there are an average of about 25 to 30 active nests per season. The idea is that the same number of birds fly each year—keeping it one to one, one chick per nest. That is a good reproduction index for us.
Mongabay: Have you seen long-term improvement in their population?
Luis Fernando Guerra: There are good and bad years. For example, there are years when the climate is very bad, so the following year, there is little available food and the macaws feed less and have less chicks. But we have seen that with the help of the monitoring we have done, many times we have managed to keep it one to one. So, basically, that’s what we work for.
Mongabay: We can’t talk about threats to the scarlet macaw without at least mentioning illegal trafficking. Luckily, it appears that the trend has declined in recent years.
Luis Fernando Guerra: Yes, now it’s very complicated to traffic scarlet macaws. There is a lot of surveillance. But there are areas that we sometimes don’t have access to and that many local community members know well…
Obviously there is a lot of trafficking of parrots, not only of macaws, which are both wanted as pets. Most of the market is in Guatemala City, where people want pets. And as long as that market exists, there will always be illegal trafficking.
Mongabay: Do you have concerns about the state of the scarlet macaw habitat in areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve most affected by fires, such as Laguna del Tigre National Park?
Luis Fernando Guerra: The importance of the Laguna del Tigre National Park is immense. There is great biodiversity here and the Maya Biosphere Reserve is one of the biggest stretches of forests in Meso-america. I think it’s very important that you fight for its conservation.
If the threats continue, they will spread throughout the reserve and cause problems because we are going to lose the biodiversity that exists in Guatemala—plants, animals, all kinds of animals. It is important that people know that all this is here, that this exists. Because many times, people in Guatemala City ask me, “And are there still jaguars? Are there still macaws?” They think there’s nothing left!
Mongabay: So many people think the battle has already been lost?
Luis Fernando Guerra: Exactly. That’s why it’s important to understand the situation, right? Because people usually say, “Oh, how sad about the fires and all that.” And they believe that everything is lost. But that is only a part of the story.
Mongabay: Despite those outside perceptions, do you have hope that attempts to save the scarlet macaw will be successful in years to come?
Luis Fernando Guerra: Yes, as long as this forest and possibilities to reproduce and have food exist, yes, the macaw has hope.
Banner image: A scarlet macaw returns to its nest high in a Cantemo Tree in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Photo courtesy of WCS/Estuardo Maldonado.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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