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La Mosquitia: Dangerous territory for scarlet macaws in Honduras

  • The scarlet macaw (Ara macao), with its iconic red, blue and yellow plumes, is the national bird of Honduras. It inhabits forests from northern Central America to the southern Amazon, but the northern subspecies (A. m. cyanoptera) is particularly imperiled.
  • “Ecotrafficking,” the term for wildlife trafficking in Honduras, is a major problem in La Mosquitia, the part of eastern Honduras, near the border with Nicaragua.
  • Today, around 600 scarlet macaws inhabit the pine forests of Gracias a Dios, the Honduran department where Mabita is located. Anaida Panting and her family oversee 38 scarlet macaw nests and 30 great green macaw (Ara ambiguus) nests.

MABITA, Honduras — When the clock strikes four in the afternoon, Anaida Panting bangs the pots full of food that she’s prepared for her scarlet macaws. Dozens of the birds descend from the pine trees when she calls them. Panting has cared for these animals for so long that she can’t remember when she started.

It’s a dangerous job. “Ecotrafficking,” the term for wildlife trafficking in Honduras, is a major problem in La Mosquitia, the part of eastern Honduras, near the border with Nicaragua, where Mabita is located. The Honduran government has a light footprint here — so light, that the area has become a hub of various illegal trades, including the trade in scarlet macaws.

The scarlet macaw (Ara macao), with its iconic red, blue and yellow plumes, is the national bird of Honduras. It inhabits forests from northern Central America to the southern Amazon, but the northern subspecies (A. m. cyanoptera) is particularly imperiled, classified as endangered by the IUCN. Its population has declined precipitously due to poaching. The bird is sold as a pet within Honduras and on the international market.

Today, around 600 scarlet macaws inhabit the pine and broadleaf forests of Gracias a Dios, the Honduran department where Mabita is located. Anaida Panting and her family protect 38 scarlet macaw nests. The birds subsist on a diet of rice, beans and dry dog food.

Panting, an indigenous Miskito woman who co-directs the Rescue and Liberation Center of Mabita along with her spouse, Santiago Lacuth, coordinates a community-led initiative to rehabilitate macaws that have been confiscated from traffickers and reintroduce them into the wild. Every day at 4 p.m., the birds come and eat from the pots and, sometimes, right from Panting’s hands.

One of the macaws, her favorite, is so old that no one knows its exact age. “It’s the only one that stays after lunch,” she says after stopping a fight between her special macaw and another one that ventured too close to her. “The rest leave after they’ve eaten, but this one stays with me.”

Protecting the macaws, though, also means guarding an animal sought by traffickers.

“There are two types of threats: threats to the species and threats to the community,” says Héctor Portillo, a researcher with the Foundation of Science for the Study and Conservation of Biodiversity (INCEBIO), a local NGO. “Illegal trafficking often happens within the communities, and people who take the animals are locals. But traders and final consumers are outside the country, usually in Jamaica or the Cayman Islands.”

Trafficking in La Mosquitia

Locals in La Mosquitia are constantly waiting: waiting for help, waiting for good news. But what comes, they say, are people with bad intentions who take advantage of the neglect in this part of the country.

In Mabita, locals have taken matters into their own hands, setting up patrols to guard the macaw nests. Currently, these community members receive a daily fee under a project supported by One Earth Conservation, a nonprofit.

However, some members of this remote community — where school only goes to sixth grade, there is no health care center, no electricity and no drinking water — may see an opportunity in selling an animal, even if they know the buyer will flip the creature for much more on the international market.

A source in the Honduran public prosecutor’s office told Mongabay that wildlife trafficking in the area generates thousands of dollars in revenues per trafficker every month. A scarlet macaw can be illicitly sold on the international market for $1,000; a great green macaw can fetch up to $3,000. The nation’s environmental prosecutor investigated illegal trade routes for timber and wildlife in the area and identified the one that starts in the nearby community of Caukira as among the most profitable. This route passes through Honduras’s Ceiba and Bay islands and ends in Jamaica.

One of the scarlet macaws seized in December 2017 in Puerto Lempira. The rescued animals were relocated to Mabita. Image by anonymous.

Caukira is a colorful town, visibly more developed than Mabita. Saturation divers catch lobsters and sea cucumbers, a dangerous business that has crippled more than 5,000 men in La Mosquitia due to decompression sickness from using makeshift gear. Caukira is also a hub of various illegal trades: cocaine, Jamaican marijuana and wildlife, according to a source from the prosecutor’s office.

These businesses are so lucrative that trying to dismantle them can mean death for people who live in this area where, as Portillo says, the lack of state control is alarming.

The risk of fighting wildlife trafficking in La Mosquitia

In December 2017, after barely 10 months in the position, an environmental prosecutor in Puerto Lempira, the Gracias a Dios capital, who had taken action against timber and wildlife traffickers, had to flee due to an attack on his house.

When the prosecutor first arrived, he started to work with the military, the only clear and evident presence of the state in La Mosquitia. At one point, unidentified people shot at the gate, door and windows of the prosecutor’s apartment. For his safety, the prosecutor was transferred to another office elsewhere in the country. No one was charged over the attack.

Anaida Panting’s shelter hosted the species seized in December 2017. Image by Martin Cálix/Contracorriente.

“Sometimes law enforcement is not appropriate,” says Marleny Zelaya of the Institute of Forest Conservation (ICF), a government agency. “At the ICF we find ourselves between the authorities in the prosecutor’s office, the soldiers and the communities.” She added that the fact that the prosecutor’s office went from zero scrutiny actions to a heavy-handed approach against trafficking in illegal goods, including timber, without considering that many poor communities use the resources rationally, if not legally, was not the best way to enforce the law.

Anaida Panting has welcomed the animals that are now recovering in Mabita, even if the community has to care for them. She says the national institutions only show up so that they see their faces and then disappear. The prosecutor’s office leaves the animals there, and the ICF assists in the transportation of the animals, but then they leave. Zelaya contends that they do their best, but sometimes they need to serve as mediators to prevent bigger problems.

Panting says there will always be problems. She explained that weeks ago a young man stole a parrot egg, which can be sold in Nicaragua for 1,500 lempiras. Hunger also drives locals to become traffickers.

Panting has built a strong link with the birds she looks after and tends to. Image by Martin Cálix/Contracorriente.

Trafficking increases when foreigners arrive in Mabita to buy macaws. Investigations by the public prosecutor’s office show that different birds have been traded along the route that takes in the villages of Mocorón, Rus Rus and Leimus, and that a Chinese national was paying locals to steal hatchlings and eggs from the nests. The exchange means little money for locals and a lot for traffickers who sell the species in Europe, Asia and at home in Honduras. Locals who want to take care of the species are facing dangerous people.

“Here if they kill a Miskito it’s as if they’d killed a chicken,” says a resident of Rus Rus, a Miskito village in Gracias a Dios. Some residents here have worked to protect the macaw, but they know that if they are threatened and killed so that trade can continue, their deaths won’t make the news.

For the Maya peoples of Mesoamarica, the scarlet macaw is the forest protector, the incarnation of the sun. But today in the cities, the birds can only be seen in cages, and witnessing a macaw flying is almost a miracle. In Mabita, the miracle happens daily. Panting receives them and kisses them. Apu pauni pree palisa — “Scarlet macaw, fly free” — is written in Miskito language in signs around this community that barely receives visitors. The scarlet macaw flies free and returns to the arms of the people who rescued it.

The yellow-naped parrot, the great green macaw, and the scarlet macaw find their last free territory in La Mosquitia, but wildlife trafficking in the area threatens the conservation of these species. Image by Martin Cálix/Contracorriente.

Banner image: a scarlet macaw in Mabita. Image by: Martin Cálix – Contracorriente.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Philip Jacobson.