- Nature reserves involving the participation of indigenous communities have developed tourism projects for bird-watching and succeeded in curbing the capture of the red-fronted macaw, a critically endangered species that is often caught up in the illegal wildlife trade.
- The Bolivian government has been promoting an action plan to conserve the species, which was expected to be approved last year.
- Following President Evo Morales’s removal from office and the subsequent change in government late last year, the plan is still awaiting approval.
For 13 years, Marlene Rivas has been part of a team working to protect the red-fronted macaw (Ara rubrogenysa), a bird endemic to Bolivia that is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
“Before, we didn’t take care of the birds. We didn’t know they were in danger of extinction. Red-fronted macaws were captured as pets and killed because they damaged crops,” Rivas says about some of the factors pushing the species to the verge of extinction.
Now, she says, residents of the towns of San Carlos, Amaya and Perereta, in Omereque municipality, Cochabamba department, are proud to have the bird in their area. The towns are part of the Red-Fronted Macaw Nature Reserve, one of the areas dedicated to the conservation of this species.
Due to the macaw’s critical situation, refuges and bird protection areas have been set up in various parts of Bolivia. But now the hope is to go a step further with the proposed Action Plan for the Conservation of the Red-Fronted Macaw, which seeks to lay the foundations to prevent this emblematic bird from disappearing from the planet.
A refuge for the birds
The Red-Fronted Macaw Nature Reserve was established in 2006 as a private conservation area for the species by the Asociación Civil Armonía (ACA) in conjunction with the three Omereque communities. “This is the most important site for the reproduction of this species,” says Rodrigo Soria, executive director of the ACA.
For Soria, the standout result from the refuge’s operation has been the commitment of the communities to conserving the species, by preventing hunting and stopping the conflict that existed over the birds’ feeding on corn crops. Now, residents have diversified their crops and established feeding areas for the birds in the protected area.
“The most important thing is that people have understood that the red-fronted macaw is in danger of extinction, and have become empowered by this initiative, [they] are concerned about the local breeding population to the point that when they see a stranger, they approach and make sure that they are not a trafficker,” Soria says.
The reserve also has a tourist lodge dedicated to bird-watching. On the site, which covers approximately 50 hectares (124 acres), 184 bird species have been recorded, which can be seen on eBird, the app created by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology for bird-watchers to report sightings anywhere on the planet.
Among the other birds found in this refuge are the glittering-bellied emerald (Chlorostilbon lucidus), the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), the rufous hornero (Furnarius rufus), the Andean swift (Aeronautes andecolus) and the snowy egret (Egretta thula).
“It’s a magical place that leaves you stunned because there are birds of all colors, and they are there, near you. You don’t need binoculars to see them,” says Laura Velarde, the ACA’s tourism conservation coordinator.
Velarde says interest in bird-watching is on the rise, and that in the reserved area there are also archaeological remains from the pre-Hispanic Omereque culture, which adds to the site’s appeal. The revenue, Velarde says, benefits the communities that are part of the conservation project.
“The community has realized that it benefits from the coming of tourism because it is located in a prime position for the observation of this species,” Soria says. He adds it’s not possible to say precisely whether the red-fronted macaw population is on the increase, but the number of breeding pairs counted in this refuge is about 40 each year, in addition to those individuals that are not at the reproductive stage. Soria says the last population study was carried out in 2011, so it’s important to carry out new research to establish the current status of the species.
The path to protection
Efforts to protect the red-fronted macaw have involved the Anamal and Las Juntas communities, who, in coordination with the Foundation for the Conservation of Parrots Bolivia (CLB), have curbed the hunting of these birds, as well as the theft of the young from their nests.
Sixto Aguilar is a park ranger in the Jardin de las Cactaceas municipal protected area, in the department of Santa Cruz. An area of more than 22,000 hectares (54,400 acres) set up in 2005 for the protection of various cactus species, it has also become a refuge for the red-fronted macaw.
“There were a lot of red-fronted macaws, but they have declined drastically as a result of hunting. People set traps to catch these macaws and then sell them,” Aguilar says, adding that with the disappearance of the adults, they also lost the fledglings that died from not being fed. “That’s why they disappeared quickly.”
Things have now changed. Community members participate in surveillance of the area and receive income from visits to the protected area. In addition, an administrative committee has been established — comprising representatives from each community, the mayor and the park ranger — which is responsible for managing the area.
Jhony Salguero, director of operations for the CLB, says the distribution of the species also complicates its conservation. The red-fronted macaw inhabits inter-Andean dry forest valleys, in the departments of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca and Potosí. “They are culturally diverse and with different customs. Often, people in the area do not know that the species is in danger of extinction. Therefore, it is important to work in a coordinated fashion,” he says.
Keeping the bird as a pet is also a well-established practice in many communities, while the conflict between birds and farmers is common, since the macaws consume corn and peanuts in this area, Salguero says.
He puts the total population of the species at about 800 individuals, according to the latest study conducted in Bolivia in 2012. Complicating the problem of its survival is its low breeding rate, Salguero says.
Other places dedicated to the conservation of the red-fronted macaw are Torotoro National Park, El Palmar National Park, the Center for Genetic Biodiversity, and Moyepampa Lacarpampa Municipal Protection Area.
Action plan drafted, stopped, and started again
In 2019, the Biodiversity and Protected Areas General Directorate (DGBAP) of the Ministry of Environment and Water was preparing an action plan for the red-fronted macaw, which was being taken up once more after being put on hold for a few years.
Rodrigo Herrera, a legal adviser to the DGBAP, said at the time that in addition to scientists, conservation organizations and the government, indigenous communities and local municipalities whose territory the species inhabits were also included.
“The proposal is aligned with what is set out in the new Constitution of Bolivia and includes the participation of all the stakeholders involved in the conservation of the red-fronted macaw,” Herrera said. “We are scheduled to present it in August 2019 and we hope to finish the year with the approved plan.”
The plan aimed to carry out more scientific studies, a population census, and the development of bird-watching tourism programs with indigenous communities in places where one can still see the red-fronted macaw, Herrera said.
But major political upheaval put the plan on hold, according to José Antonio Díaz-Luque, executive director of the CLB. Elections in October spawned disputes and massive protests that spilled out onto the streets. By the following month, the military had forced President Evo Morales to resign.
Díaz-Luque says the action plan is still expected to go ahead.
“The Center for Biodiversity and Genetics, the General Directorate of Biodiversity and our foundation are working to relaunch the Action Plan,” he says, “with the aim of generating a key tool for the conservation of the species.”
This article was first published by Mongabay Latam on June 27, 2019, and updated March 23, 2020.