Conservation news

Spix’s macaw returns to Brazil, but is overshadowed by controversy

  • Twenty years after the species was officially declared extinct in nature, 52 Spix’s macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii) arrived in Brazil’s Bahia state for eventual reintroduction back into their native habitat.
  • But controversy surrounds the program, stemming from the organization providing the captive-bred birds: the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots, whose founder, Martin Guth, has been accused of running a private collection linked to wildlife trafficking and organized crime.
  • The ACTP is footing the bill for the Spix’s macaw reintroduction program, including building a $1.4 million facility in Bahia, but it’s not clear where the money is coming from. The Brazilian government, as a partner in the program, has also not provided details about the terms of the agreement, and is reportedly pressuring local breeders to send their birds to the ACTP in Germany.
  • The birds are slated for release into the wild in 2021, after a process of adaptation, into two conservation areas established specifically for the Spix’s macaw in Bahia.

The town of Curaçá in Brazil’s of Bahia state lost its last wild Spix’s macaws (Cyanopsitta spixii) two decades ago. So there was a large celebration when, on March 3 this year, 52 of the parrots, bred in captivity, were brought back here to their native region. The macaw was declared extinct in the wild in 2000, a victim of wildlife trafficking and symbol of the ongoing struggle to conserve Brazil’s biodiversity.

But there’s a shadow hanging over their return, cast by the controversial organization that bred them and continues to wield outsize influence over their fate.

The birds brought to Bahia (26 males and 26 females) are the result of a successful captive-breeding program by the Germany-based Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots e. V. (ACTP), which has partnered with the Brazilian government. The event was considered so important that the minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, was in Petrolina, Pernambuco state, to receive the macaws alongside ACTP head Martin Guth and other Brazilian authorities.

Bringing the birds to Brazil is part of the National Plan of Action for the Conservation of the Spix’s Macaw, coordinated by the Chico Mendes Institute of Conservation and Biodiversity (ICMBio), which is affiliated with the Ministry of the Environment. Two other international agencies are also involved in the repatriation program: Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation of Qatar and the Pairi Daiza Foundation of Belgium. The latter is partnered with a zoo of the same name in Brugelette, Belgium, where four Spix’s macaws are on display — the only ones in Europe available for public viewing.

The birds’ destination, for now, is a reintroduction center built for them in Curaçá. According to the ICMBio, the “German” Spix’s macaws will likely be released in the wild sometime next year, following an adaptation process. When this happens, it will be in the two conservation reserves created by the federal government in 2018 exclusively for the reintroduction and protection of the species: the Spix’s Macaw Wildlife Refuge (which spans 29,200 hectares, or 72,200 acres), and the Spix’s Macaw Environmental Protection Area (90,600 hectares, or 223,800 acres).

Boxes carrying some of the 52 Spix’s macaws destined for Brazil are inspected at the Berlin airport. Image by the ACTP.

The origin of the money

The funding for the reintroduction program and the establishment of the Spix’s Macaw Wildlife Refuge comes from the ACTP. According to Martin Guth, the reintroduction center cost $1.4 million to build; an estimated $180,000 will be spent annually to maintain operations for the project, to be coordinated by Cromwell Purchase, the ACTP’s scientific and zoological director, along with ICMBio staff.

The ACTP was founded in Germany in 2006 as a nongovernmental organization and is officially recognized as a zoo, according to information from the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, or BfN.

But the ACTP doesn’t function as a zoo in practice. Its facility, an hour from Berlin, is not open to public visitation, has no visitor parking, and has limited public transportation access.

A July 2019 report by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that German law requires that any establishment registered as a zoo must receive visits at least seven days each year — a requirement that the ACTP technically fulfills through guided tours for schoolchildren.

The ACTP website says it depends on donations for financial support. But it gives no mention of who these donors are. The only other organization mentioned, listed as an “exclusive partner,” is the Belgian company Deli Nature, which sells animal feed.

In an emailed response to questions from Mongabay, Guth said “The names of all of our big donors and supporters can be found on each of our Facebook posts. Not all of them come from Germany.”

Between late February and December 2019, there is only one mention of the organization’s partners on the ACTP Facebook timeline: Deli Nature, Pairi Daiza, and Knutis Shop – Generalvertretung Roudybush-Pellets Deutschland, another animal feed supplier.

Pairi Daiza, meanwhile, lists on its website multinational corporations such as DHL and Unilever among its supporters.

The ACTP possesses one of the largest private collections of threatened parrot species on the planet. Until very recently, it held more than 90% of Spix’s macaws, in addition to individuals from other Brazilian and Caribbean species such as the Lear’s macaw (Anodorhynchus leari), the Saint Vincent amazon (Amazona guildingii) and the Saint Lucia amazon (Amazona versicolor).

According to zoologist Paul Reillo, the founder and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation and director of the Tropical Conservation Institute in the United States, one of the golden rules for nongovernmental organizations is absolute transparency. “Where does the ACTP’s money come from? It has to be made clear who their donors are, how their money is invested, and it is essential that a complete inventory of their birds be made available — listing sex, age, number of births and deaths and importing and exporting procedures.”

The ACTP website doesn’t give any references to its staff or their professional qualifications, or any mention of an administrative board or the association’s address.

A biologist, ecological geneticist and environmental engineer, Reillo said he has serious reservations about the ACTP’s work and Guth. He has reiterated this point in interviews with multiple publications, and says other members of the international conservation community have also publicly expressed criticism of the German breeder.

The Spix’s macaw is one of the rarest birds in the world: it is estimated that there are only 177 captive individuals in the world. The species was declared extinct in the wild in 2000. Image by the ACTP.

Complaints and accusations

It isn’t just the lack of transparency about the ACTP’s funding that has raised flags within the conservation community.

In December 2018, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published an in-depth article on Martin Guth and the ACTP that had major international ramifications. For six months, journalists Lisa Cox and Philip Oltermann had investigated Guth’s past, raising serious suspicions about his work, including possible involvement with the illegal wildlife trade and the use of the ACTP to launder money for European organized crime.

The article reveals that, in the 1990s, when he was 26, Guth was sentenced to five years in prison for kidnapping and extortion. The reporters also uncovered that at least one employee working at the ACTP at the time had been accused of involvement in the illegal bird trade. (Wildlife trafficking is an industry worth $42.8 billion worldwide; the only illicit trades that are more lucrative are those for drugs and weapons).

Guth bought the first Spix’s macaws for his collection from a Swiss breeder for 15,000 euros (about $16,000). The breeder is alleged to have connections to noted members of a criminal gang in Berlin, known for robbery, drug trafficking and blackmail. A photo online shows the German bird breeder with Arafat Abou-Chaker, one of the gang’s leaders.

Guth says he had no knowledge that the person who sold him the birds had connections to organized crime. But he doesn’t deny his past mistakes. He told Mongabay he prefers to keep his personal life separate from his projects and asserts that his criminal record is clean. “A translated version of this document was immediately provided to the governments of Brazil and Australia after the publication of the article in The Guardian. The Brazilian government solicited proof of clean records as a condition for continuing the program and signing a new contract with ACTP. It was signed on June 7, 2019,” he said.

Martin Guth, left, and Brazil’s former minister of the environment, Edson Souza, second right, on a visit to the ACTP headquarters in Germany. Image by the ACTP.

In addition to Brazil, the ACTP has partnerships with other countries that have also proved controversial.

Since 2015, Guth has imported more than 200 native birds of various threatened species from Australia for the state purpose of public exhibition, with authorization from the Australian government and Germany’s BfN. In 2018, Australian MP Warren Entsch warned about the exportation, raising concerns that the ACTP was “not a legitimate zoo” and instead operating more like a private collection. The Guardian investigation found some of the Australian parrots were later put up for sale online for €95,000 a bird, or €180,000 for a pair.

The ACTP also acquired birds from the Caribbean island nations of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent. It obtained two critically endangered imperial amazons (Amazona imperialis) and 10 red-necked amazons (Amazona arausiaca) from the island of Dominica in 2018. Just months prior, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria tore through the region and devastated the island. The justification for the removal of the parrots was that they were no longer safe there.

The Dominica deal drew condemnation from the conservation community. In a letter to the local authorities and Germany’s BfN, more than 40 scientists and researchers from around the world said the removal of the birds had not been permitted by global wildlife trade regulator CITES or by Dominica’s forestry and wildlife division, which had not even been consulted about the transfer.

“There had been no emergency to justify the removal of the parrots from Dominica. All these birds were wild and already safely kept in captivity and, as such, there was no reasonable justification to expedite this transfer or violate numerous basic legal requisites for this action. They all had survived Hurricane Maria. They were being treated by an internationally recognized veterinary assistance team and were considered healthy,” the scientists wrote. To date, the imperial amazons and the red-necked amazons have not been returned to Dominica.

An international petition with 55,000 signatures on the website Care2 called for the BfN to conduct an investigation into Guth and the allegations surrounding the ACTP. For its part, the German agency says the ACTP is regularly monitored by the relevant authorities. “These verifications are intended to serve as evidence of the legal acquisition of protected birds, the breeding and legal sale of these birds in compliance with relevant international regulations for the conservation of species,” said BfN spokeswoman Ruth Birkhölzer. “No irregularities were observed. After the publication of the articles in The Guardian and a criminal complaint, the police began criminal inquiry proceedings. But this investigation was closed with no suspicion of illegal activity by ACTP or Mr. Guth.”



Spix’s macaw chicks in an ACTP aviary in Germany. Image by the ACTP.

Fear of reprisal

Paul Reillo was one of the few people interviewed for this article who agreed to be named. Other breeders and biologists in Brazil only spoke on condition of anonymity, alleging that Martin Guth is dangerous and linked to organized crime, and fearing retaliation from the Brazilian government in the form of financial cuts to their projects.

One of the people interviewed said that, in recent years, some scientific breeders — authorized by the government to run projects for the captive breeding of species threatened with extinction — have felt pressure from Brazilian governmental agencies to send their Spix’s macaws to the ACTP in Germany. This source said they knew of one breeder who had come close to successfully reproducing chicks, but was then forced to send the birds to Europe.

Questioned in 2018 about the dispatch of these individuals and the reason for captive breeding taking place outside Brazil, the ICMBio provided the following response in an email from its press office:

“The exchange of specimens for purposes of reproduction and genetic variation of the captive population is accounted for in the captivity program and they follow the protocols and technical criteria for pairing and, in the same way, animals have also been sent from Germany to Brazil. In both cases, the exchanges took place in compliance with the recommendations of handling consultants.

“Unfortunately, bird breeders in Brazil have thus far been unsuccessful in reproducing the species in significant numbers. Since the National Plan of Action for the Conservation of the Spix’s Macaw was introduced in 2012, only two hatchings were registered in Brazil in 2014, whereas breeders in Germany and Qatar achieved reproductive rates that have enabled the growth of the population from 79 to 158 individuals.”

In May 2019, two Spix’s macaw chicks were hatched at Fazenda Cachoeira in Minas Gerais, a breeding center certified by the government.

The exact number of Spix’s macaws in Brazil and in the ACTP’s possession is not clear. Last October, the ICMBio announced there were 177 of the birds worldwide: 22 in Brazil and the rest in Germany.

Most came originally from the collection of the Qatari royal Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani, who established the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar, one of the Brazilian program’s partners for the reintroduction of the Spix’s macaw. When he died in 2014, the billionaire bird-lover owned at least 120 Spix’s macaws, which were subsequently “loaned,” along with the rest of his collection, to Guth. Since then, and up until the arrival of the 52 birds in Brazil, Guth was in possession of nearly all of the Spix’s macaws on Earth.

The new center for Spix’s macaw reproduction in Curaçá, Bahia. Image by the ACTP.

Lack of transparency

According to Paul Reillo, one of the main issues surrounding Martin Guth and the association he founded are credentials — or rather, a lack of them. “Where is the science? Where are the publications produced by ACTP? What international NGOs and scientists, organizations and accredited agencies have endorsed the reintroduction project? What scientific groups have been invited to consult with this project? How are they involved?” he said.

Those same concerns were echoed by a Brazilian biologist who was directly involved in the federal government program but chose to leave because they felt that all the decisions being made favored sending more Spix’s macaws to Guth. “There is recklessness in having this German in Brazil,” the biologist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He only has creatures that are extremely rare in Germany, ones that cost a fortune on the black market. No one wants to talk about Guth because everyone is afraid of him.”

In January 2019, Cromwell Purchase, the ACTP’s science director and the man responsible for administering the reproduction center in Bahia, said the main reason for the accusations against Guth and the ACTP is envy. “A lot of people in Brazil are jealous. Everyone wants a piece of the Spix’s macaw program now that we, the partners in the project, have managed to make it this far with such success. Many partners were removed along the way due to politics and the interruption of the program, and I am positive that many of them are involved in the accusations,” he said.

“You ask why foreign organizations are successfully moving forward in the Spix’s macaw program. Because no Brazilian breeder was disposed to invest the money to save this species … Would you prefer that we simply allow the species to go extinct?”

Reillo refuted the idea that critics didn’t want the species to return, but added: “We need answers.”

Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment has remained silent amid the controversy, providing no information on future actions or any specifics of the terms of the partnership with the ACTP, including whether the rest of the macaws held in Germany will be sent to Bahia.

Mongabay emailed a list of questions to the ICMBio press office on Feb. 26, seeking answers to the Brazilian government’s position regarding the complaints against Guth, the costs of the project, and the current number of Spix’s macaws and where they are located. There was no answer from the ICMBio by the time of publication.

Two questions will continue to shadow the Spix’s macaw reintroduction program amid the lack of transparency: for the good of a species, should one look the other way regarding how, and with what money, the reproduction process is conducted? And should captive-breeding programs for species threatened with extinction take place in countries far from their original habitat?

According to the ICMBio, the Spix’s macaws that came from Germany will be reintroduced into the wild by 2021, at two conservation reserves in Bahia state. Image by ICMBio.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Mar. 4, 2020.