- A project in northeastern Brazil is working to connect fragments of the Atlantic Forest in an effort to save endemic bird species from extinction.
- The Atlantic Rainforest of the Northeast Project plans to reforest 70 hectares (173 acres) in the states of Pernambuco and Alagoas by 2023.
- Monitoring in Pernambuco’s Serra do Urubu region has shown an increase in bird diversity, from 105 species recorded in 2005, to 287 in 2021.
- Despite the progress being made, the situation remains fragile, with seven bird species having gone extinct in the Atlantic Forest in recent decades, and a strong tradition of keeping birds in cages still persisting.
A rich variety of plants — pitanga or Brazilian cherry, lime, acerola cherry, ingá or ice-cream bean, heliconias and bromeliads — fill the Hummingbird Garden in Brazil’s Pernambuco state. Inaugurated in 2017 inside the Pedra D’Antas Natural Heritage Private Reserve (RPPN), the garden is a refuge for 23 hummingbird species, part of the more than 160 bird species that fly freely through here. It has received more than 2,600 visitors since opening.
The establishment of the Hummingbird Garden, as well as the management of the Pedra D’Antas reserve and ongoing reforestation efforts in this region, are part of the NGO SAVE Brasil’s Atlantic Forest of the Northeast Project. The project’s main goal is to conserve and improve the connectivity between the remaining fragments of Atlantic Forest in the Serra do Urubu-Murici landscape that straddles the border between the states of Pernambuco and Alagoas.
Among the birds that frequent the 700-square-meter (7,500-square foot) garden are the long-tailed woodnymph (Thalurania watertonii), a species endemic to the Atlantic Forest and listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List; and the seven-colored tanager (Tangara fastuosa), a spectacularly colored species that’s also endemic to the Atlantic Forest north of the São Francisco River and considered vulnerable.
The garden was created to attract birds and serve as an educational space to fight the tradition of keeping them in cages, a practice that persists in this region of Brazil. And it sits on the site formerly occupied during Brazil’s colonial period by the old Engenho Pedra D’Anta estate manor house where slaves were once kept.
“We’ve changed what was historically an exploitative place — not only of the environment, but also of humans — into a stronghold for life,” says Bárbara Cavalcante, coordinator of the Atlantic Forest of the Northeast Project.
Rare birds going extinct
The most degraded part of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest lies north of the São Francisco, the river that forms a geographic barrier for some bird species. The area is known as the Pernambuco Center of Endemism (CEP) and includes coastal forests in the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte. Only 5% of the original forest remains, home to threatened endemic species.
There are currently an estimated 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of preserved forest in the CEP, but they’re fragmented, separated by urban landscapes, livestock pasture, and sugarcane fields. Few of these fragments are effectively protected, and many lie within private properties. This puts even greater pressure on endemic species with a restricted geographic range, such as the critically endangered Alagoas antwren (Myrmotherula snowi). According to monitoring data from SAVE Brasil, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, there are fewer than 10 of these birds left, living inside the Murici Ecological Station (ESEC).
BirdLife International, which designates Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, or IBAs, lists 234 such priority regions in Brazil. Two of them, the Serra do Urubu in Pernambuco and Murici in Alagoas, are located inside the CEP and encompass 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of forest that host 343 bird species. Eighteen of these species are listed as critically endangered, and all but two of these are endemic to the Atlantic Forest, five of them found exclusively in the CEP region.
Both the Serra do Urubu and Murici fragments are focal points for the Atlantic Forest of the Northeast Project, which has been working in the region since 2000. Monitoring in Serra do Urubu over the past 17 years has recorded an increase in bird diversity. “The total number of reported bird species jumped from 105 in our first year to 287 during the last count, carried out in December of 2021,” Cavalcante says.
Even though the results are encouraging, the situation remains fragile. A study published last year in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution concluded that seven bird species have probably gone extinct in the Atlantic Forest in recent decades. Four of these species were previously found inside the CEP.
In 2019, the endemic Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi) was declared extinct; it hadn’t been observed since 2011. Also in 2019, the cryptic treehunter (Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti), newly described just five years earlier as a species endemic to the region, was likewise declared extinct. The Pernambuco pygmy-owl (Glaucidium mooreorum) and the Alagoas curassow (Mitu mitu), also native to the region, were added to the list of species that were possibly extinct in the wild. The last known Alagoas curassows live in captivity, and there are attempts to reintroduce them back to nature.
The Atlantic Forest of the Northeast Project supports forest restoration to increase the odds of survival for species with a restricted range, by connecting isolated forest fragments.
“Our goal for 2023 is to have implemented 70 hectares [173 acres] of forest,” Cavalcante says. “At present, we have restored eight sites totaling 12.9 hectares [31.9 acres] between Pernambuco and Alagoas. By July of this year, we will have implemented at least 50 hectares [124 acres].”
Given that most of the rainforest fragments lie inside private properties, the project also supports the creation of private reserves, or RPPNs.
“We will have a 3-hectare [7.4-acre] RPPN here in Lagoa dos Gatos [in Pernambuco],” Cavalcante says, referring to a commitment by one property owner to restore their land. “They will restore some pastureland and protect the 3-hectare fragment.”
“This is a real showcase. I always take people inside the project and show them,” says João Evangelista de Lima. “It’s not just about planting trees, but also about taking care of the forest and seeing the birds coming back again. Seeing the bees pollinate the plants. These are all benefits.”
De Lima owns a 40-hectare (99-acre) ranch that he inherited from his family. After living in the giant metropolis of São Paulo for 20 years, he sought refuge from the stress and traffic by moving back to the forest in Alagoas, near the Murici Ecological Station. “There is so much water in this valley — springs and rivers,” he says. “We have a stretch of the Atlantic Forest that is part of the Murici ESEC. It lies in a valley, and it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
Today, he dedicates 30 hectares (74 acres) of his ranch to farming prata bananas, also known as silver bananas. He also grows smaller patches of coconuts, oranges and plantains.
“The people here were cutting down all the trees and killing what little was left of the rainforest,” de Lima says. “I had to do something different to show that we need to plant and reforest.”
Three years ago, he adopted an agroforestry system for a plot of 3,000 square meters (about three-quarters of an acre) on his land. He introduced citrus, mango and cashew trees, along with ice-cream beans, açaí palms, cedar and mahogany trees among beans and fertilizing species.
“We already have a good number of bees, different types that I had never seen in the region. There are many jataís [Tetragonisca angustula] and tubibas [Scaptotrigona tubiba] as well,” says de Lima, who has taken courses in fish farming and beekeeping.
He says he plans to transform his ranch into an ecotourism destination. “We have many birds that come to visit the agroforestry area,” he says, listing the rufous-bellied thrush (Turdus rufiventris), blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus), seven-colored tanager, and various hummingbirds. “There are really so many coming,” de Lima adds.
The agroforestry system on de Lima’s ranch is part of the forest restoration project funded by SAVE Brasil. He initially received seedlings and labor and technical support. Other properties have also become showcases or visitor sites to demonstrate different restoration techniques. All the reforested land is monitored to understand how the bird life interacts in these environments.
“The idea of being a showcase is that we can show possibilities for growing food and generating income,” says project coordinator Cavalcante. “We’ve started using the term ‘bird-friendly agroforestry’ because we want to encourage people to set up agroforestry systems that also offer shelter and food for birds.”
The region surrounding the Murici ESEC, where de Lima’s ranch is located, is a key area because it directly impacts the ecological station. “In strategic terms, it’s important that we have this buffer zone with compatible activities that are friendly to biodiversity,” Cavalcante says. “It is a protective zone surrounding the ESEC.”
Even though the 6,000-hectare (14,800-acre) area was recognized by the federal government in 2001 as the Murici Ecological Station, the land has not yet been effectively registered as such.
“This is one of the bottlenecks that conservation units in Brazil face,” Cavalcante says. “The unit is created, but not, in fact, implemented. The Murici ESEC turned 20 years old last year, but the land has still not been legally registered. There are still lots of large areas of pastureland inside there.”
Thinking outside the birdcage
Aside from forest restoration and better engagement with the government and scientific community, the Atlantic Forest of the Northeast Project promotes environmental tourism and education programs. Initiatives that involve community engagement include the Hummingbird Garden, the management of the Pedra D’Antas private reserve, bird-watching activities, environmental education programs in schools, and vocational training for ecotourism professionals.
“It’s common for people in small towns to keep birds in cages,” says José Allanderlanio Rodrigues, a painter who photographs birds on the weekends. “We still see this going on today, but I think it’s something that’s changing. You see so many birds in cages that you get used to it. But once you get to see a bird living free and hear it — it’s beautiful to see it in its natural habitat. I don’t think anyone would want it to live in a cage.”
Rodrigues used to keep cage birds until he met José Vicente, better known as Zezito, a park ranger at the Pedra D’Antas reserve. “Zezito showed me a new way to see birds, to observe them in nature where they should be,” he says.
Rodrigues released all his birds and began a new phase in his life: photographing birds in nature. “This isn’t just a hobby. It’s made my life much better because it’s real living, right?” he says. “You work all week long, but when you step into the forest on the weekend, all the stress goes away. It brings you inner peace. It’s true!”
Rodrigues took a course offered by SAVE Brasil to become a licensed tour guide in the Serra do Urubu and be able to lead tours inside the Pedra D’Antas reserve. He says he’s pleased to be able to contribute directly to ecotourism and biodiversity conservation, and also speaks with pride about convincing some of his friends to stop keeping birds in cages.
But Cavalcante says the cage-bird culture remains very strong in the region and poses a threat to endemic species. “You know the seven-colored tanager, that marvelous one? It’s one of the most commonly sold animals in the illegal market here,” she says. “People catch them and sell them at big markets.”
Community engagement is seen as the path to changing that culture. “Conservation is about people too,” says Cavalcante, who invokes the words of local novelist Ariano Suassuna in defining herself as a “hopeful realist.”
Develey, P. F., & Phalan, B. T. (2021). Bird extinctions in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and how they can be prevented. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 9. doi:10.3389/fevo.2021.624587
Banner image of a long-tailed woodnymph (Thalurania watertonii), a bird found exclusively in the coastal forests of Alagoas and Pernambuco states. Image by Stephen Jones/SAVE Brasil.