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Home » In the Wild, Issue, July 2009 Highlights

Reintroduction of the Scarlet Macaw to El Salvador

By Robin Bjork PhD, Senior Scientist with SalvaNATURA Conservation Science Program San Salvador, El Salvador.

Restoring Biodiversity to the Landscape and Building Conservation Alliances in Communities

The Scarlet Macaw (Ara Macao)

A dazzling symbol of wild tropical jungles, the Scarlet Macaw has suffered dramatic declines and extirpations of populations, particularly throughout its northern range, due to poaching for the pet trade and habitat loss. Small isolated populations, less than 5000 birds in total, are estimated to remain in Mexico and Central America. The overarching goal of the SalvaNATURA Scarlet Macaw Reintroduction Project is to establish a wild, self-sustaining population in El Salvador where the species was completely extinguished several decades ago.

The project began in early 2008 in the region proposed for the reintroduction—the Barra de Santiago to El Imposible National Park Corridor in southwestern El Salvador. The macaw can serve as a flagship for environmental conservation in this corridor that spans a diversity of rare habitats, from coastal turtle-nesting beaches, mangroves, and seasonally-inundated evergreen forest to dry forest and humid montane forest.

In collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), SalvaNATURA is executing the initial phase—a feasibility study—focused on four primary components: 1) evaluation of foraging habitat for macaws throughout the 300 km2 project area, 2) assessment of the threatened population of the Yellow-naped Parrot (Amazona auropalliata) - which faces the same threats to its continued existence as did the macaw, 3) development of an environmental outreach program related to parrot conservation, and 4) strategic planning of the reintroduction (ie defining release strategies, identifying and prioritizing sites for release of birds, procurement of birds for release).

An ideal reintroduction strategy would be a “soft-release”, involving a group of 20 young, non-habituated (to humans) macaws, procured from reproductive facilities. The birds are housed together in a large flight cage at a secure, forested release site for a few months while they become a socially-cohesive flock, build flight strength and agility, learn to eat locally-available wild foods, and acclimate to the natural surrounding environment. Upon successful evaluation of their release readiness, the cage is opened and the birds are allowed to leave of their own accord, with continued food provisioning, as they explore their wild surroundings, eventually becoming independent, or weaned-off, of the human-supplied food source (hence, “soft-release”).

Just after these YNPA chicks (pictured below) were confiscated from poachers, they lived in the house of one of my assistants until we moved them to the cage in the treetops.

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