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Conservation Volunteers work to protect scarlet macaws at Barra Honda

A Projects Abroad Conservation staff member photographs eggs and feathers in a scarlet macaw nest in Barra Honda National Park, Costa RicaIn Costa Rica, a nation whose reputation for biodiversity and environmental conservation is world-renowned, the scarlet macaw is one of the foremost icons championing this image. A brightly-plumed member of the parrot family, the scarlet macaw can be found throughout Central and South America. However, due to poaching and habitat loss, the species has experienced a sharp decline in population over recent years, especially in Central America. 

Beginning in 2012, the Scarlet Macaw Project carried out by Projects Abroad Conservation volunteers in Barra Honda National Park, has targeted the fragmentation of the macaw population and its near elimination in Guanacaste province, where the project is located. To date, 12 known individuals reside in the area surrounding the park. Since its implementation, the macaw project has seen three hatchlings fly from the nest, with the two most recent occurring in mid-August.

“The scarlet macaw population in Guanacaste is endangered for two reasons,” states Projects Abroad Costa Rica Conservation Director, Anthony Ruiz. “The first is a result of people robbing eggs and chicks from the nests to be sold on the black market. The second is that the trees where the birds nest and feed are disappearing.”

Volunteers work to ensure scarlet macaw eggs aren’t poached

After around 2-3 weeks, the scarlet macaw chick begins to acquire the bright plumage that the species is known for, but it is still not ready to fly from the nestVolunteers go about preserving the local population in three ways: through direct nest protection, education, and reforestation projects. Following the discovery of eggs in two macaw nests in early May, Projects Abroad Conservation coordinators and volunteers began tirelessly monitoring the nests daily from early in the morning and through the day, to ensure that the eggs and chicks remained untouched by poachers as well as to observe the habits of the macaw couples.

“Thanks to the data that volunteers have collected by monitoring the nests and the habits of the parents, we are the only organization that has information about the behaviour of scarlet macaws throughout the entire reproductive stage,” Ruiz continues.

Because of the macaw’s long lifespan, low reproduction rates, and tendency to mate with only one partner for life, the effects of poaching have a significant impact on the species. Despite efforts by various government initiatives in the United States and Europe, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Wild Bird Conservation Act, the sale of macaw eggs and hatchlings remains active on black markets in western nations, where they can be sold for between 700 and 2,000 USD. Poaching is most prominent in communities where the average income is very low, and a single macaw egg or hatchling can easily bring in double or triple one’s typical monthly earnings.

To help combat the issue of poaching in the Barra Honda community, environmental education initiatives lead by volunteers in local schools focus on educating students and community members on the biology and ecology of scarlet macaws and their role in the ecosystem. Furthermore, by sharing information about their work and investigations, volunteers are helping to raise awareness within the community about the importance of the macaw for the area’s biodiversity and why the species should be preserved.  

Assisting reforestation efforts to attract more wildlife

The nests that were recently monitored by volunteers in Barra Honda were found in the hollows of two Gallinazo trees, also known as the Brazilian Fire tree. Deforestation practices over the years have resulted in habitat destruction for the scarlet macaw, as they prefer to build their nests and to forage in the high canopy. In an attempt to restore the macaw’s habitat, reforestation efforts by volunteers have focused on planting endangered native tree species that will attract local wildlife, especially the macaw. 

“These trees are disappearing because of illegal logging, where the wood is commonly used as siding for houses,” states Ruiz. “So we have been planting various species of trees in the area around the park that macaws can eat from.”

The next steps in preserving the species involve formally counting the individuals residing in the area surrounding the national park. Volunteers and conservation staff will monitor the area during the early morning hours when the birds are most active, and use compasses and GPS devices to observe their flight patterns and habits.

“We’re going to four different fixed points,” states Ruiz. “Two points are within the national park, and two more are in the neighboring mountains. This is to gain a 360-degree view of the area and to be able to count every possible individual.”   

Once found in over 85% of the country, the scarlet macaw has been reduced to two principal populations in Costa Rica. One is found in the Osa Conservation Area on the Southern Pacific peninsula, and a smaller population can be found in the Central Pacific region. According to a 13-year-long study published by Costa Rica’s Universidad Nacional in 2005, a maximum of 1100 individuals are estimated to remain between these two populations. However, these studies remain optimistic. According to their results, conservation efforts that are sustainable over the long-term by various government and private organizations, have shown a positive impact on both of these populations.

Read more updates about our work at Barra Honda National Park.

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