Repatriated to Breeding Program in Brazil after 25 Years Underground. 22 December 2002
A Spix's Macaw, the world's rarest parrot, made a long flight home today from Colorado to Brazil, 25 years after being taken from the wild, smuggled to Europe, and subsequently to the USA. With luck, this avian "Rip Van Winkle" will provide the genetic shot-in-the-arm that the species needs to bring it back from the brink of extinction. The iridescent indigo-blue macaw with a long sweeping tail is a unique bird. Never common, the Spix's became extinct in the wild two years ago following decades of decline from trapping and habitat loss.
After losing its Spix's mate more than 20 years ago, this bird was left on the current owner's doorstep by its smuggler-owner, who subsequently vanished. The bird -- dubbed "Presley" -- was then kept as a household pet, spending decades paired with a female Yellow-naped Amazon. The amazon died this past summer prompting the owner to seek help from the World Parrot Trust in returning the Spix's Macaw back with its own kind and back to its home country. Recognizing the value of this bird to conservation, the Trust confirmed the identity of the bird and contacted the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Brazil's equivalent agency IBAMA. The three organizations have worked swiftly to orchestrate the appropriate permits, health checks, and other necessary steps to return the bird to a breeding facility in Brazil. After months of intensive care preparing the bird for travel and breeding, Presley is now homeward bound.
On arrival in Brazil, the bird will be paired with an appropriate mate, housed in an ideal climate, and fed a diet closely matching this species' diet in the wild. Because virtually all the remaining captive Spix's Macaws are extremely close relatives, this bird has the exciting potential to make a unique genetic contribution to the recovery of this species, quite possibly saving the bird from extinction. Although Presley is at least 25 years old, as a male macaw, he may have many breeding years left.
In compliance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the San Diego Zoo's Center For Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) received samples to help determine the sex of this Spix's macaw. For comparison, samples of known-gender related species were contributed by the Parrot Society of Los Angeles. The San Diego Zoo's Genetic Division, led by Oliver Ryder, head geneticist, used cutting-edge techniques from the feathers and half a teaspoon of blood of the Spix's macaw to determine that the bird is a male. This conclusion allowed the breeding program to formulate a plan on relocating the male as a contribution to the species survival. "We're honored to participate in the efforts to save the Spix's macaw," said Ryder. "Our efforts in this project combined with the addition of the samples to our Frozen Zoo collection will help preserve them for future conservation purposes."
Unlike any other animal species alive today, the fate of the Spix's Macaw now rests largely in the hands of a few private collectors in the Philippines, Switzerland, Qatar, and the Canary Islands, who operate with few if any scientific or conservation credentials, and who paid enormous sums for these birds as they disappeared from the wild in the last few decades. The last 20 years has brought about a series of well-intentioned meetings, amnesties for Spix's owners, and discussions of recovery plans -- in the end, far more conversation than conservation. Effective action on the bird's behalf has been derailed time and again by ownership and management issues, and ultimately by several governments having turned a blind eye to the illegal activities of their citizens.
With the remarkably smooth cooperation of the United States and Brazilian Governments, this rapid transfer of the bird to its homeland may set a positive precedent for individuals and governments aiding the recovery of other endangered birds and mammals.
Speaking on the recent re-emergence and transfer to Brazil, James Gilardi, Ph.D., director of the World Parrot Trust said, "Of the tens of millions of parrots in cages around the world, we hear rumors about rare birds like this occasionally, but they seldom lead to discoveries as critically important as this Spix's Macaw. We're enormously pleased by the cooperation of the owner and the respective governments, and we hope this bird's homecoming will mark the start of a renewed spirit of cooperation on behalf of the Spix's recovery from extinction.
Mike Reynolds of the World Parrot Trust, commented that the Trust had a good track record for locating Spix's Macaws. "In 1990 we funded the expedition that found the last remaining Spix's in the wild. Now we have been instrumental in finding and returning to Brazil this genetically invaluable bird. We will continue to do all we can to help this fascinating parrot species survive."
For more information, please contact the World Parrot Trust, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the San Diego Zoo at the following locations:
World Parrot Trust
James Gilardi, Ph.D. Director
USA Phone/Fax 530 756 6340 Pacific Standard Time
UK Phone (01736) 753 365, Fax (01736) 756438
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Office of Law Enforcement
Phone: 703 358 1949 Fax: 703 358 1947
San Diego Zoo Public Relations 619 685 3291
Additional Background Facts:
The Spix's Macaw is the only species in its genus Cyanopsitta, and one of only four species of "blue macaws." Of the other three, the Glaucous Macaw has not been reliably sighted in over 50 years despite systematic searches and is presumed extinct. The Lear's Macaw is designated "Critical," and numbers in the low hundreds in the wild. The largest and best known of the four, the Hyacinth is now "Endangered" by the IUCN's Red List. Efforts to halt the trade in these species and to promote their recovery in the wild are ongoing in their native range in Brazil.