Some Endangered Parrots and the Role Aviculture Could Play in Their Survival

Tony Silva


The epitomy of endangered parrots is a blue and grey macaw referred to as Ararinha do spixi where it is native. Ornithologists call this bird Cyanopsitta spixii and aviculturists know it as Spix's Macaw, a species which has no close relatives and which is the only representative of its genus. It has always been rare and at present is known from a single wild bird, a remnant of a population that once comprised some 30 pairs. There are some 21 specimens in captivity, and these offfer the only hope for saving this species from extinction.

The decline of Cyanopsitta spixii is important, for it has occurred relatively quickly and aviculturists are mainly to blame. The species was first collected by Johannes Baptist von Spix, a German ornithologist who traveled throughout the north of Brazil for three years from 1817 on behalf of the Bavarian Museum. Near Jauzeiro, a town on the Sao Francisco River, his hunters obtained a specimen. This bird was used in describing in 1832 Psittace spixii, named after von Spix by J.G. Wagler. In the early 1900s, another German, 0. Reiser, sighted the species near Parnagua, Piaui. No other reports of the species were made until 1974 when Helmut Sick and Dante Martins Teixeira sighted five macaws believed to be this species in flight near Formosa do Rio Preto, northwestern Bahia. The next observer was Paul Roth, who in mid-1986 saw and photographed the last three birds these occurring in the area of Curaca, a locality not distant from the Sao Francisco River where the type specimen was collected.

Several points highlight the history of this macaw. Almost all sightings have been made in the same locality; with one exception, the person making the observations have been German speaking ornithologists; and the decline has been the result of trapping, followed by habitat degradation, hunting and the introduction of the African honey bee, in that order. That trapping has been the most destructive force is highlighted by the fact that 15 months after Roth discovered the Curaca population, only one bird remained; the other two had been collected by a dealer living in Petrolina, in whose hands one died - the survivor is believed to have been sent out of Brazil.

All of the recent interest in Cyanopsitta spixii is due to a seizure made by Juan S. Villalba-Macias, a staunch conservationist and head of World Wildlife Fund's TRAFFIC office in Montevideo, Uruguay. On the morning of 23 March 1987, with a group of police, he stormed the house of Ernst Koopmann, one of the best known dealers in South America and a man who at that time had been trading in birds for over 30 years. The two nestlings he had were confiscated and returned to Brazil. The resulting publicity sparked the creation of a committee for the recovery of this species by the Brazilian government.

The future of Cyanopsitta spixii is very insecure but breeding successes in the collection of Antonio de Dios of the Philippines and Josef Hammerli in Switzerland, suggest that it may be possible to establish this species in captivity and ultimately reintroduce it to the wild. Many concessions have been made in order to try to save this species, the most important relating to the legality issue. The majority of the Spix's Macaws have been smuggled out of Brazil, but the government will consider them as legal, provided their holders agree to join the committee. This committee is made up of holders of this species, government officials, conservationists and ornithologists.

The sad case with the Spix's is that aviculture was almost solely responsible for its decline. For many years, everyone stated that the main threat to wild parrot populations was habitat loss; now we are realizing that this is true in many but not all cases. Like the Spix's, the Hyacinthine Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus has been affected by excessive trapping. If we look at the published reports of the ornithologists Reiser, Kampfer, Rehn, Stager and others that predate the 1960s, all state that the species was common. In the late 1970s, development in the heretofore inaccessible areas boomed and the species began to disappear. Simultaneously to this, trapping increased, the birds being sent out from Paraguay and later Bolivia; they were exported as endemics but the small populations in these two countries could not support the level of harvesting. It slowly became apparent that the majority of birds were being smuggled out of the pantanal, the seasonally flooded part of southwestern Brazil. With tighter controls and the species up-listing to CITES Appendix I or endangered, which prevents trade except under very special circumstances, exports came under stricter control. However, another gap would soon open: the birds would be sent out illegally in small numbers directly from Brazil. Stricter enforcement of the law of 1967, which was passed by the Brazilian congress in order to stop all internal and external trade in endemic wildlife, has largely stopped this flow of birds overseas; but this has not meant that trade has ceased altogether, for now the internal Brazilian market would begin absorbing the birds collected. It is difficult to state with certainty, but several hundred Hyacinthine Macaws are probably sold each year by the illegal bird markets which operate throughout Brazil.




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