Research provides update on Hyacinth Macaw status in Bolivia


Most people who think about Hyacinth Macaws in the wild are likely to associate them with Brazil. They have good reason, given that most of the total population of about 6,500 macaws is found in Brazil in the three disjunct regions of Pará (east Amazonia), the north-east, and the Pantanal wetlands of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states. About 77% of the total population lives in the Pantanal region, mostly in Brazil, but also in bordering north-east Paraguay and eastern Bolivia. Unsurprisingly, much of the available information about the ecology and conservation of Hyacinth Macaw is also from Brazil, and Loro Parque Fundación helps by supporting the work of the Hyacinth Macaw Institute (Instituto Arara-Azul) in the Brazilian Pantanal.

To find out more about the current situation of this species in Bolivia, Loro Parque Fundación has also supported research between 2021 and 2023 conducted by scientists affiliated with the Spanish-based Friend's Association of Doñana (Asociación Amigos de Doñana). During the research period, the researchers reviewed all available literature about Hyacinth Macaw in Bolivia and conducted fieldwork across 108 field sites in the known and suspected geographical distribution in the extreme east of Santa Cruz Department in that country. The researchers also examined the role of sustainable traditional livestock ranching in the conservation of habitat favourable to Hyacinth Macaw, and to this end conducted 500 interviews with local people.

Researchers conducted fieldwork at 108 sites and interviewed 500 local people to get a better idea of how Hyacinth Macaw was faring in Bolivia (Peter Beesley).

The observations of Hyacinth Macaws indicate that the favoured habitat is in the contact zone between the seasonal wetlands of the Pantanal closer to the frontier with Brazil and the forest (cerrado, chiquitano, island forests) extending west that grows in raised areas with the appropriate soil characteristics. The habitat of Hyacinth Macaws is thus a mosaic of transitions between highly productive biological communities. The southern limit of the study area is the Otuquis Panatanal, also a national park, jointly covering 10,059 sq km. However, further north a substantial proportion (29,185 sq km) of the entire study area was designated in 1977 as the San Matías Natural Area of Integrated Management (Área Natural de Manejo Integrado - ANMI). The ANMI has the objective to reconcile the sustainable development of the local population with the conservation of biological diversity, and therefore has considerable importance for Hyacinth Macaw. Through their observations of the macaws, the researchers have identified an area to function as a special reserve, the shape and boundaries of which mostly fit inside the ANMI, but with a zone of high interest located from the northern limit of the ANMI north to the frontier with Brazil. Hyacinth Macaws regularly breed in this zone, but it currently lacks protection, and the researchers urge its early declaration as a protected area. Also located in this zone is the Biological Station of the Pantanal research centre. The entire special reserve has core areas of 10,000 sq km, a buffer zone of 12,000 sq km and a limited transition zone.

The census conducted by the researchers recorded 127 individual macaws in the main nucleus population, basically sedentary in the northern core area. In the core area further south, they recorded 20 macaws in a resident but marginal breeding population, and in the same area recorded an additional 15 individuals of sporadic occurrence. The total of 162 individuals compares well with the 134 and 107 reported in 2007 and 2011 respectively. The density (individuals/sq km) of Hyacinth Macaws in the Bolivian Pantanal seems to be almost three times lower than that of Brazil, although it is not clear why this should be. In Bolivia the key tree species for Hyacinth Macaw are sujo (Sterculia apetala), preferred for nesting, and the motacú (Attalea phalerata) and totaí (Acrocomia aculeata) palms, the fruits of which constitute the basic diet.

Clearance of cerrado forest is one threat to Bolivia's Hyacinth Macaws (Thomas Fuhrmann).

Given that most of the macaw population in Bolivia is found in the San Matías ANMI, its sustained relation with humans is vital. Hyacinth Macaws are settled in traditional extensive cattle ranches, based on natural pastures to which the species seems to have adapted. This ranching started about five centuries ago, and in its traditional form is a sustainable and integrated use that helps to preserve the biodiversity of the Pantanal. The researchers describe the current relationship in Bolivia between Hyacinth Macaws and humans as commensalism, wherein the macaws benefit, and humans derive neither harm nor benefit (excluding ecotourism). They point out that on the ranches the macaws have access to water in the dry season, minerals, a lower level of predators of nests and fledglings, conditions (fire and cattle) that favour the motacú and totaí palms, care of the sujo trees used for shade and boundaries, and food from cultivated fruits (principally mangos).

However, Hyacinth Macaw does face threats in Bolivia. One is the continuing clearance of cerrado forest on edge of the Pantanal, together with incessant increase in intensive and industrialised agro-livestock activity that replaces the traditional natural pastures and is incompatible with authentic integrated development. Hyacinth Macaw has long co-existed with fire and controlled burns but is threatened by mega-fires which are fuelled during the dry season by the burning of trees felled for industrial agriculture or for charcoal production. Wind-borne sparks cause progressive waves of much hotter, catastrophic fires that last for months and destroy vegetation and animals across very large areas. Finally, there is a risk that the existing small capture of Hyacinth Macaws for illegal trade might increase without protective measures in place.

Therefore, the researchers recommend a number of conservation actions, starting with the recognition of the Bolivian Pantanal as a valuable reserve for the species, and the importance of national and international efforts to maintain traditional sustainable uses of land. An improved plan to prevent and fight uncontrolled fires needs to be prioritised. A protected space between the northern limit of the ANMI and the border with Brazil should be established as soon as possible. Collaboration with the appropriate authorities, those responsible for community lands and with the owners of private ranches, whether or not they are in protected areas, is a priority for the long-term conservation of the species. Consideration should be given to the use of nest boxes to increase reproductive success, and to the rescue and rearing of weaker chicks before they die in the nest, followed by soft release to the wild. Field research on the species should continue, as should the promotion of environmental education and institutional strengthening. They also mention the current status of Hyacinth Macaw as Vulnerable (VU) in the IUCN Red List, and its possible uplisting in relation to increased intensity of threats.

Written by: David Waugh

David Waugh is a lifelong birder and ornithologist whose career has been in conservation, especially of threatened parrot species.

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