For Peru's Amazonian Forests, Much Depends on a Bird Named Freedom
By Elisabeth Shedd
On January 28, 2008, deep in the pristine jungles of Peru, the last of three satellite collars was affixed to an anxious Ara ararauna as part of Earthwatch's Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon research project. Without a day to spare, Dr. Donald Brightsmith and I, along with two other members of his research team, had been waiting for hours in patient silence in two hot and muddy blinds in the forest-just as they'd be doing for the prior 24 days-for the chance to capture and collar a blue and gold macaw.
At about 1 PM, Don and I heard a distinct rustling, indicating a macaw had caught its foot in one of the slip knot nooses we'd hidden along the species' favorite perches, followed by the sound of hushed but excited voices from the other blind. Researchers Gabriela Vigo Trauco and Lizzy Ortiz had captured a stunning blue and gold macaw, just hours before Don had to return to the States, and just as the birds' presence in the area was beginning its seasonal decline. A sense of exhausted joy and relief moved through the forest; these are the moments field researchers live for.
Perfectly adorned in Peru's finest Kaolinite clay soil, we examined the blue and gold macaw that now would give us a chance to provide regional conservation agencies with data necessary for the conservation of its species. We affixed the satellite collar, photographed the macaw for the database, celebrated, and released the bird we named Liberdad back to the wild with 32 extra grams-and perhaps the fate of his Peruvian Amazon home-around his neck.
Until this collaring effort, little information was known about the range of blue and gold macaws. In some months, almost none are present near the world's largest clay lick (Collpa Colorado) in Madre de Dios, where Dr. Brightsmith's research is based; in others, a kaleidoscopic show of these brilliant flyers fills the lick and the skies around it. And once the blue and golds leave the clay lick, the most interesting aspect of their disappearing act is that they vanish from the forests around the Tambopata Research Center altogether.
Because blue and gold macaws are known to have marked seasonal feeding patterns, and because they can easily carry the weight of a satellite collar without harm, they're perfect candidates for this experimental telemetry technology. More importantly, prior to the collaring of three macaws in early 2008, there was little information about where or how far these birds fly once they leave Collpa Colorado.
When Don Brightsmith and his co-Principal Investigator Alan Lee began analyzing the first round of results from the collars in September of 2008, it was the first time researchers were able to start pulling together this type of data about the birds' habitat requirements. In light of the conservation challenges facing these birds and the region as a whole, that data couldn't be more timely.
Because the macaw can be used as a flagship species for the Peruvian Amazon, one that can inspire public support for the conservation of the entire regional ecosystem, saving the various macaw species can also mean saving thousands of other species of plants and animals in the region. The arrival of the satellite data-preliminary though it may be-is a major step forward in the effort to protect these birds and their Amazonian forest home.
The data show that these birds are not only traveling far, but also that they are flying into real danger. As Don explains, "Preliminary results show that the macaws are ranging well beyond the boundaries of the Tambopata National Reserve, across the Interoceanic Highway. This raises some serious questions about the future status of macaw populations in the face of increased colonization along the highway and associated development and deforestation."
Indeed, four of the locations where Liberdad was recorded are within 1 kilometer of areas where this bird may have been at risk. One location was near a route bisecting the macaws' range north to south, and used by gold miners to gain illegal access to the upper Malinowski River. Another location was near the route of the northern section of the Interoceanic Highway.
The Interoceanic Highway, proposed for more than 30 years and started in 2004, comes with complexities reminiscent of those involved in digging the Panama Canal. It's a 2,600 kilometer roadway construction project-with most of the new construction taking place in Peru--with potentially severe environmental consequences. Largely funded by the Brazilian National Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, the highway will cut through some of the most biodiverse and culturally rich ecosystems in South America, including the Vilacamba-Aboro Conservation Corridor, which is a "conservation chain" of roughly 15 semi-linked reserves stretching from Peru to Bolivia.
The Interoceanic Highway will connect Brazil to Peru and Bolivia to its west and, through them, to the Pacific Ocean and Asian markets. Driven by market forces, the Highway will most likely bring with it the loggers, miners, and developers who flood rainforest areas whenever major roads are built. Native species and indigenous cultures alike are threatened by the intrusion of such roads, and Brazil's own recent history offers a startling warning: from June 2007 to June 2008, Brazil saw a 62% increase in deforestation, totaling nearly 9,000 square miles lost. The IOH will put Peru's forests-and the macaws-in newly easy reach of such pressures.
With such large-scale development forces at work in the region, the need for strong conversation data is higher than ever before, and that knowledge fuels the dedication of all the members of the project and all the Earthwatch volunteers who've joined it. The days are long and the work can be tedious, but everyone knows the stakes are high. It took 25 days and more than 1,000 combined hours to trap and collar just three birds. While the collaring efforts were under way, other members of the team continued to acquire other macaw data.
While the collaring efforts must succeed, the project's many other research methods and objectives also provide critical data, and, this past January, were kept running with the help of nine Earthwatch volunteers who were present (the teams accept up to 12 volunteers). Throughout this period, Don, Alan, and the rest of the Tambopata Macaw Project team and Earthwatch volunteers performed bird censuses and 5,000 meter transects, observed nesting behavior and collected chick data at the nests, and constructed three blinds-and then two more after the first three were destroyed in a mud/clay avalanche following heavy rains.
Though I'd been aware of the project while working in Earthwatch's US offices, it wasn't until I joined Dr. Brightsmith as a field assistant and peeked out through carved holes in the burlap of his stakeout at the base of the world's largest clay lick that I was able to grasp the pressures that we, and these birds, were under-and the importance of all of our roles as a part of a team. It's a testament to Don and Alan's leadership, cooperation, time management, willpower, and luck that we were able to capture and collar three birds, but it couldn't have been done without volunteers working on other aspects of the project. In fact, Don and Alan estimate that it would have taken years of work and tens of thousands of dollars to produce just a small percentage of the macaw data collected in just a few months this past year with the help of Earthwatch volunteers.
But we still don't have sufficient data on the birds' range for the results to be considered statistically significant by the governments of Peru and Bolivia, or by the various institutions which develop conservation strategies and manage their respective protected natural areas in the region. For this reason, this coming research season we need to catch and collar (at least) five more macaws in the brief window from early December to February, 2009. After that, the macaws will leave the area in increasing numbers in their seasonal pattern.
As I prepare to return to Peru and the project this Fall, I'm wondering whether we'll be able to meet that ambitious goal. There's a tower I climb when heading upriver to the project site, and from that height one can view a sea of green. From there, the forest seems like a city of millions of different creatures, including humans, all astoundingly different, all going hurriedly about their way. The river flows as a blue highway, and the sky is the medium for a communications system more complex than we're yet able to understand. I wonder about Liberdad-and the other macaws we've collared thus far-flying over their city, their highway, communicating in their world. I picture them soon flying over portions of a human highway that grows ever closer, coming more forcefully and permanently into their home. We can't stop that highway. But by following Liberdad and other birds as they streak brilliantly through Amazonian skies, we can protect the human and natural communities in its path from the worst of its effects. I think that's worth at least a few more patient hours in the forest, getting covered in clay.
- Learn more about Dr. Donald Brightsmith and Alan Lee, Co-Principal Investigators on this project.
- Read excerpts from Dr. Brightsmith's preliminary report on the satellite tracking data, as published on the website of a wildlife park in England that also supports the macaw project. (Includes satellite photo data overlays.)