Fires threaten vulnerable hyacinth macaws in Brazil’s Pantanal

By María Angélica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Aug 24 (efe-epa).- The exotic and striking hyacinth macaw has long been the victim of illegal trade but now this South American parrot faces a new threat as fires spread through the Pantanal, one of the most important ecosystems on the planet.

Wildfires in the Amazon grabbed international headlines last year but in 2020 the worst affected area so far has been the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland area in the world, which is tucked away in the west of Brazil and extends across the border into Bolivia and Paraguay.

More than 10 percent of the Pantanal has been scorched by fires this year, and one of the worst affected areas is the 25,000 hectare reserve that serves as an important habitat for the region’s hyacinth macaws.

Experts told Efe that the driving force behind the spread of wildfires in the region was deforestation, which, when carried out in an illegal and uncontrolled way, can lead to climatic changes in the ecosystem and affect natural cycles like rain.

“This year, unlike others, there has not been enough rain and the Pantanal has been very dry,” Neiva Guedes, the president of the Hyacinth Macaw Project, said.

The drought has combined with strong winds and crop-burning in the region, added Guedes, a biologist, investigator and university teacher, who has spent 30 years studying the hyacinth macaw.

Although the fires have not yet spread to the parrots’ main nesting area, the surrounding region has been all but razed by the flames, depriving the birds of food and safe spaces to raise their young.

The hyacinth macaws’ principal habitat is located in the far north of the Pantanal and backs up against the border of the Perigara indigenous reserve, which is home to the Bororo ethnic group.

The region is now used for cattle farming but the ranch is home to a grove of palm trees that has been a particularly popular feeding ground for generations of hyacinth macaws and other parrot species.

Some 60 years ago, the father of the farm’s current owners cordoned the grove off and ordered for it to be protected and left to thrive.

“It’s a unique place in the world,” Guedes said.

Census research carried out by the conservation institution found that the number of hyacinth macaws using the habitat had grown from 248 in 2001 to more than 1,000 in 2014.

One of the main challenges facing conservationists is the fact that the hyacinth macaw is a picky eater and prefers to subsist almost exclusively on the Brazil nuts from the acuri and bocaiuva palms that grow in the area.

In fact, the parrots have developed a symbiotic relationship with the cattle on the ranch and feed on acuri nuts that have already passed through the digestive system of a cow, which leaves the nut softer and easier for the parrot to eat.

But now the fires blighting the zone are putting all that at risk and conservationists are noticing that fewer and fewer parrots are visiting the area.

“Around 87 percent of the ranch has burned, but the nesting area for the birds is still intact,” Guedes said, adding that a survey on 15 August recorded a drop in the usual number of birds coming to the feeding sanctuary.

“Why? Because there’s a lot of smoke, there’s fire and there’s a lack of food,” Guedes said.

As the cobalt parrots search for other feeding grounds outside of the protected area, the risk of them falling victim to illegal bird trapping grows.

The hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), the largest macaw species in the world and can grow to be more than a meter head to tail, is along with its close relation the Lear’s macaw, a highly sought-after pet on the black market.

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