The Macaw Project | Documentary
A scarlet macaw. One of the hundreds of birds at one of the world’s largest clay licks. They are all here to eat the clay, members of many different species of macaws and parrots. But there are others nearby too others that the birds have long ago gotten used to people! From the opposite side of the river, tourists watch these colourful creatures. Visitors have been coming every morning now for many years.
One might be surprised to learn that it is the presence of these tourists that makes it possible for these birds to gather together at this clay lick every morning, just as they have done for hundreds of years. Here in this vast, pristine tropical rainforest, the Tambopata. Tambopata Reserve lies in the Peruvian Amazon, in the shadow of the Andes.
It is one of the most biodiverse hotspots on the planet home to thousands of animal and plant species. Its story began more than two decades ago, when two friends, enchanted by the rainforest, Eduardo Nycander and Kurt Holle, were only just discovering this area of their home country. Almost as soon as they set foot here, they realized just how special this place was, and fell in love with it. In 1992, after a few years of research and exploring the region, they decided to establish an ecotourism company: Rainforest Expeditions.
Their first lodge, Tambopata Research Center, also provided researchers with a base from which to conduct studies on macaws and other creatures living here in the rainforest. In the meantime, people realized how biologically diverse and unique this part of the world is, so it needed protection from logging companies. Soon it became a national reserve. Rainforest Expeditions has 3 lodges in the Tambopata Basin, all of them are either within the Tambopata National Reserve, or on the outskirts of it. One of them in the Infierno native community, which is just outside of the Tambopata National Reserve, and is adjacent to it. In order of distance from the entry city, which is Puerto Maldonado, which is where we fly in, Posada Amazonas is 2 hours away from Puerto Maldonado, Refugio Amazonas is 4 hours, and Tambopata Research Center is 7 hours away, and the only one that’s actually within the Tambopata National Reserve.
But a reserve alters the fate of local communities, and if they had not absolutely agreed with this change, then failure would have been virtually guaranteed. And it was a very long process to get through to the community of Infierno... Actually when we just got to the region in the early 90s, we went right up to the community and said: "well, we would like to stop here on our way up to Tambopata Research Center" "we need a place where we can make stop on the river" "you have a nice lake, we would like to use it, etc."
and they said: "no, you guys are too strange" "you guys are from a different planet for all practical purposes" "we don’t know you, no deal." So we said ok, and we went about our business for 4 or 5 years, but during this time we got to know personally several of the members of the native community. And we started breaking the ice in that way.
And after about 5 or 6 years, for 6 months my associate, Eduardo, he went family by family in Infierno, and explained essentially what the project was about. Everything from things that seem to be already defined, like what a vacation is, what tourism is, why he wants to go halfway around the world to visit this place, to the fact that a lodge is not gonna solve the agricultural problems of the community. So it was a family-by-family work. And after 6 months we went to the community assembly and got the project approved.
And that’s how Posada Amazonas has started in 1996-1997. An indispensable part of effective conservation work is research. Kurt and Eduardo recognized this. Right from the start, they welcomed scientists to these lodges to study the wildlife, including the eye-catching macaws… These birds can have a lifespan of beyond 50 years in the wild. They choose their partner for life, but sometimes researchers in Tambopata witness dramas, such as “divorces” and “getting-back-togethers”.
Learning about their behaviour by watching them is revealing, but not enough to uncover all aspects of their intriguing private life. The scientists must use additional methods. Even discarded feathers are a valuable ally in the fight to conserve these precious macaws.
Left stuck to the clay lick once the squabbling birds leave, such feathers hold essential information for the scientists. In the morning we observed the clay lick from over there, from the island, and we saw the highest activity in this part of the clay lick, so we came up here to search for feathers. And we were right: we found lots of feathers from big macaws, and other smaller parrots, parakeets and amazon parrots. So we’re gonna use these feathers to get DNA out of them in the laboratory. By analysing the DNA extracted from the feathers, scientists can estimate not only the total number of birds using the clay lick, but also the population size of each species.
Genetic analyses even allow scientists to estimate how far a bird travels and so the area of forest they need in which to survive. In this way, using discarded feathers alone, scientists can gather information vital for the conservation of these species. The genetic results showed that macaws seem to prefer one particular clay lick, which they use regularly. The biggest clay licks – like this one – have a clientele of several hundred birds. They eat the clay mainly for its sodium content and other supplementary minerals.
It is because the region, and so the plants of Tambopata, are so low in sodium that the macaws must seek out the clay, creating this unique daily spectacle for visitors. The way to Tambopata Reserve passes through Puerto Maldonado, a rapidly growing town of about 140,000 residents. A few years ago no-one was remotely interested in moving to this place, but then something happened to change that.
Construction of the Interoceanic Highway began, cutting straight into the untouched rainforest. Suddenly, previously inaccessible areas became easy to reach, vastly accelerating the rate of deforestation, the scale of hunting and fishing, and what turned out to be the most damaging for the Amazonian rainforest: gold mining. 20 years ago we lived in a kind of bubble here in Tambopata, and in the Madre de Dios, where the pace of development and of impact was really slow. Until sometime in the past decade it changed entirely, and a perfect storm developed. The price of gold started increasing.
Now it’s about 1,000 dollars per ounce (2016). That just brought people from all over the Andes to Madre de Dios to mine gold in a completely uncontrolled and chaotic and negative way. Currently more than 30,000 artisanal and illegal gold-miners work in the area of Madre de Dios. In the process, vast tracts of forest are removed, leaving barren earth in its place. The mercury, used on site to extract the gold, is also a lethal poison.
It is washed into the rivers, from where it accumulates in the food chain, in plants, fish and animals, ending up on peoples’ plates. In Madre de Dios, 3000 hectares of rainforest are destroyed irreversibly every year as a direct result of gold-mining. The bridge across the Madre de Dios river, the last section of the Interoceanic Highway, was completed in March 2012. This final step brings more and more people, and accelerates all activities in the region, including those that are illegal.
In the meantime, researchers are trying to ensure that the macaws have enough places to nest. Macaws are very choosy in this respect, and for good reason. Finding a perfect hollow to nest in is crucial to the survival of their chicks. They search out trees that tower above the canopy, with smooth bark; the ideal combination to protect their brood from predators such as snakes and monkeys. Once they find “the one”, the macaws often return year after year to the same tree hole. Couples often get into nasty fights over the best nest sites; they may even kill others’ nestlings if there is no good alternative place! For this reason, the researchers tested several different types of artificial nest to find out which the macaws prefer, and distributed many with this design.
We are hanging at an artificial nest of an Ara chloropterus, a red-and-green macaw. This artificial nest is made of PVC, and we’re gonna check the chicks that are quite old for now, around 80 days, so they’re gonna be quite big so I will take gloves, while I’m taking them out. And after I took them out I put them in a bucket and send it to the ground, where the crew of the Tambopata Macaw Project will check and measure the chicks, and will send back to me. Now we have to wait here – like 30-meter high – at the nest, until the researchers down there finish the measurements of the chicks and they send them back to me. There are lots of bugs around...
Meanwhile, the researchers on the forest floor take blood samples from the chicks, and measure them. By doing this regularly, they can keep track of the chicks’ development over time, to get a window onto the health of the population. The Tambopata Reserve, and the area of Puerto Maldonado, it’s very illustrative, to take the region right beside it, and compare to Tambopata, and you’re gonna see a completely different story.
You’re gonna see in one region an area, where the forest is still in very good quality. In the other region, you see a chaos. Both have been subjects to the same macroeconomic drivers: a rising price of gold, a rising price of food items, so e.g. corn, increased population coming in from Cusco, so you have more people going to eat chicken at the chicken restaurants in Puerto Maldonado, and those chicken restaurants need chicken, the chicken needs corn, the corn needs fields, the fields mean deforested forest. These macroeconomic tendencies are the same all over Madre de Dios.
These tendencies accelerate the destruction of the rainforest. But here in Tambopata there is a braking force acting to slow deforestation, protecting the rainforest and its wildlife. A braking force that works only with the involvement of the local communities. These people have been using this land sustainably for 50-5000 years. Even if they are hunting, it is sustainable.
So to come to them and say: "well guys" "we are setting up a tourism operation here" "no more hunting after 5000 years" not very reasonable, right? Particularly because hunting is not only protein, it’s something that if you start eating as a kid, you grow to like it, so it’s your apple pie, and your hamburger. And it’s a lot of fun, so it’s your baseball and your soccer. And it’s also a status symbol.
Good hunters are respected people in communities. So you have this confluence of the economy, psychology, customs, etc., that doesn’t get changed just because you say: "guys, if you don’t stop hunting," "we’re gonna have a conservation problem" "and the species are gonna go extinct."
No! You have to give a very solid reason for people to stop hunting, or not turn a field of forest into corn. And that is what tourism essentially does. Rainforest Expeditions gets local people involved directly with the business of ecotourism in many different ways. They get first priority for all job opportunities at the lodges. If there is no-one in the community skilled enough for the available position, Rainforest Expeditions provides the necessary education and training. Today, local people participate at every level, even accounting, marketing, and managing all three lodges.
What is more unusual, the local community itself owns one of the three lodges outright: Posada Amazonas. They also get a colossal 60% of the total income. Not only do they earn a living from their involvement with the company, they also take a major role in how it is run, contributing to discussions and decision-making at the monthly ‘Board of Directors Meeting’. As part of an agreement made at the very beginning, from the year 2016 the company will phase itself out of running the locally owned lodge entirely, leaving its management to the community alone. But by that time, the local people will have mastered the ins and outs of the ecotourism business.
A company like Rainforest Expeditions has a very important role to play in conservation, because it generates economic drivers, that make an incentive for people to maintain the forest standing. That’s the well established role of ecotourism. We bring guests, and by bringin these guests to the Amazon and to Tambopata, and making them have a great experience, we are adding value to the forest. So if a hectare of corn plantation is worth 2 plus signs, our job is to make standing forest worth 3 plus signs. Not far from the lodge, researchers try to accomplish a very delicate mission to build up a more detailed picture of the birds’ activity.
Ok, we need everybody now to go to their positions, and hide and we have to be real quiet, because we are about to try and catch the male here. And he already has a collar on him, he’s been caught once, so he is really nervous. And so we need to get the collar back, replace it with a new collar. So everybody go to your points.
George you’ll pull the trap-close, I’ll be back there and I’ll let you know by radio. So you’re going to need a radio, George. Fitting a satellite-collar to a macaw is a tough job.
Even perfect teamwork is not enough when mother nature has her say in the proceedings... But the scientists don’t give up that easily! As soon as the rain stops, they try again. And this time, their patience is rewarded. So George is climbing up to the nest now, we’ve just got the male.
So we’ve just captured an adult scarlet macaw, a male, who actually had a transmitter we put on him last year, so we were replacing the transmitter. We also during this process usually obtain a small amount of blood for genetic analysis, and chemistry profile, we do a complete physical exam, and we also do measurements, we measure the beak, the wings, the tarsus, and the tail for comparison to other macaws both in captivity and in the wild, and we also get an accurate weight. The researchers have found that these macaws in Tambopata can migrate within a vast area of up to 500,000 hectares, following the fruiting of the trees, yet still return to their favorite nesting spot. Experts need accurate information, like this, if they are to make informed decisions about conservation. They need to know: how far the birds travel in a day, how they use the forest, and how many individuals a population needs to survive. This is the reason these biologists and veterinarians work so tirelessly to collect data from around the lodges of Rainforest Expeditions.
The measurements are needed to protect the macaws... which will also safeguard other species and, fundamentally, the rainforest itself. I remember very clearly what one of my friends, that has a farm said to me once. I said: "you do very well with your corn farm" "why do you have 60% of your farm as forest?" He says: "well because I’ve heard that tourism is a good business" "and conserving the forest could be a good business in the future" and he even talked a little bit about carbon credits. Forest dwellers like the forest, and they need an excuse to leave it standing.
And tourism is one of those excuses. To leave these trees standing. It is in everyone’s best interest.
Not just the trees themselves, but also the macaws and monkeys along with lots of other creatures, living in them. The gorgeous spectacle of macaws was instrumental in first attracting various characters in this story: tourists, businessmen, biologists and conservationists. And as long as the macaws are here, so will the trees be.