When the last Spix’s Macaw Cyanopsitta spixii disappeared from the wild in October 2000, most observers who knew anything about the species were ready to write it into history. The by now iconic blue macaw was held in captivity in small numbers, but many were illegally obtained birds poached from the last substantial population in Brazil and their ‘owners’ had paid huge sums to obtain them precisely because there was so few of them. The chances of breeding these widely scattered birds seemed highly unlikely. Joseph Forshaw, in the third (1989) edition of his monumental “Parrots of the World” (Blandford Press) had already written that:
“There are up to forty of these macaws in captivity…and the only chance of saving the species from extinction is a co-operative breeding programme. However the majority of birds are held by private aviculturalists, so I am not confident that the necessary co-operation will be forthcoming.”
Some twelve years later Tony Juniper, who had been on the survey that found the last wild Spix’s and wrote the intensely moving “Spix’s Macaw, the Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird” in 2002, concluded his book with the words:
“Whether this exquisite blue bird will yet rise as a phoenix of inspiration in the wider struggle to save the world’s beautiful and endangered species and ecosystems, or will disappear as another tragic casualty of human indifference and greed, remains to be seen. The means to save Spix’s blue macaw are still available. Whether they will be deployed in time to avert the imminent extinction of this superb blue parrot will, like the extinction of the Dodo, be an important and historic landmark in people’s relationship with the living world…”
Remarkably though the “phoenix of inspiration” is rising, and in a place that many observers might – at first – think of as rather unlikely: Qatar, an oil-rich Arab emirate occupying the small Qatar Peninsula on the northeasterly coast of the larger Arabian Peninsula, that (according to the CIA’s World Fact Book) has “the highest per capita income in the world”.
Spix’s Macaw and Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation
Started as a ‘hobby farm’ by his father, the state-of-the-art Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP) in central Qatar is run by HE Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al Thani [photo left, with two Spix's Macaws], a member of the family that has ruled Qatar since independence in December 1878. An incredibly busy man (look him up in Google!) the Sheikh is – fortunately for the Spix’s Macaw – a passionate conservationist, and under his guidance Al Wabra has emerged as the single most likely site for the “world’s rarest parrot” to stage a remarkable comeback.
One can only imagine the influence that’s required to bring together a ‘flock’ of Spix’s Macaws, but as of Jan 2009 a staggering FORTY-SEVEN Spix’s (19 males and 28 females) are being looked after at Al Wabra – and the international team of experienced veterinarians, biologists and keepers that the Sheikh has assembled are working to overcome all sorts of ‘unknowns’ to ensure that Al Wabra has the most successful Spix’s Macaw breeding programme on the planet
Eight Spix’s Macaws, November 2007. Photo copyright Ryan Watson/AWWP
By the end of 2007 sixteen Spix’s Macaws had been bred at the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation – a (to quote Ryan Watson) “respectable achievement given the disease and inbreeding issues plaguing the species”. All the chicks bred at the AWWP have been hand-reared by experienced staff, since it is considered a safer option than parent-rearing especially while the priority is to increase the overall population.
Parrot chicks are not exactly the most attractive creatures on the planet, but the photos below (which I was told are freely available to use non-commercially by anyone spreading awareness of this beautiful parrot – an unusually generous and very welcome element in the conservation work being done at Al Wabra) are unique and their importance can’t be stressed enough. The captions come from the original Al Wabra press-releases, and the text and photos are copyright of AWWP.
“In the first week of May 2005 another two Spix’s Macaw chicks hatched, and are now being hand–reared by the staff at Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation. These two new baby macaws represent an amazing almost 4 % increase in the known world population of their species.” Photo copyright AWWP. (http://awwp.alwabra.com/index.php/content/view/17/31/)
“The picture shows the first 7 Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) chicks of the 2006 breeding season at Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP). These seven birds represent almost 10% of the entire known world population of this species. Together with the off-spring reared in 2004 and 2005, the AWWP has now successfully bred 12 Spix’s Macaws.” Photo copyright AWWP. (http://awwp.alwabra.com/index.php/content/view/55/30/)
However, the good news doesn’t just stop with the building up of the global population of Spix’s Macaws. The intention of HE Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al Thani seems to have always been to release this rarest of birds back into the wild.
It’s never easy to release captive-bred birds: besides overcoming behavioural problems associated with putting birds into an environment that they’re no longer familiar with, there is the huge problem of ensuring that the correct environment exists in the first place. Though persistent collection removed the last of the Spix’s Macaws from the wild, by the time they’d been taken away there really wasn’t very much “wild” left anyway. In terms of ideal habitat there was just a fraction of the gallery woodland the species needed left in Brazil – without ensuring its future, any thought of re-establishing a wild population of macaws seemed hugely unlikely…
However, in a press-release in 2008 Al Wabra was able to make a momentous announcement that is worth repeating in full, and is a fitting place to end this post:
“After seven months of negotiations and navigating legal minefields, the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP), owned and founded by H.E. Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohd. Bin Ali Al-Thani, is proud to announce the purchase of Concordia Farm.
Located in Bahia State in the district of Curaca, the 2,200 hectare Concordia Farm is within the most historically significant range of the Spix’s Macaw. One of the last recorded sightings of wild Spix’s Macaw amongst the Caraibeira Trees lining the Melancia Creek – which flows through the property – was during October 2000. Concordia Farm was also the base of the Spix’s Macaw field project, which operated throughout the 1990’s, until completion in 2002. In 1995, the release of the only captive Spix’s Macaw back into the wild, was from this location.
AWWP secured Concordia Farm for the Spix’s Macaw and plans to allow it to return to a more natural state by removing domestic livestock. In the long term, we hope that this land will prove to be a valuable habitat resource for plans in the future to re-establish Spix’s Macaws back to the wild.
I am extremely grateful to Ryan Watson, who works at Al Wabra as Blue Macaw Coordinator and is the Primary Studbook keeper for Spix’s Macaw, for fact-checking the information in this article and for providing the most up to-date data available.