Vallarta Botanical Gardens Leads the Charge in Saving Endangered Military Macaws

Vallarta Botanical Gardens
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March 4, 2013

An old hollow pine in the mountains between the Vallarta Botanical Gardens and the town of El Tuito was home to two families of Military Macaws until poachers cut it down in early January. The chicks that survived the fall were most likely sold as pets on the black market.

Sad story — but through the community effort of volunteers coordinated by Neil Gerlowski, our Executive Director, the adult birds, who have returned to the area, once again can hope to breed.

Macaws are cavity dwellers and must search for pines of just the right specifications for their homes. Such trees are becoming scarce due to logging, so Neil and the team stepped in.

They cut up sections of the downed hollow tree and built gigantic bird boxes out of them — shoulder high and weighing around 500 pounds. This is the first time that such an attempt has been made in Mexico. Now they’re monitoring the site in shifts to make sure the poachers don’t come back, hoping that the birds will soon reoccupy their old homes.

Only a couple of hundred Military Macaws are left in Jalisco and Nayarit, an enormous two-state region that used to have hundreds of thousands. The human population in these two states has almost reached 10 million, and is increasing exponentially.

Many biologists speculate that with continued habitat loss and poaching, this magnificent emblematic species, one of Mexico’s largest and most colorful parrots, will be extirpated from the wilds of this country in 10 to 20 years.

Neil’s 1-year-old, Emanuel, loves watching the TV program “Go, Diego, Go!” about a Latin American boy who spends his time rescuing endangered animals in tropical forests. Neil wants Emanuel to one day observe guacamayas (Spanish for Military Macaws) in the wild as he has, so he’s putting in the time and work now to try to save them.

As both the Executive Director of the Vallarta Botanical Gardens and the Development Director of the Iniciativa Bahía de Banderas (Banderas Bay Initiative), Neil coordinates projects with many local and international conservation groups.

Their ambitious plans for saving the guacamayas include installing 100 artificial nests in the forests around Puerto Vallarta and Cabo Corrientes. They’ve targeted the perfect substitute for hollow trees: the old oak barrels that tequila manufacturers use to age their products. These barrels have internal dimensions quite similar to the cavities that the guacamayas inhabit in nature, and the volunteers are in the right state — Jalisco is the birthplace of tequila!

The volunteers are also working on a campaign to develop new parks and preserves to conserve the birds’ habitats. These would be in both the high-elevation pine forests, where they live, and the lower-elevation tropical dry forests, where they forage.

They also want to reintroduce captive parrots to the wild and install cameras to monitor them, both to gather scientific data and to detect poachers. Volunteers have also been spreading the news via a public-awareness campaign (including online and radio outlets) and in schools and village centers in the rural areas where these parrots still live.

The VBG’s animal conservation work can also have a large impact on botanical conservation in the area. Focusing on emblematic species such as the Military Macaw can motivate policymakers to enact conservation legislation that protects old stands of pine trees and the jabillo tree (Hura crepitans and Hura polyandra), the birds’ main food source. Since both species of trees are valued for their lumber, they continue to disappear even in areas where they are protected by law. The kind of attention that the Macaw rescue can draw may spur proper care and vigilance of those trees.

’Hope’ is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops—at all
– Emily Dickinson

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