Interview with Guisselle Monge Arias and Olivier Chassot, co-directors of the Tropical Science Center’s “Green Macaw Research and Conservation” project

Interviewed by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance

“Thanks to the green macaw monitoring and evaluation project, as well as the data collected on deforestation and forest cover, we can say this project has been successful, in terms of the knowledge acquired about Ara ambigua and the change of attitude among local residents. But not in the sense that the project has deterred deforestation — that requires political will.”

The Tropical Science Center’s great green macaw (Ara ambigua) research and conservation project is using data gathered during eight years of field research in Costa Rica’s northern zone to design strategies to save this endangered parrot and the habitat it needs to survive. Below, Guisselle Monge describes some of the principal achievements and obstacles she and her project codirector, Olivier Chassot, have faced.

Photo by www.danheller.comQuestion: This initiative seems to have started out as a research project but ended up as a whole conservation strategy. How did that happen?

Arias: The conservation biologist George Powell works with endangered species, among them the green macaw, and he realized these parrots were threatened. Very little was known in Costa Rica about the biology of this species. In 1994, he decided we needed to know more about the macaw and what was causing its population to decrease. He started with the basics: monitoring and counting nests. It was very intense work, done with help from people in the communities and farm owners, who know the region so well. As of today, we can report 60 active, green macaw nests.

The second step was to learn about the macaw’s food needs — we found that 38 different tree species provide food. The most important is almendro (Dipteryx panamensis), which provides 90 percent of the macaw’s food and 80 percent of the macaws’ nesting needs. The third step was related to habitat requirements. We determined the different kinds of habitat needs, and what we are determining now is migration patterns.

The idea was to have good scientific knowledge about the species in order to create conservation strategies. Last year we started the conservation plan, working on a proposal to create a proposed Maquenque National Park and establishing the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor. We are using the green macaw as an umbrella, or flag species. That is, by protecting the green macaw, you can also conserve many other species that depend on the same resources.

First, we did research to see if the decline in the macaw’s population was caused by the scarcity of nests, but that was not the cause. Then we thought about macaws being stolen and sold, so we worked on environmental education. From 1998 and up until now, we have not had any reports of chicks stolen from nests.

Studies of forest cover in the area showed that the biggest problem was loss of habitat: If the almendro tree provides 90 percent of the macaw’s food, and 80% of its nesting habitat, and this species is being destroyed with the rest of the forest, then that represents the most crucial factor. Therefore the conservation strategy is to protect the 74,493 acres (30,159 hectares) of primary, secondary, and mangrove forest that remains in the green macaw’s nesting habitat.

We know that the macaws cross the San Juan River (which separates Nicaragua and Costa Rica). We are a bit relieved, because Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz Grand Reserve protects 1004 square miles of forest. So you can assume that if Costa Rica’s forests are lost, then at least the macaw can go to Nicaragua, but the habitat in Costa Rica is important to the macaw’s migration.

With all the interest in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor initiative, we thought about a corridor, not just for the macaw, but also for other species like the jaguar, which could roam from the Indio Maíz reserve to Maquenque National Park, and then connect with the La Selva Biological Station reserve and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica.

Q: How have you been able to work with so many different people with so many diverse interests?

Arias: At first we worked with local residents because one of the problems was that people were taking macaw chicks and selling them to lodges, hotels, and to foreigners. We launched an environmental education campaign that lasted a year-and-a-half, and now people are very aware. The farm owners find us to tell us about new nests. That’s been great.

We also had other researchers: biologists from different countries, particularly from Latin America. One of our project objectives is to provide training to Latin Americans. In that we have benefited from different points-of-view and different ways of working.

A few years ago our team was trying to track a macaw that had a radio collar, but couldn’t be traced. A search was done by a small plane, and the signal was picked up over the border, in Nicaragua. So the search continued on foot, and the signal was coming very strongly from a house, so the biologists went up to the house, where a farmer told them, “Well, I shot a macaw because we needed to eat. We made a soup, and here is the little radio from the collar around the macaw.” In that case, it’s true we lost an animal, but we also gained information, because then we knew that macaw had migrated into Nicaragua.

The problems in the southern part of Nicaragua are very different from the situation in the Northern Zone of Costa Rica. People in Nicaragua are living in poverty; the majority hunts in order to survive, not for sport or for the local market. So we have to be very careful and respect their customs. We talk to them about the macaws and their importance, the fact that they are in danger of extinction, and know nothing about borders between countries, and that’s how you can do effective conservation.

We are working with Fundación del Río, a conservation group in Nicaragua, to start conservation projects that will protect resources in both countries. We have held workshops with young people, with staff of Nicaragua’s environmental ministry, and with the national army, which backs-up complaints or confiscations made by the ministry. The idea is that our friends in Nicaragua can start monitoring green macaws and train volunteer vigilance groups who will guard against logging of almendro trees and protect the huge wealth of biodiversity that the region possesses.

At another level, we have had to deal with politics. It’s really difficult because there is so little political will, not just at the level of the Environment Ministry but also at the highest echelons. In spite of the fact that the proposal to create Maquenque National Park has existed since 1992, if you look at the Northern Zone of Costa Rica, you’ll find that there are virtually no protected areas there. There are two wetlands that are protected and a private forest reserve, so it can be exploited as if it were not protected. What’s important about the Northern Zone is the fact that there are still almendro forests. We have fought very hard to conserve these forests and we are waiting for the new government to see if the new leaders are more open to the need to act.

At first we were seen locally like we were staff of MINAE [Ministry of Environment and Energy], who were going to file complaints, but we explained who we were and what we wanted to do. Also, we gave residents financial incentives to report macaw nests to us. An organization called the Association for the Environmental Well-Being of Sarapiquí have funds to give an annual prize to landowners whom we indicate are taking care of macaw nests. People have gotten really motivated and are really involved. Landowners have told us: “You can come on our farms at any time to monitor the nests. If you need to mark a tree, you can do that.”

On the other hand, due to the government’s inaction to protect this species, we contacted a nonprofit group called “Justice for Nature” in order to take legal action to stop the destruction of the macaw’s remaining habitat. As a result, the Court ruled that MINAE had to prohibit destruction of almendro trees throughout Costa Rica. This ruling is still in process.

Q: What’s happening with the logging industry in the Northern Zone?

Arias: We don’t get involved with them very much because we have to visit all the farms in order to monitor the nests, so we don’t want to file complaints every time we see that someone is illegally logging. What we do, indirectly, is to report the illegal logging to groups that do make official complaints, like the Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna.

On the other hand, there is a National Green Macaw Commission, whose members are 12 or 13 different organizations, including logging associations, the government (represented by MINAE), conservationists, and community organizations. At first, the loggers’ associations attended most of the meetings, because the Commission was created as an entity of MINAE, to assess the forest management in the zone and to grant logging permits. At first they were very interested in knowing what was happening, but then they saw that the Commission was very passive and wasn’t going to be a strong opponent, so now they don’t participate as much.

The loggers realize that a good deal of forest has already been lost in the Northern Zone, that the resource has been just about used up, and there isn’t enough forest left to allow for forest management practices. So now they are supporting creation of Maquenque National Park, because they know they need to have a seed bank for all the tree species in the zone, and if they cut down more trees, we won’t have any forest left.

We have learned that in Nicaragua they are also exploiting almendro trees in the buffer zone outside Indio-Maíz Grand Reserve. The saddest thing is that the people cutting these trees are Costa Rican loggers. It’s really a conflict for us, because here we are very pleased that the green macaw will have a place to go in Nicaragua when all of the Northern Zone of Costa Rica is deforested, but the reality is something else: It’s not enough for our fellow citizens to cut down all our forests, but they are also doing the same in our neighboring country. They pay Nicaraguan farmers about $15 for each almendro tree, bring the logs to Costa Rica and sell them for about $1450.

Q: Do you have any advice to other biologists who may be about to start a similar initiative?

Arias: It’s been a great privilege for us to have been pioneers in this region and with this species. Costa Rica’s Northern Zone was the only place you can find the green macaw and it had never been studied. We started from zero.

But you have to consider that this is extremely hard work, involving hikes of two or three hours sometimes, on very steep hills. There are a lot of insects, mosquitoes and mud, and sometimes you have to get up at 6 am, arrive at your destination at 6 pm, prepare something to eat, and by 7 or 8 you don’t have energy to do anything.

We learned a hard lesson when we found out that the macaws abandoned many nests because they were invaded by killer bees. Two years ago we were working near one nest, where we verified that there were no bees. Don Ulises, our colleagues with the most experience in capturing the macaws to be outfitted with radio transmitters, was waiting with all the equipment by the nest. Ulises had to climb up the tree, capture the macaws, climb down, put a radio collar on the parrots and weigh them. Usually, Ulises wears a jacket to protect himself from killer bees, but he didn’t this time, and we he climbed the tree we saw that he was signaling to us to run.

We all ran about a kilometer away, and then saw with binoculars that there were killer bees by the nest. Ulises was in that tree for three hours, not moving, waiting for rain, because the rain would calm the bees, and he could escape. But that was a sunny day. We didn’t know what to do; we didn’t have a strategy for this kind of situation. We couldn’t get any closer, because the bees would have come after us. The area was very open, and there was no place to hide, nor a stream nearby. As we watched, Ulises was becoming black, completely covered with nothing but bees. We sent someone to the nearest town, which was two hours away, to call the Red Cross. We stayed there watching and waiting and hoping he was alive.

And then, after three hours, the rains came, and Ulises came down that tree quickly and ran to us and we gave him some water. After awhile the Red Cross came and gave him a serum. Afterward, Ulises told us that he thought it was a miracle. There were so many bees that were stinging him, and he couldn’t open his eyes, or think, or anything. Beneath the tree there was a herd of cattle that he counted in order not to pass out. The Red Cross said that normally someone who was stung so many times would not survive.

Ulises was a hero because he was worried about the macaws getting hurt by the bees. He set free two that he had captured that were in the nest and he felt around the nest to be sure that the chicks were not attacked. We have noticed that killer bees are more common around open and deforested areas. Now before we capture and tag macaws we make very sure there are no bees.

Another difficulty we face is with fundraising. Donors tend to give for one year, but when you ask for a renewal grant, they turn you down. Usually projects don’t last so many years. This project is eight-years-old, and it has been financed by a different donor each year. Our idea is that if we create a national park and a corridor we can continue to monitor the macaws to find out if our conservation strategies have been worthwhile or if the species is going to completely disappear.

This is an independent project for which we have assumed all the responsibilities: monitoring, data analysis, conservation strategizing, fundraising, accounting, etc. It’s exhausting work, without any days off or vacation.

We would like to conclude the project when Maquenque National Park and the biological corridor have been established. Thanks to the green macaw monitoring and evaluation project, as well as the data collected on deforestation and forest cover, we can say this project has been successful, in terms of the knowledge acquired about Ara ambigua and the change of attitude among local residents. But not in the sense that the project has deterred deforestation — that requires political will.

More About This Project

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