In the midst of the monotonous sugarcane fields and lime orchards that dominate the landscape north of the Pacific port of Puntarenas, in the lowlands between the TilaránMountains and the Gulf of Nicoya, is a 14-hectare epicenter of biodiversity.
Finca Lapas plays an essential role in the survival, rehabilitation and repopulation of scarlet and great green macaws, both native to Costa Rica.
Once a deforested pastureland, the plot near the village of Aranjuez has been transformed into a macaw paradise, complete with a multitude of native tree species, birdcages, perches, organic farm fields, isolation and special-care shelters and volunteer quarters.
Finca Lapas’ primary goal is to foster a natural environment where the scarlet and great green macaws there can eventually reproduce on their own, free from human intervention.
Birds in Danger
Scarlet and great green macaws (genus Ara), known for their intelligence, vibrant plumage, boisterous call and habit of mating for life, are endangered because of extreme habitat loss and capture for trade. While the birds used to fly freely in various lowland rain forests of the country, it is estimated that fewer than 40 breeding pairs of great green macaws remain, with slightly more pairs of scarlet macaws, according to Ecoteach, a U.S.- and Costa Rica-based conservation organization providing educational expeditions in Costa Rica (www.ecoteach.com).
The largest parrots in the world, measuring up to 33 inches from beak to tail, macaws are highly coveted as pets in North America and Europe and can be sold on the black market for $150-4,000, depending on the country of sale, age and condition of the bird, according to Ecoteach. Poachers make a fortune by capturing the birds and selling them, despite the fact that they are under strict international protection according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Another serious threat to the macaws’ survival is habitat loss.Macaws are very selective in their choice of nesting site, choosing trees in which the heartwood can be hollowed out to provide shelter for their nest. Unfortunately, many trees preferred by macaws for nesting, particularly mountain almonds (Dipteryx panamensis), are valuable tropical hardwood species sought by loggers. Ecoteach estimates that the breeding habitat of great green macaws in Costa Rica has been reduced by 90% in the last eight years because of logging pressures.While bans on logging mountain almonds have been proposed, no regulatory action has been taken to protect them.
Finca Lapas to the Rescue
In the face of these worrying facts, Finca Lapas provides a glimmer of hope in saving these beautiful birds.
Upon arriving at the farm, visitors are greeted by a cacophony of birdcalls and a flurry of color. To the untrained eye, the property appears to be a showcase menagerie, but after a closer look and a talk with founders Mainor Khayyan and Rodolfo Orozco, one comes to appreciate the specialized endeavor taking place here: after 12 years of learning, relocation, permits, trial and error, Finca Lapas has settled into its permanent location and is successfully breeding, raising, rehabilitating and helping to conserve great green and scarlet macaws.
Under the supervision of the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), Finca Lapas takes in confiscated or rescued macaws, as well as other bird species brought to them. The farm is home to approximately 105 birds of about 15 species, many not native to Costa Rica. While care, natural habitat and food are provided to all of the birds, the focus is on the difficult task of facilitating macaw reproduction.
Khayyan and Orozco follow strict procedures on the farm, including feeding schedules, diets, cleaning procedures and rules such as “no mosquito repellent while feeding the birds” and “no talking to the birds.”
Orozco says many of the macaws brought to the farm are accustomed to living as pets and being completely dependent on people.
These birds, many with clipped wings or injuries that prevent them from flying or surviving on their own, will never be set free in the wild. Their progeny, however, will.
“By reinforcing behaviors taught to them in households such as talking to them or touching them, we will not be able to produce wild macaws that can go out and survive in nature,” Orozco says.
Most birds are kept in isolated cages situated far apart to prevent the birds from teaching each other domestic behaviors.
However, it is difficult to untrain the birds of these habits, and while walking on the farm it is common to hear birds repeating words or phrases learned in homes, such as “hola,” “lapa” (Spanish for macaw) and “adios.”
In terms of macaw reproduction, Finca Lapas has had great success. A visitor here may witness flocks of 16 or more scarlet and great green macaws flying overhead, and view many more pairs in trees or on the ground all over the farm. These free-flying birds are the result of 12 years of research and work.
As macaws are very particular about where and when they will reproduce, all conditions at the farm are strictly controlled and monitored. Tiny alterations in diet or habitat could have disastrous consequences to the birds’ health, and could deter them from reproducing. At present, the farm houses six mating pairs of scarlet macaws and four mating pairs of great green macaws. Though all of the free-flying progeny are still juvenile and too young to reproduce, Orozco and Khayyan’s goal is for the birds to eventually mate and produce young in the wild.
Education for the Future
An endeavor such as Finca Lapas does not happen without outside help.While the farm is privately funded, it receives a great deal of income and helping hands from student volunteers. For 14 weeks out of the year, Finca Lapas hosts student groups from various countries, including Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Indonesia and Hong Kong.
The volunteer students, who travel with a program coordinated by International Student Volunteers, Inc. (www.isvonline.com), spend two weeks living on the farm, studying conservation and helping in any way possible.
Students rise every day at 5:30 a.m. to begin feeding the birds, even before sitting down to their own gallo pinto. The rest of the day involves cleaning cages, two more scheduled feedings and working in the fields to plant and harvest crops such as corn and peanuts, which are grown organically and used to feed the birds. They also help in planting and caring for native fruit trees essential for macaw food and habitat.
“Everything, from the crops we plant to the organic compost we place on the fields, works as a cycle,”Orozco explains to a group of volunteers, “and the birds are at the center of this cycle.”
Foreign students are not the only ones to gain education and experience at Finca Lapas. While Orozco and Khayyan do not encourage tourist visits to the farm because of disturbing effects on the birds, they openly welcome groups of young Costa Rican school groups, as well as university students wishing to volunteer or do research on the birds. They receive frequent visits from schoolchildren and adults from neighboring communities and embrace the opportunity to teach the importance of conservation and protecting the country’s natural wealth. One community has proudly named its soccer team Las Lapas in honor of the birds.
Along with education, Orozco and Khayyan consider sustainable community development an important long-term mission of Finca Lapas.
“We envision a future in which the region around Puntarenas is known for its wild macaws, and tourists will come to view the birds, providing numerous environmentally sound economic possibilities for local people,” Orozco says.
But more important is that Finca Lapas is a project that was inspired by and exists for the preservation of nature. In the name of nature, Finca Lapas will continue its mission so that future generations might continue to hear the noisy calls of scarlet and great green macaws flying freely in Costa Rican skies.
Contact Finca Lapas