San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Scarlet Macaws Make Comeback in Region

The image of red, blue and yellow missiles streaking across the skies amid a chorus of squawks is iconic. The lapa roja, or scarlet macaw, which lives between 40 and 75 years, can be found in CararaNational Park, between Playa Jacó and Orotina on the central PacificCoast, and on the OsaPeninsula in southwest Costa Rica.

In recent years, captive breeding and reintroduction programs have worked to install mating pairs to the NicoyaPeninsula and on the Panamanian border.

But the brilliant plumage, a psychedelic adventure in primary colors, is in a constant fight to exist throughout the bird’s range, from Mexico to the Amazon. Big factors in the endangered bird’s plight are its unwillingness to nest and breed outside of pristine forest environments and longtime exploitation by the exotic pet trade.

“The main threat is the theft of the chicks,” said Adrián Arce, president of the Association for the Protection of Psittacines (LAPPA) and CararaNational Park head of research. “Second is the fragmentation of their habitat.”

For poaching prevention efforts to succeed, law enforcement needs to cooperate with conservationists, he said.

“The macaw is worth more than $2,000 on the black market, and unfortunately the environmental laws are very loose and the fines are minimal,” Arce said. “They took 11 chicks between May 20 and today. A misdemeanor is not a serious crime … The fine is ¢25,000 (about $45) for every three macaws found in a house.”

LAPPA began with a 1990 study by NationalUniversity and University of Wisconsin biologist Christopher Vaughan on a then unknown population of scarlet macaws in the Central Pacific. His research found that the birds moved predictably between their mangrove roosts and Carara park.

Now, the goals of Arce’s organization are to increase the bird population, help locals find work so they are on board with environmental efforts, and increase the flow of tourism to the Central Pacific region.

These balls can be hard to juggle, but have proven to be an effective conservation strategy around the world.

For now, in pockets, the majestic bird wings through the skies of the Americas. The highly intelligent macaw is a feathery rainbow personifying the concept of beauty and brains in the animal kingdom. Conservation and prevention of nest poaching are the keys that could save this species.

“Even with the poaching, we do not get discouraged and we continue forward,” Arce said. “We use artificial nests with guards on duty protecting the nests until the juveniles leave. The conservation process is very expensive, but it is helping the macaw population increase.”

The increase is also attributable to the hard work of the guards.

“Between August and September of every year, we do population counts,” Arce said. “The population is rising. Because the poachers are in jail or working … Some are in jail for drugs or have found work. Many of them work in construction.”

Indeed, the numbers back up Arce’s assertion, having swelled from 235 before the program to 450. But the parrot war is far from over.

Globally, in areas with abundant wildlife resources and little employment, poor people often have to choose between unsavory work and starving families. These people are mostly not the stereotypical thuggish poachers with a disregard for the world at large.

However, the benefits that come with local jobs may be robbing Peter to pay Paul. While the work is great for decreasing the number of people turning to the black market for work, the habitat that is so crucial to the birds is a finite resource, and space is needed for this kind of project.

“The development that the region is experiencing has decreased slightly, but it has given a hand to the people that need it,” Arce said.

“But for the most part, it is dangerous. It’s all crazy. Some projects have been closed because they fragment the macaw’s habitat. They need to reforest the habitat with plants that are eaten and used by the scarlet macaw.”

The birds eat from about 350 plant and tree species in the area, Arce said. Planting suitable trees in places where the habitat has been compromised is a painstakingly slow process that requires a lot of effort and intelligent planning.

As the region continues to expand, Arce hopes people don’t forget about the fate of their brightest flying neighbors.

“The macaw is the symbol of the Central Pacific,” Arce said. “A lot of enterprises don’t understand what their actions cost. Only a few of them help. Conserving this species is so important to us.”

But businesses such as the Best Western Jacó Beach Resort, EcoTeach and PuntaLeonaHotel and Beach Resort have taken notice and jumped on the parrot patrol with donations.

“The Best Western helped us with a $2,000 donation,” Arce said. “That they helped us is really important. The good thing is that environmental conscience has started to spread to businesses. In general, when we seek collaboration, no one closes the door. We are a serious organization.”

And with the help of these watchdogs, the future of the region’s birds looks brighter.

“If we really continue to manage this population, if the many institutions work with us hand in hand, and if tourism works with the organizations in charge of conservation, I can guarantee the future for the macaw in the Central Pacific,” Arce said. “We can boost the population, but the birds need a program for protection and management. For next year, we have an important study on the nests.”

To contact LAPPA, call 8379-5203 or email


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