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Historical overview of Scarlet Macaw Conservation Program in Central Pacific

The scarlet macaw has the widest distribution of the 17 species of limpets, and is found from southwestern Mexico to northern Bolivia. But the subspecies of Mexico and Central America is endangered and has been little studied. In Costa Rica, the scarlet macaw used to range on both slopes from sea level to about 1500 meters altitude in many forested habitats. However, loss of habitat and lapping, or theft of chicks, caused the population to decline radically and by 1978 there were practically only two main populations left: on the Osa Peninsula and in the Central Pacific. Below, we tell the story of the conservation and recovery of the endangered scarlet macaw in the Central Pacific, with wild macaw management within its habitat and the flooded support of local communities and ecotourism.

Ecological studies.

Beginning in 1990, Dr. Christopher Vaughan and his assistants at National University conducted ecological studies of diet, behavior, nesting, predators, habitat use, and counts of individuals over time. Its bill is very strong, allowing it to crack open the hard seeds on which it feeds. The jabillo, gallinazo, ceiba, ojoche, jocote, teak, beach almond, and royal palm stand out among the 43 tree species we found that provide seeds or fruit. Each year the macaws look for holes in trees to reproduce, which is not easy because the 56 natural nests that we found in 13 species of trees had a special hole to make the nest inside it, which was not common. Deforestation had also been killing this type of trees. In addition, the lack of nests forced pairs to compete with each other, so the most passive pair could not reproduce. The situation is complicated when other animals and insects want to occupy the nests.

Endangered

The warning lights went on when, after four years of counts in the early 1990s, specialists calculated that the number of birds of this species in the Central Pacific was decreasing by more than eight per year, with a tendency to increase. Thus, in about 10 years it could be considered extinct if nothing was done. As in the rest of Costa Rica, in the Central Pacific during the seventies, eighties and early nineties the scarlet macaw suffered the loss of tree species with which they fed, nested and roosted, as well as the ruthless work of the “laperos”. For these reasons, the population of these birds decreased significantly, reaching alarming numbers.

Conservation Project Begins

This made it necessary to work on the implementation of protection and management strategies, promoted and supported mainly by the Punta Leona Hotel and the National University. “Thanks to the support of Hotel Punta Leona, we were able to bring together more than 15 people, including hotel employees, school teachers, tour guides, community leaders, scientists and even a couple of lappers. Together we determined the dangers for the scarlet macaw and proposed to implement different measures from their fields to save the species”, explained Dr. Christopher Vaughan, biologist in charge of the project.

This led to the creation of the Red Macaw Protection Association (LAPPA), which, together with the Hotel Punta Leona, proposed to practice in-situ management (i.e., impacting its habitat, involving humans, but preserving the bird in the wild), with actions such as: (a) eliminating chick theft (or lapping), (b) increasing the scarlet macaw population, (c) improving its habitat with forest protection, tree planting, and construction and placement of artificial nests in safe sites, (d) establishing environmental education programs for the community, (e) supporting regional ecotourism (and employment) around the scarlet macaw, and (e) financing it.

Fifteen artificial nests were established in and around the Punta Leona facilities, which joined the 56 natural nests that had been detected by researchers in the Central Pacific. Since 1995, Hotel Punta Leona, with its employees and local schoolchildren, has encouraged the planting of thousands of trees on which the scarlet macaw feeds in the Central Pacific. And since 1997, together with donors such as Idea Wild, The Parrot Society-UK, and Café Britt, it has funded children’s books on the natural history and conservation of the scarlet macaw, which have been distributed to more than 3,000 elementary students in 30 public schools in the region.

Recovery of the scarlet macaw population in the Central Pacific.

“Over time we began to see an increase in the number of chicks flying with their parents, and the total number of macaws began to increase. In one year we almost doubled the number of chicks detected. From the 250 individuals counted in 1994, the number has grown considerably. However, today it is very difficult to calculate the exact population because as their numbers and distribution (see below) have increased considerably, the macaws have saturated Guacalillo and roost in mangroves and new forests, which are very difficult or impossible to access, so we must be guided by the distribution range to measure the increase in the number of individuals. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the actions that have been implemented during these 30 years of conservation work, commented Dr. Vaughan.

Currently, Hotel Punta Leona continues every year planting species that constitute the main food of this species, such as beach almendro, places artificial nests, maintains its environmental education programs in the schools of the Central Pacific, where children are taught through a book on the natural history of the macaw, about its value and the importance of protecting its ecosystem.

Part of the strategy of this conservation program has been to employ local people in tourism to offer them a source of better paid employment. One of them is Wilberth Vargas, who once stole chicks and sold them on the black market. Now he works with Dr. Vaughan, taking advantage of his experience and makes and places artificial nests. “That’s salty money, you sell an animal and it doesn’t pay, so when I worked in Punta Leona and met Christopher, I accepted his offer to make the artificial nests and place them in the trees,” said Wilberth.

According to Dr. Vaughan, retired from the National University and now an honorary professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ¨Wilbert and his son Enrique, in addition to the construction and placement of the artificial nests, have contributed a lot of information about the natural history of the scarlet macaw that helps in our conservation programs”.

Recovery of the Red Macaw distribution in the Central Pacific (1992-2022)

According to the records and Tables 1 and 2, the macaws have been covering much more territory each year than 30 years ago and are now seen in places where they had possibly disappeared many more decades ago. In 1992 the high frequency distribution of the macaw was only in the region of about 194 km2 along the Tárcoles River, with the Carara National Park and the Guacalillo Mangrove Reserve as its main centers. Also, in 1992, it was seen with low frequency to the north and south in an area of about 613 km2. But in 2022 and with the management practiced, its distribution is about 2,338,887 km2 or almost four times what it was in 1992. Currently the macaw is observed in full coexistence with humans, both in wooded areas, as well as on beaches, farms and villages. It is usually observed in and around towns such as Tárcoles, Punta Leona, Bijagual, Orotina, Esparza, Barranca, Puntarenas, Jacó, Parrita, Esterillos, Puriscal, Acosta, San Mateo, Cambronero, among other places.

Currently, it is estimated that about 70 macaws are kept at the Punta Leona Hotel and Club and it is believed that, with their reproductive success, they may be helping to repopulate the Central Pacific scarlet macaw.

Monitoring cameras in artificial nests demonstrate the reproduction cycle to the world.

Also, since 2016, a nest monitoring system was implemented through cameras placed in artificial nests in Punta Leona that transmit 24 hours and can be seen by anyone. Through the cameras, researchers can observe the competition for nests, since many times the macaws must fight with toucans, garrobos and martillas for them. They also see the incubation process that occurs (22-25 days/egg, 3 or 4 eggs) between December and February, the hatching, growth and behavior of the chick (70-80 days) (1 or 2 chicks/nest) until May or June when they leave the nests. “Thanks to the cameras we can see the whole reproduction cycle of the limpet, which is not only of great scientific value, but most importantly, everyone can have access to see it, from the time they lay the egg, hatch, feed, grow and leave the nest. We’ve even observed competition for nests by martillas, porcupines and rainbow toucans and predation of eggs and chicks.

“It’s possible that globally only we do it,” commented Dr. Vaughan. Thousands of hours of filming have yielded extraordinary results, capturing the entire reproductive process of this species. These videos have great educational and scientific value, so the goal has been to share them with the general public through this website, which serves as audiovisual material in the environmental education programs of many schools in the Central Pacific and hopefully in the future at the national level.

The fact that this species in danger of extinction in almost all of its original distribution in about 30 years has shown a high recovery in the Central Pacific demonstrates that something similar could happen in the rest of its national distribution (0-1500 meters in both slopes). With human support and in-situ management, this resilient species is an example of survival in these times of global environmental crisis.

Figure 1 Distribution of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in Central Pacific in 1992

Figure 2 Distribution of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) in the Central Pacific in 2022