we had to work with local communities if we were to be successful in conserving the bird,” says Chassot. PINEAPPLE PROBLEM Costa Rica is the world’s second-largest exporter of pineapples. The billion-dollar monoculture crop comes with issues of environmental degradation and abusive labor practices. The piña plantations are “essentially deserts to wildlife,” says MRN’s Sam Williams. The battle with pineapples is “not a war we are going to win. The money behind pineapples is crazy,” adds Jimenez.
Ornithologist George Powell, who did groundbreaking macaw research from 1994-2000 in Costa Rica, had identified the threat even back then. Chassot summed it up: “If there’s a fruit we don’t eat at home, it’s the pineapple!”
“Costa Rica, despite its green reputation, is the world’s worst polluter in terms of agrochemical use,” notes Sam Williams. Multinationals use approximately 16 pounds of chemicals per acre of pineapple. Other challenges to macaws include cattle ranching and poaching.
Local conservation activist Alex Martinez (a former park ranger in the Sarapiqui region) feels that new research isn’t the priority: buying and conserving the remaining almond trees is. For Martinez, bothering the birds further by tagging them is less crucial than preserving the ever-decreasing habitat.
“It’s important to remember that we (humans) aren’t always the best part of the process,” he says. “Actually, we can interfere with nature’s own ways of restoration and balance.” Habitat preservation, education, and public consciousness are crucial, he argues.
Current political and environmental unrest affecting Costa Rica’s neighbors does not bode well, however. “We’re terrified of what could happen to the birds in places like Honduras and Nicaragua,” says Sam Williams. The massive forest fire in Nicaragua’s Indio-Maiz Biological Reserve in 2018 — and that country’s refusal to accept Costa Rican aid in putting it out — is a case in point.
Still, Chassot is hopeful. In 2001, he and his wife, Guisselle Monge Arias, currently the director of the Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center, worked to establish the transnational San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor. “This is an alliance of local organizations, NGOs, academics, and government agencies that meet to implement conservation and sustainable development projects,” he says. “It is still regarded as a model in Latin America.” A SUBSPECIES ON THE BRINK It’s a brave new world in the dry coastal forests of southern Ecuador, where a group of non-governmental organizations is trying to reestablish a Great Green subspecies population numbering only a few dozen.
38 BirdWatching • March/April 2021
The taxonomic validity of the Ara ambiguus guayaquilensis subspecies has been debated, but its narrower bill, unique habitat, and geographic separation differentiate it from the nominate subspecies, whose range ends in northern Ecuador.
In 2017, Jocotoco Foundation, in partnership with Loro Parque and Fundaciόn Jambeli, started to release captive-raised birds into the wild. Jembeli’s breeding program began with birds taken from zoos and pet owners.
So far, Jocotoco has released Great Greens four times at its Ayampe and Las Balsas reserves in western Ecuador. Nineteen birds have been liberated, and initial reports lend a glimmer of hope; one released bird has been observed nesting with a mate from the wild population.
About one-third of released birds were fitted with GPS collars, allowing Jocotoco to track their movements. The remote mountain habitat of Santa Elena province, where the last wild population exists, isn’t easy to cover. Ayampe is about 50 kilometers north of Las Balsas, and at least one bird has f lown between the two reserves, creating dreams for a “green corridor.”
Ultimately, conservationists would like to link the dry forest of Cerro Blanco, just outside of Guayaquil, to this corridor. It would somehow be fitting if the bird deemed Guayquil’s “emblematic species” in 2005 returns to live there. A local mall is even home to a huge 12-meter statue of the papagayo de Guayaquil, a splendid creation composed of more than 70,000 ceramic tiles.
Community involvement in mountain villages like Gualea, El Pital, and Matapalo — 60 educational visits in all — has definitely saved at least one Ecuadorian Great Green. An individual released in 2017 f lew just 12 km in a torrential downpour and was found on the ground by a family, whose daughter had been part of an educational program about macaws. The family contacted Jocotoco, and the bird was saved. “Previously, it probably would’ve ended up on the illegal market,” says Jocotoco conservation manager Michaël Moens.
Where to see Great Greens in Costa Rica Great Green Macaws populate the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. During our trip, we saw them near Boca Tapada (Maquenque Lodge), Tortuguero National Park, Yatama Lodge near Sarapiqui, and in Manzanillo. You can visit the Ara Manzanillo project for the daily 3 p.m. arrival of a mostly wild flock of Great Greens that come for an afternoon snack. And on the Pacific coast, you can visit Ara’s breeding center at Punta Islita to see a raucous released group of Scarlet Macaws.