Endangered Species

 13th March 2011

It’s the lonely heart of the bird world, pushed to the brink of extinction by human greed and its own choosy habits. As a new film depicts one parrot’s happy search for a mate, Christine Toomey follows the distressing real-life saga of Spix’s macaw

As we twist and turn through a labyrinth of back lanes on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, not far from northern Tenerife’s well-worn tourist track, the two scientists by my side are only half-joking when they say they are trying to disorient me. When I ask the name of the road they become nervous: “You’re not going to print that, are you?” one asks. Rolls of razor wire loop across a tall concrete wall embedded with jagged glass and surrounded with banks of infrared security cameras. Heavy steel gates slide open to reveal huge mesh cages containing some of the rarest creatures on earth. So precious are they, and so great is the fear for their safety, that not one is on public display anywhere in the world.

At first they’re hard to spot among the vegetation. But then, with a flutter of turquoise wings, two exquisite parrots emerge and fly towards us. Meet the Spix’s macaw, the world’s rarest bird. Gram for gram they are worth more than heroin and many precious gems. These parrots, named after the German naturalist who discovered the species, have been hunted to extinction in the wild. The last Spix’s macaw seen in the wild, in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, was dubbed the “world’s loneliest

bird” when it was spotted flying alone through the jungle in 1990. For 10 years it was seen swooping through the trees in a forlorn attempt to find a mate. Despite conservationists’ desperate efforts to pair it with a captive bird released into the wild, the lonely-heart macaw was last seen on October 5, 2000, and after presumed dead.Now the sorry tale has been retold in a multimillion-pound 3-D animation film. Rio has voice-overs by Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg and Will.i.am. Produced by 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, it is the creation of the Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha, 42, whose Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is one of the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time. Mindful of the sensitivities of cinema-goers, Saldanha admits his film is “different from reality — it has a happy ending”.The true story is, as James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, puts it, “a tale of human greed run amok”. There are approximately 85 Spix’s macaws left alive in the world, and most of those are in the private hands of wealthy collectors. Fifty-six are owned by a billionaire sheikh in Qatar, three by a wealthy businessman in Berlin. The nine hidden away at the Loro Parque Foundation in Tenerife are kept there on behalf of the Brazilian government. A few others are in private aviaries, coveted as exotic trophies.

The story of how the Spix’s macaw came to be in such a precarious position is a salutary tale about mankind’s disregard for other species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), roughly one-fifth of the world’s vertebrates are now listed as endangered, including 13% of all bird species.

“Trying to bring a species back from the brink is far more difficult if they have been left to go extinct in the wild,” says David Waugh, director of the Loro Parque Foundation. To appreciate why, you need to know more than you might like to about the sex lives of parrots.

Tony Juniper is the British environmental campaigner who co-led the expedition to track down that last lonely Spix’s macaw. One problem he faced was the difficulty in telling if it was male or female. Like many parrots, Spix’s macaws are “monomorphic”. To the human eye, the sexes appear identical. Parrots, on the other hand, have no trouble identifying each other: they have a broader visual spectrum of colours than humans. For the movie, Saldanha took creative liberties, making the captive male a vibrant blue all over while giving his wild love interest the more accurate colouring of a paler blue-grey head. When the real-life plot was hatched to release the captive bird in the same area of Brazil as the single wild bird, it took lengthy analysis of dropped feathers by scientists at Oxford University to determine that the lonely creature was male.One reason many parrots are monomorphic is that they pair for life, so few need to attract new mates. In captivity they show similar loyalty to humans. This, with the destruction of their habitat, explains why parrots are the most endangered bird family on Earth; of roughly 360 species, only four, including the budgerigar, are not listed as conservationists chose as a potential mate for the last lonely wild male.After being cooped up in a cage for years, the selected female needed an intensive fitness-training programme before she could be released into the area of forest from which she had been snatched. The two birds flew together for just a few months before she flew into an electricity pylon and perished. In the lonely years that followed, the last wild male temporarily teamed up with a smaller green female parrot of an entirely different species. The pair mated, but none of the hybrid eggs survived. Now just a small number of captive Spix’s macaws survive.

So many rumours abounded as to where some are, that when a pet owner made a call to a vet in Denver, Colorado in 2002 requesting help for a “Spix’s macaw”, it was dismissed as a hoax. The woman, whose identity has never been revealed, was asked to take a picture of the parrot posing alongside that day’s newspaper before specialists would believe her. When a vet went to the owner’s house, she found the parrot pining and listless.The woman had named her pet Presley after the singer’s blue suede shoes. He was in a sorry state. The perches of his cage were so wide that he had been forced to stand flat on his feet, so his legs were weak and his balance poor. Fed on an inadequate diet of commercial pellets, he was bad-tempered and difficult to bathe, his feathers were in bad shape and his beak misshapen. He no longer remembered how to fly. Presley’s owner, who told authorities the bird had been left with her in the late 1970s, had no idea how old he was. (Parrots can live for 50-60 years.)

Presley’s discovery caused quite a storm in avian circles. Despite his poor health, he was hailed as a welcome addition to a breeding programme set up in 1990 eventually incorporating all known birds of the species, even those in private hands. Many were related through having been bred in captivity; Presley constituted “fresh blood”. Hopes were high that he would breed with a captive female.

So Presley was bundled into a cage, tucked under the arm of a Brazilian conservationist, and flown back to his native land. After some debate he was paired with a female at a privately run parrot-breeding centre near Sao Paulo. Press reports about Presley being flown back to Brazil helped fire Saldanha’s imagination.

“I found it really touching. The sad truth is that many birds become so domesticated they can never be returned to the wild,” he says. His animated hero fares better. Saldanha portrays the male lead, Blu, eventually flying off into the blue yonder with his newfound female friend to procreate discreetly.In real life Presley wasn’t so lucky. Optimism about his sexual prowess proved unfounded. His advanced years were no obstacle, but he couldn’t get it on. Or rather, he couldn’t get on and stay on. Parrots don’t have penises, so they must perform a delicate balancing act to ensure their semen is deposited in exactly the right place to fertilise a female’s egg. Unused to flying, Presley couldn’t extend his wings enough to stay in the right place.The frustrated breeders eventually gave up and paired him with a parrot of a different species for company. Recent visitors to the breeding centre where he is kept — the Lymington Foundation near Sao Paulo — say he appears “cranky”. Some experts have advocated storing his genetic material so that his genes could be passed on by artificial insemination, or by cloning if it became possible to clone birds. But this is where politics, ego and human pride come into play.

“The problem is that the Spix’s macaw is probably the most politically contentious bird that ever existed,” Waugh explains. Although there are only five Spix’s macaws left in Brazil, including Presley and two pairs at a facility attached to Sao Paulo Zoo, all decisions regarding the breeding of the remaining known birds have to be approved by an international committee — called the Working Group for the Recovery of the Spix’s Macaw — overseen by an environmental division of the Brazilian government.”As far as some politicians are concerned, the Spix’s macaw is part of the natural patrimony of Brazil,” says Waugh, whose foundation handed ownership of its birds back to their native country on the understanding that it continue to breed them at the Tenerife facility. In the past, co-operation totally broke down, with acrimony between private owners sinking the survival of the species into grave doubt.In 2002 the original committee set up to oversee the breeding was dissolved by the Brazilian government when Wolfgang Kiessling, the German founder/owner of Loro Parque, and others became outraged over the unauthorised “transfer” of four parrots from a private breeder in the Philippines to Sheikh Saoud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of the ruling family of Qatar. Speculation was rife that vast sums of money had changed hands.

Sheikh Al-Thani is an avid collector renowned for paying handsomely to own the rarest of the rare; in 2000 he is reported to have paid nearly $9m for a hand-illustrated copy of Audubon’s Birds of America — more than double the sum auctioneers estimated the book would fetch. A passionate nature-lover, the sheikh runs a state-of-the-art breeding centre, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation, on a “farm” of 2.5 square kilometres where he keeps rare Arabian oryx, cheetahs and other endangered species.Al-Thani displays a picture of himself with two Spix’s macaws perched on his arm on Al Wabra’s home page. The provenance of some of the 53 birds of the species he now owns is unclear. Kiessling claims the sheikh came to see him in the late 1990s in Tenerife, claiming he had been visited by a man from Pakistan who had thrown a hessian sack onto a table in front of him containing 11 blue parrots of another protected and extremely rare species, the Lear’s macaw. Kiessling claims the sheikh wanted to know how these birds could be “legalised”.

After the Spix’s macaw breeding committee was dissolved in 2002, the US holder of the official stud book, which records the genetic details and pairings of all known birds, withdrew from the breeding programme without passing on details crucial to its success. It took several years before the committee was reconvened under a different name and a new stud-book keeper — working for the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation — was appointed so the official breeding programme could get back on track. Now, when a potential breeding match between two of the parrots is determined, birds are flown back and forth across continents in an effort to get them to bond. “They’re very choosy,” says Waugh. In the past 18 years Loro Parque has managed to breed just six chicks.Conservationists say no further attempts will be made to release Spix’s macaws into the wild until the captive population has risen to around 150. But for Yara Barros, the Brazilian co-ordinator of the breeding programme, the real problem is private collectors who keep the birds illegally. “It’s a disgrace. With such a small population, every single bird is essential to the programme.”

For those who have bought birds in contravention of the ban — some are known to be in Switzerland, others are rumoured to be in the Czech Republic and Russia — “it’s a bit like having a stolen Matisse,” says Waugh. “You can only show it off to a select group of people.”According to both Interpol and Cites, the networks trading rare animals are sophisticated. “It’s an evil but lucrative trade,” says John Sellar, chief enforcement officer for Cites. “In many cases it’s the soft underbelly of organised crime.” In South America smuggling wildlife is a popular sideline for drugs barons seeking to diversify.

Sellar argues for more resources, pointing out that a major-league criminal dealing in, say, people-trafficking could potentially be brought to justice for the lesser offence of smuggling a parrot. Yet the annual budget of the Cites enforcement department is just $5m, its global staff just 23. “Wildlife and environmental crime is simply not a priority for most governments,” agrees David Higgins, head of Interpol’s environmental crime programme.In an effort to get tougher on wildlife crime, last year Cites, Interpol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Customs Organization and the World Bank set up a consortium targeting the illegal trade by bringing more stringent legislation to bear on it, such as that applied to money-laundering or racketeering. It faces an uphill struggle. In one central African country, which Sellar refuses to name, the maximum penalty for any type of wildlife crime is just $10.

Here, the penalties are far higher. Last summer an international egg smuggler was sentenced to 30 months in jail after being caught at Birmingham airport with 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs which could fetch up to £70,000 strapped to his body. Jeffrey Lendrum admitted he was planning to sell the eggs to a wealthy Arab in Dubai, where falconry is a national sport. Bird smuggling in most European countries dropped significantly with the 2005 EU import ban on almost all birds caught in the wild, prompted by the outbreak of avian flu. Before it came into force, every year about 1m wild birds were imported into EU countries, this legal trade providing cover for illegal smuggling operations. Now bird-smuggling has shifted to the Far East, says Richard Thomas of Traffic, the wildlife trade-monitoring network. There, the newly affluent covet, and will pay high prices for, trophy birds.Our widespread destruction of unique habitats such as rainforests accounts for many recent extinctions. As we spend billions of dollars searching for evidence of life on other planets, the superabundance of what we have on Earth is being frittered away, says Nigel Collar of Birdlife International. “Within our lifetimes the natural world will have shrunk by a greater amount than any human before us has witnessed.”

Yet there is some room for optimism, according to Michael Hoffman, senior scientific officer at the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission. “We have evidence that we can not only prevent extinctions but actually engineer recoveries.” He cites a 2006 study listing 16 bird species, such as the iconic Californian condor, that would have gone extinct between 1994 and 2004 were it not for conservation efforts. The Spix’s macaw was not on the list. Its fate still hangs in the balance.

If the holders of the remaining Spix’s macaws co-operate, the species could yet be brought back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced into the wild, as happens in Saldanha’s film.

“Let’s keep hoping one of these programmes works out,” says the director of Rio, who wants to stage special screenings of the film to help fund conservation efforts. “Because it doesn’t just depend on the birds being bred, it also depends on creating special protected areas where they can be safe when they are returned. I touch on that in my story.” He describes his film as a labour of love. “If people walk away from it with more awareness of the problems of nature, that would be great. I always wanted the story of the Spix’s macaw to turn out right.”