The Red--fronted Macaw A Conservation Priority (Part I)


Conservation efforts today are most often directed at protecting and preserving, as much as possible, large areas that contain intact ecosystems. Declining numbers of dramatic animal species often serve to draw attention to a particular area and direct the public and scientists alike to the need for protection or concern. All the plants and animals inhabiting such an area benefit from the protection. Some species are naturally restricted in their distribution, either because their preferred habitat is naturally limited or distributed in patches or because theyoccupya habitat that has been heavily used and altered by people for a long time. These species often decline and almost disappear before their plight comes to anyone's attention. The Redfronted Macaw Ara rubrogenys and its strange, desertic environment in Bolivia are such a species and such a place.

Injune, 1994, we were asked by AFA to investigate the potential for initiating a study of the Red-fronted Macaw in Bolivia as part of the AFA's conservation efforts. In a two-part series of articles, we will introduce the Red-fronted Macaw and what is known about its natural history to those who may not be familiar with this spectacular bird, and also describe some of the conservation concerns connected with it.

Identifying conservation priorities for an endangered or threatened species involves looking at the problem from various perspectives. Some things to be considered are habitat requirements, past and present distribution, and population size. In Bolivia, as in many tropical countries, the wet forests have, until recently, escaped heavy usage by man be-


cause heavy rainfall and flooding make life and work difficult. In Bolivia, immense mineral resources have also helped deflect development from the timber of the forests. Compared with humid forests of all kinds, tropical dry forests everywhere have always been more heavily populated, and cleared and used for agriculture and livestock since before the coming of the Spanish. In modern times, with expanding human populations and world beef markets, dry forest areas have been even more extensively exploited. The plants and animals of these little known and little appreciated areas have often diminished and sometimes disappeared while the world's attention was drawn to the plight of seemingly more dramatic places and species.

So how does this apply to the Redfronted Macaw? An initial part of our mission during this exploratory trip to Bolivia was to find the places, the people and the publications dealing with this species. We found that like the bird itself, the publications, mostly in the form of reports (* see list at end of article), were sparse. If you refer to Forshaw's 1973 PARROTS OF THE WORLD, you will find that he reports that the Red-fronted Macaw is one of the least known of all South American parrots, that there is no published information about its habits, and that as late as 1970 it was thought to occupy forest! In the intervening 24 years only a little more has come to light.

Despite reading various reports about the habitat of the Red-fronted Macaw and descriptions of its appearance, we were not really prepared for our first


sight of these birds in the wild. The description of a "pale, olive-green bird with red on the forehead, crown, spot behind the eye and thighs; greyish blue on wings and tip of tail and pinkish facial skin traversed by blackish-brown lines of small feathers" did not come close to what we saw. In the afternoon sunlight flooding a dry, interandean valley our first flock of macaws took us all by surprise. Nine birds suddenly appeared overhead calling loudly and flying fairly closely together. They seemed to glow as they sailed along overhead showing us flashing patches of brilliant, fiery red-orange contrasting with the blue of the wings and tail and the soft green of their bodies. It was a truly exciting moment for us all. Later we would see several other groups, but none presented themselves quite as spectacularly as the first ones with the sun highlighting their beautiful colors. Wow, what a great bird--certainly a species deserving of a better outlook for the future than it is currently offered!

Actually, there are a number of conservation organizations in Bolivia interested and concerned with the species and trying to promote research. They are hampered by limited research forces and funds spread thinly over many conservation concerns. Two of these conservation groups, the Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (F.A.N.) and Armonia (Harmony, a bird conservation group) are located in the Department (State) of Santa Cruz, an area where there are some populations of this macaw. These two organizations were extremely helpful by putting us in contact with local people already involved in working with the macaw as well as providing us with copies oflittle known and unpublished reports and censuses.

These censuses indicate that the existing population of wild birds may be quite low (one census indicates as low as 1000 birds). They also offer the hope that because only a few areas have been carefully examined that a larger population may be revealed by expanded and intensified research efforts.

So what will it take to determine approximately how many birds are out there? A quick visit to the species' preferred environment will give you a clue. First let us look at Bolivia, country of 1,098,581 square kilometers but with a population of less than 7 million! Most of the people are concentrated where agriculture, industry or major cities exist.




"Boussekey, M., ]. Saint-Pie, and 0. Morvan. 1991. Observations on a population of the Red-fronted Macaws Ara rubrogenys in the Rio Caine valley, central Bolivia Bird Conservation International 1 :335-350.

"Clarke, R., and E. Duran P. 1991 STATUS REPORT: The Red-fronted Macaw (Ara rubrogenys) in Bolivia: distribution, abundance, biology, and conservation. Unpublished report to Wildlife Conservation International (NYZP) and the International Council for Bird Preservation (JCBP).

Forshaw, J.M. 1973. Parrots of the World.

Lansdowne Press. Melbourne, Australia. Pp. 367-368.

Lanning D. 1982. Survey of the Red-fronted Macaw Ara rubrogenys and Caninde Macaw Ara Caninde in Bolivia, December 1981 - March 1982. Unpublished report to New York Zoological Society and International Council for Bird Preservation.

*Ridgely, RS. 1981. The current distribution and status of mainland neotropical parrots. Pp. 223-384 in Pasquier, R.F., Ed. Conservation of New World Parrots, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press for the International Council for Bird Preservation (Techn. Publ. 1).

*Copies of these unpublished reports are available as part of our report filed with the AFA.