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The Scarlet Macaw in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Region: A Story of Community Participation and Conservation

CRISIS - Mass Extinction by Laura Elizondo Americas Jun 15th 20236 mins
The Scarlet Macaw in Costa Rica’s Central Pacific Region: A Story of Community Participation and Conservation

The Scarlet Macaw used to be found in around 85% of Costa Rica’s territory. Today, only two populations are viable, and one has local scientists, a beach hotel, and people’s determination to thank for. Can this example help other species’ populations around the world to recover?  

What Happened to the Scarlet Macaw?

It is not uncommon to see a couple of Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) flying over the town of Jacó in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica. Even less unusual is to see them in flocks, enjoying local Hotel Punta Leona’s surrounding forests, one of the protagonists of this story. With its red, blue and yellow plumage and its boisterous personality, the Scarlet Macaw is a majestic spectacle to behold. Tourists and locals alike cherish the sightings, which paint a vibrant and colourful picture against the blue summer sky and stand out from the deep green of the rainforest. But it wasn’t always like this in the region. There was a time when it was thought the Scarlet Macaw population in the Central Pacific was destined to become extinct. 

In the early 1990s, after a series of preliminary counts, a group of scientists concluded that the population would be heading toward extinction in a matter of decades. It was calculated that the region was losing eight to ten macaws per year. The news immediately worried biologists, including Dr. Christopher Vaughan, a scientist studying the Scarlet Macaw since 1990 as part of Costa Rica’s National University Regional Program in Wildlife Management. 

Through information gathered from the locals, Vaughan discovered more about the population’s presence in the area, learning that in some locations where it used to be more commonly spotted, the Scarlet Macaw was beginning to disappear. The change in population became even more evident after five years of monitoring the macaws’ behaviour and its changing habitat as well as counting specimens regularly demonstrating a rapid decrease in macaw chick numbers. All this confirmed its imminent endangerment. 

The decrease in numbers could be mainly blamed on the raiding of nests by local poachers – or ‘laperos’ (‘lapa’ means macaw in Spanish) – who stole them and sold them as exotic pets. It was a very lucrative practice, considering that a macaw chick can be worth between US$300-400. Deforestation was also an important factor, as the trees for nesting and feeding became scarce due to human activity. 

You might also like: How Costa Rica Reversed Deforestation and Became an Environmental Model

Conservation Efforts

In October of 1994 and with this dire outlook in sight, Dr. Vaughan and Guillermo Hernández, a local community leader, organised a workshop on the conservation of the Scarlet Macaw in the Hotel and Club Punta Leona, where the macaws’ presence was widely reported. Developed with the support of the hotel’s owner Architect Eugenio Gordienko, this activity was the first step towards conservation and in situ management (habitat, humans and macaws), gathering 15 attendees including community leaders, local businessmen, some of the hotel’s employees, teachers, scientists, a park ranger from nearby Carara National Park, and even two local “laperos”.

The workshop contributed not only to raising awareness among the community about the disappearing animal but also resulted in proposing tangible solutions and actions to stop the macaw population’s decline. 

After two days of discussing ideas, the group concluded that the main issues were the need for more education about the Scarlet Macaw amongst local communities, to find a way to stop the poaching of nests, and to put a halt to deforestation and habitat destruction. Implementing educational campaigns at local schools and reinforcing institutional capacity to protect nests and the recuperation of the habitat were among the actions decided to protect the species.

The workshop was so successful that attendees decided to set up the Association for Parrot Protection (in Spanish ‘La Asociación para la Protección de los Psitacidos’ or ‘LAPPA’), an organisation responsible for carrying out the thought-out solutions.

Integrated by locals from different towns in the Central Pacific, the association’s main objective was to lead conservation efforts for the Scarlet Macaw and to use the species in the betterment of the quality of life for the region’s inhabitants. An increase in the local Macaw population would help ensure the sustainability of the species and bring economic growth and the promotion of the region as a tourist destination, all the while generating social and environmental prosperity for these communities. 

The organisation became a pillar for the conservation of the local macaws, getting hands-on in monitoring the population, protecting the more reachable nests against poachers, and making artificial nest boxes to help the specimens go through their reproductive cycle. Additionally, LAPPA started to disseminate information about the Scarlet Macaw, putting together workshops and discussions at community centres, and giving talks to employees of Hotel Punta Leona, university students, and journalists. Along the same line, Prof. Vaughan and his team have been actively reporting and documenting ever since the project began. Not only have they published several articles on the subject but they have also received media coverage on local papers throughout the years, a move that helped further raise awareness about the issue among the community. 

LAPPA focused on creating programmes for primary school children designed in a way that allows them to learn about the Scarlet Macaw and share their newfound knowledge with their parents and community. Children were given a colouring book to aid in this process and, at the school of Quebrada Ganado, they even made a theatre play about a family of Scarlet Macaws led by teacher Humberto Solórzano, attendee to the first workshop and brilliant educator on the subject. It is estimated that at least 3300 students in 30 different schools took part in these courses. Furthermore, a well-known “lapero”, Mr. Wilberth Vargas, converted into an exemplary defender of the species, giving talks recounting his change of heart and using his knowledge of Macaws and their nests to build and install artificial ones.

Hotel Punta Leona also contributed enormously to the conservation of the Scarlet Macaw and LAPPA’s actions of preservation, playing a key role since the beginning through a collaborative agreement with Costa Rica’s National University. Among other actions, the hotel reforested its land with the tree species favoured by Macaws for feeding and nesting and began a tree nursery for the communities to source trees to plant. Likewise, in Punta Leona’s forests, artificial nests were also put in place. In 2016, Dr. Vaughan and his team installed cameras in various nests to monitor the birds’ activities and learn more about the bird’s reproductive cycle, helping scientists better understand them and educating people about their habits. 

Since the programme was launched, the Scarlet Macaw population in the Central Pacific region has increased by almost 50%, consisting of 687 individuals in 2022 from the 300 counted in 1994. LAPPA’s efforts bore fruit and through its educational programmes, the region’s residents have grown more conscious about the importance of the Scarlet Macaw as a species to the ecosystem. Moreover, with the rise in popularity of ecotourism, local residents are even more mindful now about the significance of the Macaw population for the socioeconomic development of their communities.

Successful initiatives like this one demonstrate that the involvement of different actors in society can really make a difference. Scientists and specialists alone cannot preserve or bring back a species. It is only through assertive communication, with the provision of comprehensive information and the encouragement for people’s active participation, that outcomes such as these can be achieved. 

Today, the Scarlet Macaw flies free across the Central Pacific sky in Costa Rica; hopefully, in the future, it will be possible to see it go back to other regions of the country. But more than anything, it is hoped that more people will learn from this successful conservation story, and other species will benefit from communities’ active participation and collaboration. After all, environmental health also leads to social well-being.

Featured image: Zdeněk Macháček on Unsplash

You might also like: Biodiversity Is More at Risk Than Ever Before. Here’s How We Change Course.

About the Author

Laura Elizondo

Laura is a professor of environmental law at the University of Costa Rica. She has a master’s degree in environmental law from said university and an LLM in energy and natural resources law from Queen Mary University of London. A firm believer in the democratisation of knowledge, she writes to convey information about environmental matters in the best way possible for everyone. Some of Laura’s topics of interest are public participation, access to information, the climate crisis, energy justice, nature-based solutions, soils’ carbon-capture potential, rewilding and regenerative farming.

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