Spix' Aras

La Porte du Ciel

Spix' Aras

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Sunday 24 June 2018 is a historic day for the preservation of biodiversity on a global scale. Even more so for the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), a blue parrot native to the Sao Francisco River Valley (Brazil) which has been officially extinct in the wild since 2000. A Memorandum of Understanding signed today at Pairi Daiza announced the reintroduction of this species into its natural habitat in South America. A world first for any animal species, expected to be achieved in 2019/2020.

 

Four signatories for a historic partnership:

• Mr Edson Duarte, Brazilian Minister for the Environment,

• Mr Martin Guth, President of the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP e.V, Berlin, Germany),

• Mr Ricardo Soavinski, President of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio, Brasilia, Brazil),

• Mr Eric Domb, President of the Pairi Daiza Foundation (Brugelette, Belgium).

 

Five goals for a world first:

• Present the Spix’s macaws to the citizens of the world at Pairi Daiza,

• Create a Spix’s macaw Conservation and Reproduction Centre at Pairi Daiza,

• Restore and protect Spix’s macaw’s natural habitat in Caatinga (Brazil),

• Construct and run a breeding and reintroduction centre in Brazil to gently and progressively return Spix’s macaws into their natural habitat,

• Reintroduction of the Spix’s macaw into Nature.

The story of the Spix’s Macaw : Hunted for decades, Saved by bird lovers

Few have had the chance to come close to, watch or listen to the song of the Spix’s macaw. Even though we’ve all seen them in films or on television thanks to 20th Century Fox’s «Rio» animated films (Blu and Jewel, the heroes of these films, are Spix’s macaws hunted down and on the brink of extinction - the screenwriters were inspired by the macaws’ real life story), the general public only very rarely get to see living specimens. Until this Sunday, only Singapore Zoo had a single couple to show its visitors. From today, Pairi Daiza will share this immense, unique honour and will be able to present to its visitors four Spix’s macaws in a specially constructed aviary in the Jardin des Mondes.

Discovered by the German naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix in 1819, the Spix’s macaw is a relatively small (between 50 and 60 centimetres), light (less than 400 grams) parrot that can be recognised by its grey/blue plumage, with light blue circles around its eyes and a white line on its beak. It lives (or lived, as is currently the case...) in the Caatinga, an arid semi-desert with its niche riverine creek forested habitat of north-eastern Brazil. Johann von Spix said Spix’s were seen in small numbers compared to other species, suggesting a 300 year decline most likely due to the habitat destruction (due to farming in the region). 2 siting’s in 1903, 4 in 1984, 2 left in 1987, 2 in 1995 (due to the release of a female). Since 2000, there are no more Spix’s macaws in the wild!

For decades, the Spix’s macaw will see its population inexorably decline. As is so often the case, man has long hunted them as ornamental pets and slowly destroyed its natural habitat by turning areas of riverside forest into farmland. In the mid-seventies, it was already estimated that there were only around 60 Spix’s macaws still living in the wild. A few years later, in 1984, a census reported only finding four wild Spix’s macaws. With that the bird’s existence was so tenuous that the announcement of its complete extinction was only a matter of time. It finally died out in 1989, when experts announced that the last specimens had been “caught” by poachers attracted by the tens of thousands of dollars the surviving birds could fetch when sold... The “wild” Spix’s macaw was no more. It had a brief last hurrah, when a male reappeared miraculously in 1990, spotted in Caatinga. The scientific community then tries to find it a companion, hoping to reform a breeding pair. The previous wild caught female, thought to be the wild males partner was found and made available to the scientific community to let the bird return to the wild in 1995. But the romance between the two parrots was not to last.

The male, who had in the meantime fallen for a female macaw of another species, met and joined up with the new Spix’s and the united team brought hope to the world. Unfortunately the female returned to the wild disappeared a few months later, supposedly the victim of a collision with overhead power lines. And the male alone once again, soared the skies for a few more years, till in October 2000 he  disappeared and was never seen again. The species was officially declared extinct in the wild for the second time.

A captive population was collected in Qatar and then in Germany

Early 2000s. The situation could hardly be more critical for the Spix’s macaw. Having disappeared from the wild, only a few individual birds remained, poached and locked up in private homes, often in secret. Few still hoped to save the species from complete disappearance from the face of planet. One man, however, still believed and took up the challenge of rescuing these macaws: Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani, former Minister of Arts and Culture of Qatar and owner of a centre for the preservation of threatened species, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP) in Doha. Surrounded by eminent zoologists (including Tim Bouts, Pairi Daiza’s zoological director), this bird lover set out on a peaceful hunt for macaws locked away in private facilities across the globe. His aim: to convince their owners to entrust their birds to him in order to save the species. Patiently, for many years, one collection of Spix’s macaws at a time, he formed a family of the last survivors in one place.

After a few months he had 4 birds. By 2004 he had several dozen. And 120 by 2018, including many young birds born in Qatar thanks to the breeding programmes that were put in place. These macaws were never to be shown to the public, Singapore Zoo having only been allowed to host two (one from ACTP and one from AWWP) to be shown to its visitors. Upon his death in 2014, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani’s children expressed their desire to continue the dream of their father and see the Spix’s macaw flying free in its natural habitat in Brazil. With circumstances beyond their control, the family made the tough, but right decision to entrust the last Spix’s macaws on the planet to other bird lovers with the mission to, one day, restore the blue parrots to their natural home. ACTP (Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots), based in Berlin (Germany) was the facility to be entrusted with this amazing gesture of confidence and trust. ACTP has had and successfully bred Spix’s macaws for many years before the arrival of the birds from Al Wabra, and it was the history of collaboration between these 2 institutions and common goal that brought about the trust needed to ensure this move could take place. Surrounded by the best parrot experts, housed in the best facilities possible, the macaws have since continued to develop. Today, more than 140 individuals live there. They are also 11 birds in a Brazilian government partner facility in Brazil, the 2 in Singapore and 4 at Pairi Daiza.The last of their kind in the world.

United for a world first goal: reintroducing the Spix’s macaw to the wild

Thanks to the efforts of the Brazilian authorities, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation (AWWP), Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP), Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) and Pairi Daiza Foundation, the Spix’s macaw is about to be released back into the wild. It is hoped that a large enough bird population will become re-established in its protected natural habitat to ensure the species’ survival and development in an ecosystem where it should never have vanished.

If it succeeds, the project will be a world first, since an extinct animal species has never before been reintroduced to the wild. To that end, the signatory partners of the Memorandum of Understanding for the conservation, protection and reintroduction of the Spix’s macaw have undertaken to pool their expertise, teams and financial resources with the sole aim of seeing the blue macaw re-establish its territory as soon as possible, with the assurance that it can thrive there and rebuild a stable and permanent population.

 

Six concrete measures have been announced and/or have already been completed.

 

1. Creation of a conservation and breeding facility for the Spix’s macaw in the Jardin des Mondes at Pairi Daiza. The Pairi Daiza Foundation is committed to building and managing the world’s second conservation and breeding facility for the Spix’s macaw at the Jardin des Mondes in Brugelette, based on the one at ACTP (Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots) in Berlin. The facility will be home to several pairs of Spix’s macaws transferred from ACTP. Every effort will be made to ensure that any young born in Pairi Daiza can be released in their natural habitat in Brazil.

 

2.Spix’s macaws exhibited to the public by the Pairi Daiza Foundation. The ACTP has sent the Pairi Daiza Foundation four young Spix’s macaws, which will be on show to the public. This rare exhibit (previously only one pair of Spix’s macaws could be seen anywhere in the world, at Singapore Zoo) should raise public awareness of both the severe threat to this endangered species and the scheme set up by the signatories to reintroduce it to its natural habitat. With the help of ACTP, the Pairi Daiza Foundation has built a new aviary to house these extraordinary birds. A team of keepers has been specially trained by ACTP experts to look after them. 

 

3.Creation of nature reserves in Brazil. In preparation for the return of the Spix’s macaws to their natural habitat, the Brazilian authorities have announced the creation of two “nature reserves” in the Caatinga (north-east Brazil), which will be carefully managed to ensure that the released birds have the best chance of survival. The nature reserves and accompanying safeguards (such as habitat and species protection) are a prerequisite for the reintroduction of the species.

 

4.Opening of a rehabilitation, breeding and reintroduction facility in Brazil. Reintroducing animals that were born in captivity to the wild is a lengthy and difficult process. Animals must always be prepared for their release gradually and in stages. It can take several months before they are fully returned to the wild. To facilitate and prepare for the return of the Spix’s macaw, the Brazilian authorities decided to build a facility for the rehabilitation and reintroduction of the Spix’s macaw in situ. This facility will be paid for by the Pairi Daiza Foundation. The Pairi Daiza Foundation will give his name at the facility.

 

5.Release of the first Spix’s macaws. Once the rehabilitation and reintroduction facility has been set up in Brazil, the Spix’s macaws can start to be released into the nature reserves created by the Brazilian government. This will initially involve several dozen macaws born at the ACTP facility in Germany. The shipment of these birds will be funded jointly by ACTP and the Pairi Daiza Foundation.

 

6.Long-term release programme for the Spix’s macaw. The release programme for the Spix’s macaws will extend beyond the initial “releases” in 2019/2020. To ensure that the project is an undeniable success, the partners are planning to release more birds every year until the ornithological population is strong and stable enough to ensure the survival of the species in its natural habitat. More than ten Spix’s macaws are expected to be released each year. The birds will be born at the ACTP facility in Berlin or at the Pairi Daiza Foundation facility in Belgium.

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