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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Review: Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird

"This bird was like a Rembrandt or a Picasso.  Yet unlike a painting by a great master, this bird was a temporary treasure.  One day he would day, his value would be gone, and another would be demanded to replace him.”

As a member of the international Council for Bird Preservation, Tony Juniper was charged with leading efforts to save the most endangered group of birds – the parrots.  Among his top priorities were the three living species f blue macaws.  Highest among them was the parrot that many people considered the rarest species of bird on the planet – Spix’s macaw.

Spix’s macaw, named after the nineteenth century Bavarian scientist who collected the first specimen, is (or was) found only in the caatinga forests of eastern Brazil.  Not much of the story takes place there, however, because that’s not where the birds are anymore.  Almost all of the wild birds had been captured and sold, scattered across several countries on several continents, most in the possession of private breeders or collectors.   I saw “almost all” because one lone male remained, a wily, cagey remnant of a species that once flew proudly over the caatinga.

Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird is actually two stories.  One is the story of the lone macaw.  The other is the story of those birds scattered across the globe, the people who own them, and the efforts of a few conservationists to bring them all together to save the species. 

Owning a Spix’s macaw is, in the case of almost all of the owners, something that began with an illegal act.  Birds were illegally captured and smuggled out of Brazil, with huge sums of money trading hands.  The author makes his position plain that he doesn’t like it.  There is also a realization that that is where the macaws are now and, with full legal confiscation being unlikely (as well as potentially unwise, seeing as no one knew how many Spix’s macaws were also being held in unknown hands), that these were people who would need to work conservation organizations and governments to save the parrot.  In the end, a full amnesty was declared, and efforts were made to bring all of the parrot-owning parties together to form a last-ditch captive breeding program to save the species.

It’s easier said than done.  Most of the private owners who held Spix’s macaws had paid vast sums for their birds and were hesitant, to say the least, to let their birds in the hands of other people, especially rival collectors.  There was a fair deal of mistrust over who was in control over the program.  The Brazilian government, which claimed ownership – but not possession – of the birds?  Loro Parque, the Spanish zoo which was bankrolling the recovery program, including the field conservation project?  Or the owners of the individual birds, who were doing the actual breeding?  Some of the later apparently never found themselves bond by the agreements they made either to the government or the zoos and sold their birds or traded them as they would.

Spix’s Macaw raises interesting questions about private ownership and how it can contribute to, or detract from, conservation efforts.  It doesn’t take the lazy approach and paint those who seek to possess Spix’s macaws simply as villains, but as the complicated characters that they are.  At the end of the book, he has an exchange with one former owner, one who actually served some prison time for bird smuggling.  This man was in tears – tears – of frustration because he felt that he was on the course of action which would have saved these macaws from extinction, and felt thwarted by government rules and regulations.

Besides the story of Spix’s macaw and the people trying to save it, Juniper’s book offers a brief but interesting history of humanity’s relationship with parrots.  It also provides a great overview of studbooks and species survival plans in zoos, describing how they have been used to save species from extinction.
Mostly, however, it’s the story of a blue parrot, probably unknown to the vast majority of world, but ravenously coveted by the small number who do know of it.  How the fate of Spix’s macaw rests at the end of the book is a secret I won’t spoil.   What happens next is yet to be seen…,204,203,200_.jpg

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