– by Jack Ewing
“There used to be so many of them that the branches of the trees would sag with their weight,” commented one old timer. “Some people shot them right out of the trees where they roosted.”
“Why did people shoot them.” I asked.
“Some people did it for the feathers, but mostly it was just for the fun of seeing them fall. I haven’t seen one since the mid 1960s. Now that I think back on it, it seems like they disappeared overnight. It wasn’t a gradual thing. One day everybody noticed that they were gone. Those that escaped the hunters just left.”
Although the man who told me this didn’t mention it, relentless hunting wasn’t the only cause of the disappearance of the scarlet macaws. Habitat loss was at least as important. In the 60s and 70s cattle ranching thrived on the south pacific coast of Costa Rica. The production of beef for export to the fast-food industry in North America was the most important source of income and employment in the zone. It also brought about the mass deforestation that resulted in the disappearance of the tapir, white-lipped peccary, jaguar, and scarlet macaw, among others. In those days wildlife protection laws were lax or non-existent, and the conservation ethic had not yet been born. “Go to the wild lands, cut down the forests,” said the government, “and make the land produce.” And, that’s what the people did.
By 1985 things were starting to change. According the the forestry department, that was the year that deforestation peaked. A number of factors combined to take the big profit out of cattle ranching, and property owners started looking for other ways to use their land. A gradual influx of foreigners interested in acquiring property triggered an upward curve in land prices. Many former ranchers were ready and anxious to sell. The new buyers weren’t interested in raising cows, they wanted to live in a natural environment. Also tourism was on the rise, and tourists wanted to see monkeys and toucans, not cows. Most of the new land owners let the pastures regenerate into secondary forest. In the tropics, when you quit chopping the weeds, the jungle comes back with a vengeance, and that’s what it did.
Additionally the 1980s was the decade when Costa Ricans started worrying about the environment. An environmental movement was born, matured, thrived, and is still going strong today. Locally the organization Amigos de la Naturaleza (ASANA) came into being in 1987, and in 1990 initiated a project to restore habitat and create natural connections between rainforests in the region. It was called the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor PTBC,) and has met with great success. Spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas, and ocelots, as well as many bird species have spread through the corridor. The namesake, the tapir, has been sighted in some areas, as have jaguars.
In 2000 a wildlife rescue center closed its doors and released a number of animals into the wild, among them were 21 scarlet macaws. These semi-domestic macaws have learned the ways of the wild, reproduced, and established themselves in the area around a place called El Silencio, located on the northern end of the PTBC. In the last few years their descendants have been extending their range to the south. At the same time macaws from the Osa Peninsula, to the south of Hacienda Barú, have been migrating northward along the corridor.
When I first came to Hacienda Barú in 1972 the lowlands of Hacienda Barú and a small area of highlands had all been deforested. About 160 hectares of primary forest remained in the higher elevations of the hacienda. In 1979 we began the process of restoring rainforest to the denuded lands. In 1987 we began taking ecological tourists and bird watchers on hikes through the rainforest. In that same year we began listing all of the species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles we sighted and identified. As natural habitat regenerated on in former pastures that list grew until today it contains 366 species of birds, about 40% as many as there are in all of North America. Scarlet macaws are one of the newest additions to the list.
In February of 2011 a group of about 30 of the bright red and blue birds appeared one morning. Many people on Hacienda Barú and the neighboring properties saw them. Since that time the impressive birds have made sporadic appearances in groups of two to four. Sightings by guests and personnel occur about three times each week. Since mid July of 2014 their behavior suggests that they may be scouting out nesting sights. Needless to say we are elated by this news and are keeping our fingers crossed.