Meet the Brave Bodyguards Protecting Belize’s Scarlet Macaws From Poachers

To keep macaw chicks safe, a team of rangers spends night and day watching over the birds’ nests and homes.

The Scarlet Macaw’s last, best defense against wildlife poachers doesn’t look like much: just a ramshackle collection of tarps, makeshift tables, plastic five-gallon buckets, jungle hammocks, and a cook fire, hidden in the dense understory of a tropical hardwood forest near the fraught and uncomfortably porous border between Belize and Guatemala.

It’s taken us hours to get here—the first leg an overland journey from San Ignacio in the Cayo District of western Belize, haggling our way through military and ranger checkpoints and bumping over red dirt roads that are more rock and ravine than actual thoroughfares. But reaching the banks of the Macal River was merely the first step.

The trip upriver took us another hour or so, the labored whine of the skiff’s outboard motor following us as we passed hundreds of drowned trees jutting skyward from the water and verdant riverbanks. Egrets, cormorants, and Anhingas eyed us suspiciously while a Double-toothed Kite wheeled overhead. The water was glassy flat, the current so sluggish that the river seems caught in stasis. At one point, Roni Martinez, a Belizean bird guide and one of two founders of Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team, pointed out a tapir on the far bank. At first it looked like any other dead log—and then it lumbered up the incline and disappeared into the forest. (Editor's note: Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team changed its name to Belize Bird Conservancy after this issue of Audubon magazine went to print.)

Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team is a group of roughly a dozen conservation-minded Belizeans (and one American) who are bent on protecting Belize’s Scarlet Macaw from the illegal pet trade. To deter poachers—and monitor the nests for productivity data—the Scarlet Six rangers set up camps in the Chiquibul Forest, right under the trees where macaws nest. There they live for the five months of chick-rearing season, roughly late April through September. If it sounds slightly nuts, it’s because it is—one of the purest distillations of brute-force conservation imaginable. But apparently it’s also not nuts, because it works: Macaw nests are no longer being poached in the areas where the rangers roost.

In an age when remote-sensing, using drone-captured footage and satellite mapping, demarcates the bleeding edge of conservation, it struck me as delightfully counterintuitive when I first got wind of Scarlet Six’s efforts and the accompanying notion that sometimes the metaphorical elbow grease of sleeping rough is still the best way to get the job done. So I finagled my way into a trip to the Chiquibul to see what it’s like to be a Scarlet Six ranger and to investigate how a project like this is actually sustainable over the long haul.

And, well, let’s be honest. I also swung this trip for the unbridled romance of seeing Scarlet Macaws in the wild; I will not be happy until I do.

One of the largest parrots in the world, the Scarlet Macaw is two-plus pounds and nearly 40 inches tip-to-tail of crimson-gold-azure glory. It’s also a fussbudget, only nesting in the cavities of trees (quamwood, ceiba, pine, and others) that are within 200 yards of a riverbank. The adult birds spend their days flying in pairs around the forest, screeching and feeding on fruits and nuts. It’s rare to see a single Scarlet Macaw; instead they congregate in twos, fours, and sixes, in the tops of trees along the river. Macaw pairs usually lay a clutch of two to four eggs. After hatching, only two chicks ultimately survive. The chicks hunker down in their dark cave-like nest, 60 to 75 feet up a tree, for around three months until they fledge, during which time they eat, sleep, and squawk at anything and anyone who will listen.

The macaw’s range spans southern Mexico to Bolivia. On the whole, the Scarlet Macaw population is declining, but the species is not yet considered threatened. One subspecies of Scarlet Macaw, however, is in deep trouble. Due to poaching and rampant deforestation, Ara macao cyanoptera now only exists in a few small populations in southern Mexico and the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, in Honduras and Nicaragua—and one completely isolated population of approximately 250 birds in Belize. Without dedicated conservation and captive-rearing programs in these places, it’s highly likely that this subspecies could become extinct.

The Belizean population served as the focus of the 2008 book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw, which chronicled the doomed fight against the construction of the Chalillo hydroelectric dam along the Macal River. Little was known about the Scarlet Macaws in Belize at the time—even their population numbers were only the roughest of approximations. Most conservationists feared that the bird’s breeding habitat would be destroyed when the river upstream of the completed dam overflowed its historical banks, drowning the trees in which the macaws nest. The dam was completed in 2005, and the thousands of dead trees that rise from the sluggish Macal River water are testament to the ecological damage wrought. But even years after the dam entered service, its actual impact on remained something of a mystery.

Scarlet Six biomonitoring team got its start as so many things do: by happenstance, to address an unexpected need. When Charles Britt, ecologist and Scarlet Six co-founder, came to Belize in 2008, the question of how the macaws had fared post-Chalillo Dam was still wide open; starting in 2009, for his master’s project at New Mexico State University, he decided to figure it out. For almost two years (off and on), he kayaked up and down the Macal River and hiked through remote parts of the Chiquibul Forest, looking for nests or adult macaws. He fitted three females with satellite telemetry units to track their movements. And he discovered that the macaws were actually responding decently well to the now-dammed Macal. They didn’t flee the area entirely, and were found in nests upstream, deeper into the forest.

Then came the snag: When Britt and Martinez—recruited from his bird-guiding job at a local ecolodge to help monitor the macaws—tried to study nest productivity, they discovered that they couldn’t. There was essentially no productivity to study. Almost all of the nests—more than 90 percent—were being poached by guaceros and xateros, Guatemalans who illicitly cross the border into Belize for economic reasons. Guaceros specialize in poaching parrots, of which Belize has many, including Yellow-headed, Red-lored, and Brown-hooded. Xateros, on the other hand, comb their way through the Chiquibul Forest and Maya Mountains looking for the xaté palm, a plant in huge demand by the global floral-arrangement market. The demand for xaté is so high that it’s been nearly extirpated in the wild in Guatemala, so xateros cross into Belize and take the palm from there—11 million leaves of it were illegally extracted from the Chiquibul alone in 2015. The xateros don’t just grab the xaté, though. They’ll plunder anything they think they can sell or use, including macaws. According to Martinez and Britt, and everyone else I’ve asked, most macaw poaching is purely opportunistic. Poachers generally don’t go into Belize expressly on the hunt for macaws, which are simply not abundant enough in the densely wooded forest to be a draw on their own.

At camp near Nest #23, Martinez and one of the Scarlet Six rangers demonstrate for me how the poachers steal chicks: They wrap a wide strap around the tree trunk, hitch it into a harness, and then clamber up, spiked boots biting into the wood. The quamwood tree that holds Nest #23 is densely pocked with the scars created by the poachers’ spikes, an ugly series of marks that march in parallel tracks up the trunk. It takes less than 30 minutes from finding a nest to absconding with the chicks, which helps explain why for a long time there wasn’t much that anyone could do about it. Britt tells me of the time he was kayaking up the Macal, surveying macaw habitat, when he heard a warning shot and the calls of agitated adult macaws. “These guys were armed, and neither I nor my survey partner had guns, so there was nothing I could do but let them take those birds,” he says.

To combat the thefts Britt and Martinez hit upon an idea: Prevent the poachers from approaching macaw trees in the first place by having a rotating squad of regular Belizeans camp out under active nests during the breeding season.

The day starts early in the forest, long before the sun seeps above the horizon. Discordant birdcalls—the screeches of kiskadees, mournful hoots of motmots, and harsh cries of macaws—filter through the mosquito netting on my jungle hammock. I’d spent the night mostly awake and wedged uncomfortably in there, at turns cold and desperately uncomfortable (hammocks are terrible for people who prefer to sleep on their sides). But now it’s time to get moving: Crawl out of the hammock, shake any unwanted critters out of your shoes, get the stove set up and water boiling for coffee. Warm up the beans—refried today, but sometimes stew beans—and, as a treat, pull out some of the dense and chewy wheat-flour journey cakes that Martinez hauled in with the gear. It’s barely 6 a.m., and we’re already in full swing.

The previous evening’s rain has made the riverbank treacherous, and we skid-slide our way down to the tree stump where the skiff is moored. Before we can go anywhere we have to bail out the boat. Another boat—this one larger and fitted with a canopy—glides by, filled with Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) rangers who patrol the Chiquibul Forest and collaborate with Scarlet Six on the macaw project.

Once the skiff is mostly free of standing water, we climb in and head upriver to a ranger camp under another macaw nest. After a second inelegant trip up the riverbank, I sit down with three of the Scarlet Six rangers: Luis Mai, Isael Mai, and Albert Woodye. Luis Mai has been with Scarlet Six since its founding in 2012, and spends the offseason tending to his peanut farm in the town of San Antonio, which is about an hour or so away by car. This year is Woodye’s first season, although his son is a ranger in the Chiquibul working for FCD. The two middle-aged rangers answer me quietly—shyly almost—as I coax their stories from them. Isael Mai, in contrast, is a 26-year-old hardcore bird guy with an ambition to be a full-time bird guide. When he is not working for Scarlet Six, he’s doing raptor surveys with the Belize Raptor Research Institute and quizzing his fellow Belizean naturalists with bird-ID puzzles on Facebook. Mai’s account of his day is best described as a list of the birds he typically sees and where, punctuated by his infectious laughter.

Their days go by in an easy non-pattern. Travel up and down the river to known sites that poachers might visit—a macaw nest or a stand of valuable hardwood or a copse with xaté. Are there any signs of xateros? Nothing new—the most recent indication of poachers is at least a month old. What do you look for? Machete marks. Indications of a camp, like a cook fire. Horse hoof prints. So you haven’t seen any indication that xateros have tried to get into the nests? Not this season. Last season, yes, but they did not get the chicks. Is the work dangerous? No. Have there been problems? Well, there was that thing last month.

The “thing” in question spun out in the Chiquibul and turned into a major incident between Guatemala and Belize, prompting both governments to unleash harshly worded condemnations and amass troops along their shared border. Details are somewhat sketchy, but what’s known is that while investigating illegal land clearing, FCD rangers and the Belize Defence Force confronted Guatemalan nationals who were suspected of illicit activities. At some point during the interaction, gunfire was exchanged and a 13-year-old Guatemalan boy was killed. The Guatemalans say that it was an act of aggression; the Belizeans claim that the Guatemalans shot at them first. Whatever the truth, tensions are high along the border.

And this was not the first cross-border incident that culminated in violence. Earlier in the trip, Martinez told me of an incident in 2014 in which law enforcement officers in the Chiquibul confiscated the horses of a group of xateros or illegal loggers. Hours later a group of armed men, possibly the same Guatemalans, murdered a tourism policeman at the nearby Caracol archaeological site—a broad-daylight execution near one of the famed Mayan pyramids, in full view of tourists. You can still find cellphone video of the immediate aftermath on YouTube.

The rangers assure me that there is no danger of the camp being overrun during my stay. While Scarlet Six rangers are not armed, the FCD rangers are, and they do an effective job of scaring off the idle poacher. Martinez mentions that FCD isn’t just a partner for protecting macaws in the wild—they recently started a captive-rearing program modeled after successful efforts in Mexico and Guatemala. Would I like to see it?

Would I like to see baby macaws without having to haul my carcass 60 feet up a quamwood tree? I’m suddenly reminded of phrases involving bears and woods, but I’m a professional, so I just say “yes.”

In the semi-darkness of the rearing lab, five Scarlet Macaw chicks rest in their wood-framed wire mesh enclosure. They’re sleepy, explains volunteer macaw caretaker Victoria Howard, because they’ve just had lunch. I can empathize— between the protein bar I have just eaten, the afternoon heat, and the lack of sleep, I can feel myself slipping into torpor right along with these birds. Howard and FCD chief biologist Boris Arevalo explain that the five chicks in their care are between 58 and 60 days old, more than halfway to fledging. In macaw years, they’re in their tweens, and they look it. Large and ungainly, each bird sports a disheveled mixture of adult plumage and spiky pinfeathers. Some birds look adorable as chicks, but Scarlet Macaws must content themselves with looking fabulous only after they’ve reached adulthood.

FCD’s hand-rearing program is only in its second year, and they’re proud to show off their new lab and aviary, both of which are constructed of decidedly low-tech materials. The only concession to technology seems to be a digital scale to weigh the birds—that and the Tropican Parrot Food, an expensive formula that must be imported from Canada, but is the gold standard for raising macaw chicks by hand. Everything else, from the buildings to the standard-issue paper surgical masks that everyone wears (so the macaws won’t become habituated to human faces), is built to adapt to the vagaries of a tropical climate. I pause to reflect that had it been created in the States, the lab would be covered in stainless steel and would cost hundreds of times what this one did—and someone would have demanded that we all wear special Scarlet Macaw–shaped masks. It certainly wouldn’t cost $400 per bird per month to raise them. Sometimes money and hyper-specialization is not the only solution to a problem.

We leave the macaws to sleep off their meal and head into the aviary, where Arevalo details the first 100 days of a captive-reared macaw’s life: If a nest can’t be effectively protected by the rangers while the chicks are growing, or if a nest produces a third chick that won’t survive, FCD removes the birds from the nest and brings them to the lab. What follows is between 90 and 100 days of care as they grow into their adult strength and plumage. The last step is a two-month stint in the aviary, where the macaws learn to fly and to forage for food. Minders gradually move the food and water onto ever-higher platforms in the aviary, then onto a ledge next to a door at the top of the enclosure, then onto a platform outside the aviary. At this point, the macaws fly to nearby trees, but they still come back to the feeding platform for extra snacks and water. All eight macaws in 2015’s cohort successfully fledged, but it took until January 2016 before they left the area for good.

But how can this be sustainable? that question dogged me in the weeks before I went to Belize, imagining camps full of equipment and graduate students. After my tour of the Scarlet Six project, my question evolved. Once I learned that the Scarlet Six crew gets by on roughly $6,000 a year, almost all of which comes courtesy of the National Audubon Society, and lots and lots of hand-me-downs (that anemic outboard motor on the skiff is a prime example), sustainability took on a new blush. As it turns out, Martinez has a plan for how to supplant some, if not all, of the funding it currently gets from Audubon: Use bird-based ecotourism (with Audubon-trained bird guides) in the macaw’s wintering grounds in Red Bank to raise funding for the project. The details haven’t been worked out yet, but I get to meet some of these guides later in my tour through Belize, and their enthusiasm for macaws is irrepressible.

But there’s another kind of sustainability that now fires my curiosity: How many macaws does Belize need to have a stable population? Britt gives me his best “ballpark wince,” the face that pretty much every scientist makes when I ask them to speculate on something, but he settles quickly and says “450 to 500.”

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Five hundred macaws are about double the current roughly guesstimated population. I remark that the 25 macaw chicks that Scarlet Six and FCD have protected to adulthood over the past two years add another 10 percent to the population. At that rate, this program could feasibly declare victory in 15 years or so. “Yes,” says Britt, although he cautions that expanded partnerships will be the best way to protect all of the vulnerable areas within the Chiquibul Forest and Maya Mountains, and that it’s as yet unclear how climate change will affect food availability, especially during the breeding season.

It takes us 45 minutes of puttering up and down the Macal, past three types of kingfisher, Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, and what my photographer dubs “a huge black turkey” (in reality, a Crested Guan perched high in a tree), before we spot 10 macaws feeding on cohune nuts. They’re too far away to photograph from the water, so we beach the boat and head off through the waist-high grass. By now the sun is hot and high and the air is filled with the buzz of insects and birds. On snags far above our heads sit a family of Bat Falcons, scanning the terrain for prey.

Twenty itchy and uncomfortable minutes later, we get close enough to see the birds well, without binoculars. The macaws swoop and dip and shriek, hanging onto branches with their feet and swinging down to get more food. They look impossible—nothing this bright should be this big, and they certainly shouldn’t be this bright and big and be flying. But the macaws launch their burly bodies and long tails into the air and flap to a nearby tree, calling to each other the whole way. We stay until we’re dehydrated and sunburned, our indication that it’s time to head back to camp for a grilled-chicken dinner.

Later, as fat raindrops and thumb-size click beetles with glowing eyes bombard us in camp, I find myself dwelling on the risks and privations that the Scarlet Six rangers endure while on duty. They don’t see much of their families, spending 14 days at a time in camp, followed by five days at home. Xateros are a remote threat, yes. But the forest also has scorpions, fer-de-lance snakes, pumas, and all manner of biting critters, like the ticks we’re currently pulling from our skin, or the godforsaken botlass flies, whose intensely itchy bites torment my arms and ankles. But I also reflect, for what seems the thousandth time, on how successful the project is at protecting Scarlet Macaws. In five years, Scarlet Six has reduced overall nest poaching from higher than 90 percent to less than 30—and this year is the second in a row that no known nests were poached. And I can’t help but hope that, with a few more years of success, last decade’s “last flight of the Scarlet Macaw” will be nothing but a distressing could-have-been.

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Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon