It began in 2001. The chartered plane landed on a dusty airstrip in Guatemala, just across the border from Honduras. Under the cover of darkness, its cargo was unloaded and shuttled from one country to another. And then, just as quickly as it landed, the plane was gone.
“Looking back, it was definitely illegal,” says Lloyd Davidson, the American biologist who directed the operation. But what sounds like some illicit trafficking scheme was the first step in what would become a decades-long effort to conserve one of Central America’s most cherished species: the guacamaya roja, or scarlet macaw (Ara macao).
The scarlet macaw is the national bird of Honduras, a large and majestic creature easily recognizable by its lively red, blue and yellow coat. But the species’ magnificence has helped contribute to its demise in the wild. Coveted as pets, macaws have seen their populations decimated in recent years by the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers snatch eggs and chicks from wild nests, clip the wings and smuggle birds not only within Honduras but also to Europe, the United States and Caribbean islands.
On that flight nearly two decades ago, though, Davidson began to fight back. He flew 90 live birds, all of them rescues from captivity, into an airfield on the wrong side of the border because it was the closest landing spot to their new home. Davidson had purchased a plot of land in the Honduran tourist town of Copán Ruinas, home to a Unesco World Heritage Site dedicated to preserving a lost Mayan city in the Sacred Valley of the Guacamayas. Today, that plot of land nestled along a creek in the hills near the Honduras-Guatemala border is called Macaw Mountain. It is the first macaw rescue, release and rehabilitation center in the country, and it is where Davidson leads the charge to save this regal bird.
Davidson—a towering 74-year-old Tennessean, has lived in Honduras for more than 30 years, but still speaks with a Southern drawl as thick as the humidity. He opened Macaw Mountain to visitors as a bird park and nature reserve just a few months after he flew in the first group of guacamayas, then spent much of the 2000s expanding. The park added wooden aviaries, bridges and trails built by hand. All the while, it took in neglected or mistreated macaws from cages all over the country.
Visitors to the nearby Mayan ruins could take a quick detour to spy the impressive national bird and take a picture with one (wildlife selfies are controversial, but Macaw Mountain promises its birds are not mistreated). “We want to familiarize and sensitize Hondurans to the natural riches their country has in spades,” Davidson says. The point was to educate and to make the case for conservation rather than captivity.
And then, in 2010, one visitor proposed an idea that would change everything.
“The head of the World Parrot Trust shows up one day, unannounced,” Davidson recalled. “I’d never even heard of the World Parrot Trust. He asks, ‘have you ever thought about releasing these birds back into the wild?’”
The man was James Gilardi, the organization’s executive director. In Macaw Mountain, he saw an opportunity to restore free-flying macaws to the Copán Valley, where they had long since disappeared from the skies. Previously, Davidson had considered the idea of rehabilitating and releasing the birds but ultimately decided against it, worried that such a move would only create more chances for birds to be captured and sold. “There’s a lot of kids around here with slingshots, and they’re pretty good with ‘em,” he recalled telling Gilardi at the time.
To Davidson, the only way to succeed with a release was to pair it with an educational component about the need to conserve the wild macaws, not keep them as pets. Macaw Mountain, scraping by on park admission fees, didn’t have the resources. But a local NGO called Asociación Copán took on the task. The two organizations collaborated on a lesson plan and shared it with teachers from across the valley. Then they started bringing some Macaw Mountain birds to the schools.
The impact on the students was immediate. “Once you’ve held a bird and gone through that experience, you’re a lot less likely to get a slingshot and take one of them down,” Davidson says. And then, “the releases kicked the interest and impact factors to a whole new level.”
Six releases later, more than 75 macaws fly free in the Copán valley—and they’re reproducing fast. With support from the World Parrot Trust, Macaw Mountain hired several full-time biologists and staff members from Honduras and Mexico to operate as both a bird park and rehabilitation center. Macaw Mountain formed its own NGO, called ProAlas, to fund bird releases all over Honduras, from the rainforests along the Cangrejal River to the picturesque Lake Yojoa and the Caribbean Bay Islands.
Through Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose ranch in the town of Gracias is itself now home to a flock of free-flying macaws, Davidson and company have also contacted the Mexican government about transferring an estimated 300 breeding macaws from a popular resort near Playa del Carmen to Macaw Mountain. Ultimately, those birds and their offspring would be released throughout Central America.
“Everywhere is a soft release at first,” Davidson says. This means that the conservationists ease the macaws back into their natural habitat by initially providing them with food and support. “So we need local partners, or at least local people, to get involved on the ground.”
In Honduras, the local community’s response has been overwhelming. Davidson remembers a couple of years ago when two birds were stolen from the park, probably to be trafficked illegally. Macaw Mountain shared the news and locals made the post go viral. By the next morning, someone had returned the macaws to a police station.
“I live above a hardware store,” says Geert Van Vaeck, a hostel owner from Belgium. “These guys work all day, making a ton of noise. But the second—the second!—they hear the sound of the birds overhead, they stop and look up. ‘Look over there!’ they say to each other. ‘A guacamaya!’ People here are proud. And that’s an amazing thing.”
Conservationists hope that national pride around the scarlet macaw will inspire a heightened sense of responsibility for protecting other species and their natural habitats. Some of the last great expanses of rainforest in Latin America lie in Honduras, but they are threatened by encroaching cattle ranches as well as illegal logging, hunting and mining.
“The guacamaya is a good example of a ‘landscape species,’” says Rony García, a Guatemala-based biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Landscape species rely on large, ecologically diverse habitats and often have significant impacts on the structure and function of natural ecosystems. “Protecting the guacamayas means other species would benefit from the same conservation efforts,” he says.
Conservationists hope Honduras can preserve and harness its vast natural wealth to forge a new path forward. As Macaw Mountain’s educational outreach expands with more releases, other efforts to protect the wild macaws are gaining traction across the country. One program in La Moskitia—a vast area of primary rainforest in eastern Honduras—pays local indigenous communities to guard nests from poachers. Honduran nature guides, like the internationally renowned birdwatcher William Orellana, see potential for the country to rebrand itself as a haven for its own national bird. Indeed, for those who visit Copán Ruinas today, it’s impossible to miss macaws. They fly in large, sweeping groups and their shrill cries echo once again throughout the Sacred Valley of the Guacamayas. (Though Honduras remains under mandatory quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and though park income has completely stopped due to a lack of visitors, Macaw Mountain’s staff has continued to care for the nearly 300 birds in the park and to monitor the free-flying macaws at Copán.)
“When we travel, each place we visit leaves a particular mark on our memory that stays with us always,” Van Vaeck says. Visitors may not remember the names of long-gone kings that they learned at the Mayan ruins. “But I can guarantee you what they will remember, even after all the years have passed.” He pauses.
“Copán, they will say, that was the land of the guacamaya.”
Editor's note, May 29, 2020: This article has been edited to accurately describe the time of day and cargo on the covert flight to Honduras.