Risks of the Captive Breeding Program in the Quest to Save the Blue-throated Macaw

The Blue-throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) is one of the most highly threatened species in the parrot family. Found only in the Beni savannas of Bolivia, the species is considered Critically Endangered as a consequence of the caged-bird trade and habitat loss due to large-scale cattle ranching.

The idea of introducing captive macaws into the wild population has been suggested. While one study argues for the release of 50 captive-bred macaws to help boost the number of breeding adults, the subject is not a simple one: outcomes are not assured and the introduction of captive birds could cause serious problems. Armonia strongly advocates against the release of captive birds and firmly believes that the setbacks to the wild population (if they were to be introduced) could easily outweigh the potential benefits.

What are the correct conditions to introduce captive birds into a wild population? IUCN’s Guidelines for Reintroductions and Other Conservation Translocations allow for reinforcement (“the intentional movement and release of an organism into an existing population of conspecifics”) with “species or populations that have small or declining populations or ranges, and/or high probabilities of extinction.” In the case of the Blue-throated Macaw, the main threats have been eliminated or reduced greatly. Further, it is clear that, as indicated by a recently published scientific study, the population in the wild is increasing as the result of successful conservation actions and thus does not require the release of captive individuals.

What is being done to help the Blue-throated Macaw survive?

The wild population has been subject to intensive conservation and management actions for over 15 years. Awareness campaigns have helped eliminate the use of real macaw feathers in traditional headdresses and prevent the removal from the wild of birds for sale as pets. An ongoing nest box program has resulted in 93 successful fledglings over this time period. Important breeding and roosting sites have been directly protected from fire, hunting, and habitat degradation. The current adult population is estimated to be between 312 and 455 individuals in the wild.

Why is introducing captive macaws into the wild a bad idea?

Due to conditions that are distinct from those in the wild, captive birds are exposed to and can become accustomed to pathogens that are different than those encountered by wild birds. Upon release, there is a real possibility that they could transport these foreign pathogens into a wild population that has no defense against them. These potential diseases present a huge risk for a wild population already struggling to survive. Additionally, sufficient expertise and testing that might assure that captive birds are disease-free is rare or nonexistent within Bolivia.

It is widely acknowledged that reinforcing a native population with birds raised in captivity can skew the genetics of the whole group. Birds raised in captivity may be genetically weak due to inbreeding and lack of exposure to survival pressures in the wild. Introduction of individuals with poorer genetic makeup into the wild breeding population can lead to a weaker population over the generations as a result, since stronger, well-adapted macaws may breed with weaker, less-adapted macaws instead of equally-strong wild individuals.

One cannot assume that captive macaws will even survive in the wild. Captive birds frequently are genetically weak with inbreeding depression. In captivity, weak birds that normally would not survive in the wild are kept alive and made to breed. Captive birds are free from the challenges experienced by wild populations such as predators, competitors, and natural parasites. They also benefit from veterinary care, dietary supplementation, and protection from climate extremes. On top of everything else, the conditions necessary to raise poorly-adapted birds in captivity end up being much more expensive than highly successful conservation actions in the field. 

Even if captive birds manage to survive the conditions in the wild, it is impossible to know if they would find partners and reproduce successfully. Other organizations’ support for captive release is based on the assumption that populations would automatically increase at a steady rate each year. However, breeding rates in wild populations change from year to year for multiple reasons. When the varying conditions and efforts towards reproduction are taken into account, there is no assurance that captive macaws will reproduce successfully in the wild, and their presence could even result in an overall population decrease.

There is still so much to understand about the Blue-throated Macaw. Further studies across the whole population and within each of the three subpopulations can provide direction for further conservation strategies to support the recovery of the Blue-throated Macaw population. The IUCN Guidelines tell us, “Where a high degree of uncertainty remains or it is not possible to assess reliably that a conservation introduction presents low risks, it should not proceed, and alternative conservation solutions should be sought.” All conservation measures should be implemented only once outcomes can reliably be expected to be positive, without adding survival pressures to the population of this amazing species. The wild population must be protected from further risk, and captive macaws should not be a part of the recovery effort.

This is a summary for the general public of information presented in the following publication: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304380018302114?via%3Dihub. Please refer to the article for more specific information.

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