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“Hatched to Fly Free” – Costa Rica’s macaw breeding program helps save species

By Shannon Farley

Lumpi and Sneezy are Great Green Macaws.

They are both 8 years old and just a few weeks ago on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, got their first taste of what it means to fly free.

The story of Lumpi and Sneezy – so named for Lumpi’s small “lump” on his forehead and Sneezy, well, she sneezes a lot – is not a typical one. Both Great Green Macaws, largest of the parrots and native to Costa Rica, are an endangered species and were bred and raised specifically for release into the wild. Their parents had been confiscated illegal pets or were injured and brought to the ARA Project, a non-profit licensed Costa Rican zoological park that operates a breeding program and reintroduction of the Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus) and the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) in Costa Rica. Lumpi and Sneezy’s parentsare permanent residents at the breeding center in Alajuela, near the Juan Santamaria International Airport, where about 100 Great Green Macaws and 100 Scarlet Macaws live– from days-old chicks to breeding adults and juveniles almost ready for release into the wild.

Lumpi and Sneezy are two of 10 in the second group of Great Green Macaws to be released in the ARA Project’s Manzanillo release site on the southern Caribbean Coast. The event signals a huge success for the ARA Project, which operates the first Great Green Macaw reintroduction program in the world, said Project co-director Chris Castles. Lumpi and Sneezy are reported to be doing great and have joined the flock of 10 other male and female macaws, which were successfully released in August 2011. Castles said they plan to release another 10 Great Green Macaws in 2013 and 10 more in 2014.

The ARA Project has been breeding both Great Green Macaws and Scarlet Macaws in Costa Rica since the 1980s, specifically for propagating the species, and releasing macaws since the 1990s in conjunction with the Costa Rican Ministry of Environment, Energy & Telecommunications (MINAET). The ARA Project's Alajuela breeding center maintains the largest collection of Great Green Macaws in captivity in the world – all are either being readied for release or are permanent residents used for breeding and growing the species. “We try not to keep them in captivity,” said Castles, originally from New Zealand.

Over the past 13 years, the ARA Project has freed 70 Scarlet Macaws in their Tiskita release site on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. “These macaws have survival rates of about 85% and have successfully reproduced in the wild,” Castles said. “There are over 100 macaws there now including the babies born in the wild.” Macaws can live to be over 60 years old and mate for life.

Both macaws are sensational in the colors of their plumage. The Great Green Macaw boasts bright green and turquoise feathers with a fiery red band across the forehead. Scarlet Macaws are a spectacular rainbow of primary colors in red, blue and yellow. Unfortunately, the birds’ striking colors makes them a favorite on the world illegal pet market, fetching prices of up to several thousands of dollars. Poaching and loss of habitat from deforestation are the main factors for the macaws’ declining numbers, says Castles.

It is estimated there are only between 1,800 to 2,500 mature Great Green Macaws (or fewer than 3,700 in total counting juveniles) left in the world, scattered from Honduras to Colombia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In Costa Rica, only about 250 wild Great Green Macaws remain in isolated pockets of jungle near Sarapiquí, and now in Manzanillo. The extraordinary Scarlet Macaws, once commonplace from Mexico to Brazil, possibly numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Today, there are approximately 50,000 wild birds left and populations are declining, according to the IUCN. There are about 1,500 Scarlet Macaws living in Costa Rica.

Castles said the ARA Project is working to reestablish the Scarlet Macaw population on the Nicoya Peninsula by releasing macaws near Punta Islita. And on the Central Pacific Coast, where there already is a wild population, ARA Project hopes to open a rehabilitation center at the planned Terra Paradise Eco-Adventure Resort near Quepos and Manuel Antonio.

“It will be very interesting to have a site there on the Central Pacific. There is an existing population from Carara (National Park) to Manuel Antonio,” remarked Castles. “If we can set up a rescue and rehabilitation center in the area, it would be a huge help to protecting the population.”

The most pressing issue at the moment, however, is that the ARA Project’s breeding center and aviary in Alajuela is losing its home, where it has operated for nearly three decades. The center originated with U.S. citizens Margot and Richard Frisius, who opened the licensed zoological park in the 1980s to take care of parrots confiscated by the Costa Rican government or abandoned by private owners. The couple began a breeding program in 1992 to help with macaw conservation and established the nonprofit organization “Amigos de las Aves” (Friends of the Birds). Over the years, the Frisius’ built the breeding program and aviary into the success it is today.

Margot passed away in 2008; she arranged that her nonprofit organization become a trust fund, known since 2009 as The ARA Project. Richard passed away a few months ago in July 2012. Since then, the couple’s family put the property where the ARA Project is located up for sale. Castles said the Project has been donated land to move to the Nicoya Peninsula near Punta Islita, but right now that land is a barren former cattle ranch. He said the list of necessary infrastructure to be created before they can move is daunting: roads, electricity, water, aviaries, breeding buildings and staff housing, not to mention fruit orchards and gardens to feed all of the birds. “We operate on very limited resources,” stated Castle.

The ARA Project is a non-profit organization run entirely on private donations, grants, and entrance fees to the breeding center. Running a breeding program and reintroduction projects is expensive. It includes taking care of more than 300 macaws, maintaining four sites and employing professional staff, albeit a tiny one, among other expenses. To find out more information about Great Green and Scarlet Macaws and the ARA Project’s breeding and reintroduction programs, and how you can help, please visit their website at www.thearaproject.org or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.