Spurred on by the success of its scarlet macaw releases in Chiapas, where 73 birds now fly free in the jungle around the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, Xcaret has now extended its program to southern Veracruz. On June 14, 2014, 27 birds born in the famous Riviera Maya park were set free in La Otra Opción, a forest reserve in the Los Tuxtlas region.

Scarlet macaws were once widespread in Los Tuxtlas but became extinct in the 1970s. There is hope that through this program they will establish a foothold in the area and begin to breed.

Macaw expert Dr. Patricia Escalante Pliego from the UNAM Institute of Biology (National Autonomous University of Mexico) coordinated the release of the birds. She and her team watched over them during their acclimatization period in Veracruz. During this time, the birds learn how to identify the jungle fruit, nuts and seeds that will form their diet in the wild, practice flying, and are gradually weaned from the care of their minders so that they can fend for themselves.

Studies conducted by experts from the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University determined that the Xcaret birds share the same genes as the subspecies that once ranged throughout southeast Mexico and that they would be able to adapt to conditions in the wild.

For the Los Tuxtlas program, Xcaret and UNAM teamed up with La Otra Opción, a privately owned nature reserve, and the Bosque Antiguo conservation association.  With the help of university student volunteers, they visited area communities to present the project and involve local people in the conservation campaign, stressing the need to give these beautiful birds a chance to settle in their new jungle home and to protect them for future generations.

A 20-hour drive from the Riviera Maya, Los Tuxtlas is an area of volcanic hills and mountains shrouded in dense jungle and with cloud forests on the highest peaks that was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1988. Extraordinarily rich in flora and fauna, rivers and waterfalls, it also encompasses spectacular landmarks such as Catemaco Lagoon, Salto de Eyipantla waterfall and the extinct San Martín Tuxtla Volcano.  The northernmost area of rain forest in Mexico, it was chosen as one of the locations for the 1992 film Medicine Man starring Sean Connery due to its resemblance to the Amazon.

Located in the buffer zone neighboring the Sierra Santa Marta in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, La Otra Opcion has areas of cloud forest and secondary forest, nature trails and an ongoing reforestation program. Its breeding program to reintroduce peccary, tapir, brocket deer, agouti, great curassow, keel-billed toucan and collared aracari to Los Tuxtlas made it the perfect partner for Xcaret and UNAM in their macaw releases.

Saving the Macaw in Mexico

In early 2013, a census of the population of wild scarlet macaws in Mexico indicated that the species really was in dire peril. After decades of deforestation and poaching for the illegal wild bird trade, the number of birds living free had plummeted to around 240.  Drastic action was needed to bring the bird back from the brink of extinction.

Xcaret has been breeding macaws in captivity for 22 years and has already raised over 1,000 birds.  To release macaws back into the wild is the next step and by making alliances with universities, federal and state government agencies such as Semarnat, conservation NGOs, reserves and communities, the program is taking flight. With this release and the earlier ones in Chiapas, the number of scarlet macaws in the wild in Mexico has increased by 41 percent in little over one year.

Photos courtesy of Experiencias Xcaret