blue-throated macaw

A critically endangered blue-throated macaw. (Photo: Steve Wilson/Flickr)

The blue-throated macaw is one of the most endangered birds on Earth, down to an estimated 120 survivors in the wild. Any new refuge for such a rare bird is a welcome surprise, but this brightly colored Bolivian parrot just hit the conservation jackpot.

Bolivia's Barba Azul Nature Reserve — home to the world's largest remaining population of blue-throated macaws — has suddenly doubled in size, growing from 12,350 acres to 27,180 in one fell swoop. The expansion comes courtesy of several conservation groups, led by Bolivia's Asociación Armonía, and marks a major victory for the embattled birds.

"Conservation actions of this magnitude for small organizations in poor countries are only possible with outside help," says Bennett Hennessey, director of Asociación Armonía, in a statement. "Doubling the size of the Barba Azul Nature Reserve is an excellent example of conservation groups combining their effort to achieve a massive conservation product."

Barba Azul, Spanish for "blue beard," is the local name for blue-throated macaws in Bolivia, the only country where they exist in the wild. The birds are considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and were also recently listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Barba Azul Nature Reserve is their only protected habitat on Earth, and its population of up to 100 blue-throated macaws represents the species' largest-known concentration in nature.

Like many parrots, the blue-throated macaw has been decimated in recent decades by habitat loss and the international pet trade. At least 1,200 wild-caught specimens were taken from Bolivia in the 1980s to become pets elsewhere, and their wild relatives have struggled to recover even after Bolivia banned live exports in 1984.

beni savanna

Savanna and forest islands in Bolivia's Beni eco-region. (Photo: Sam Beebe/Flickr)

That's largely because their habitat — palm islands and gallery forests in the Beni savanna — is divided and degraded by human activities like burning, logging and cattle ranching. Many breeding sites are located on cattle ranches, according to BirdLife International, which warns that "burning and clearing for pasture and tree-felling for fuel and fenceposts have reduced the number of suitable nest trees and inhibited palm regeneration."

The relatively recent exclusion of cattle from Barba Azul, however, is already spurring an ecological comeback, boosted by artificial nest boxes that offer more nesting opportunities for blue-throated macaws. And the reserve's revival isn't just good news for parrots: It's also home to some 250 other bird species, as well as 27 medium and large mammals like giant anteaters, pampas cats, maned wolves, marsh deer and capybaras.

"When we originally purchased the Barba Azul Nature Reserve, it was a habitat that held high abundance of many animals. But once we removed cattle and stopped hunting, net fishing, logging, and uncontrolled grassland burning, the true destructive impact of an overgrazed, poorly controlled ranch could be seen," Hennessey says. "Everything is rebounding as if the area is recovering from a drought."

In addition to Asociación Armonía, the expansion of Barba Azul was enabled by outside conservation groups including American Bird Conservancy, Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust, Loro Parque Fundación, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Grants Program. And while the move is meant to protect native wildlife from people, Armonía also plans to encourage a more sustainable relationship by building new cabins in 2014 to accommodate eco-tourists.

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