They are colourful and boisterous, intelligent and social, strong yet gentle – this is the picture many of us have of the macaws in South America. However, the popular exotic birds are under severe threat, as more and more of their natural habitat is lost through woodland clearing and the expansion of arable and pasture land.
The exhibition catches the eye of the beholder with spectacular exhibits and an unusual setup, bringing a taste of South America to Berlin. It will also make visitors stop and think. How is the threat to exotic birds and the loss of biodiversity linked to our daily lives and what can we do to make a positive impact?
But who would have thought that even the steak on your barbecue has something to do with the survival chances of macaws? The special exhibition highlights one of the challenges of our time: What does sustainable conservation and responsible action mean in a constantly changing globalised world?
The collections of the Museum für Naturkunde include specimens brought here by scientists from all over the world: from the Amazon to the Arctic Circle, over centuries, dating back to Humboldt’s expeditions and reaching right into the present. They form the basis upon which researchers can gain new insights into biodiversity. Modern technology will help to unlock important information relating to current problems even from old exhibits. Who would have thought a hundred years ago that it is possible today to decipher the genetic code of long-extinct species? Or that a collection of eggs would provide important data on air pollution for climatologists? And who knows what data the items collected today will yield in the future?
Many macaws are highly adapted to their habitat. They feed on particular palm fruits, nest in particular tree cavities or crevices and have few natural predators, apart from the jaguar and the harpy eagle. The 16 species still found in the wild live in very different areas in Central and South America. Their habitats range from thorn scrub in the Andes to evergreen rainforest in the Amazon basin. All species, however, face the same threat – the progressive loss of their natural habitat.
Climate change, grazing cattle herds as well as extensive monocultures, tropical wood harvesting and mining contribute significantly to the disappearance of biodiverse regions like the Amazon or the Cerrado savanna. Many products that come from these depleted areas are destined for the world market and are exported to Europe, including Germany.
It’s a sunny day in Berlin, birds are singing in the park, and a succulent piece of pork is sizzling on the barbecue. What has such seemingly innocuous summer fun got to do with threatened bird species far away in Central and South America? More than you might think. Many parts of the Brazilian Cerrado, one of the most speciesrich savannas in the world, home to many different macaw species, is now intensively farmed for one major crop – soy. This has already led to the destruction of at least half of the Cerrado.
A lot of the soy grown there is exported to Germany, where it ends up in the feeding troughs of animals raised for meat production – cattle, poultry and, especially, pigs. Pork is by far the most popular meat in Germany. Approximately 5.5 million tonnes are produced every year, with 54 kilos per head being eaten in the shape of Bratwurst, ribs and other treats. What about the fields of the Cerrado, once so rich in wildlife? They have fallen into deathly silence.
Artificial insemination, surrogate parenthood and monitored protection areas – everything is done to ensure the survival of species threatened with extinction. The most ambitious projects are often backed by aficionados who want to save rare species such as Spix’s macaw from extinction, sparing them the fate of the dodo, the great auk or the Cuban macaw. Preserving a species is not an easy task. Breeding animals depends not only on successful reproduction, but also on the preservation of a large gene pool. If hygiene conditions are poor, a viral infection may be enough to wipe out a whole population. When releasing the animals into the wild, not only must a suitable habitat be found, but the local human population must be involved in the process. In addition, precautions must be taken, which will prevent the recapture and resale of the animals. International partnerships and multidisciplinary collaborations are indispensible to make such undertakings a success.
Macaws have been popular pets all over the world for hundreds of years. There are several reasons for this – they become tame very quickly, and, being very social, they bond to their owners. They are active during the day, they are thought to be intelligent and are talented ‘linguists’. Not only cats and dogs have become the stars of the Internet age, but also macaws, with plenty of videos and blogs highlighting their cute behaviour now available. No wonder these charming animals have won our hearts. Their similar behaviour to humans and their ability to speak is amazing. It is hard to believe that the birds do not really know what they are doing. From a naturalist’s point of view, this would be a near-tragic delusion. In the wild, macaws often live in large family units, bonding with their partner for life. In captivity, individual macaws will compensate for the lack of kin by choosing the only available alternative – bonding to a human instead.
Illegal trafficking of rare animals is one of the largest black markets worldwide – after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. It is estimated that the annual turnover is about 20 billion euros. While rhinoceroses, tigers and pangolins are sold for use in traditional Asian medicine, macaws are caught to provide for the pet market. Very rare species often end up in the aviaries of collectors who want to own the birds for their prestige value and are prepared to pay huge sums. All macaw species are protected by the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates and monitors international trade with threatened species. However, illegal wild catches are confiscated time and time again. The birds were caught to satisfy the demand for these popular pets, in South America, the USA and Europe.
Macaws are deeply rooted in South American culture and were venerated by Incas, Aztecs and in the Nazca culture, due to their colourful feathers. Even today, they play a part in the culture of many indigene groups. Their unusually long and colourful feathers adorn dresses, headpieces and weapons. Traditions such as the use of macaw feathers in artisan work have been handed down over generations. However, life is changing in an ever more closely interconnected, globalised world. The way livelihoods are made are changing over time, and so are values and traditions. Poaching and the destruction of habitats are now seriously threatening many macaw species. Against this background, traditional use of macaws by indigenous groups becomes an additional threat. How can nature be protected without fettering indigenous culture? What is more important? These are questions modern conservation projects address. In collaboration with the local population, they are looking for ways of combining tradition and the preservation of species.