Scientists Use Satellites to Track Endangered Macaws
GUATEMALA CITY -- Scarlet macaws threatened by illegal poachers and land invaders who slash and burn their jungle habitat in Guatemala now have scientists watching out for them from space.
Researchers recently fit two of the red, yellow and blue-plumed parrots with satellite collars that send to computers information about their movements through the thick canopy of trees in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico.
"Before this we were only able to look at scarlet macaws in their nesting habitat," said Zach Feris from the Wildlife Conservation Society running the project.
"This new tracking gives us the ability to see the other half of parrot life," he said Thursday.
Scientists hope data from the special collars, which stay on the birds for over nine months, will show how far wild parrots can fly when they migrate. That information could be used to put pressure on authorities to expand protected areas.
"Until recently this technology wasn't developed enough to withstand life in the wild," said Feris. "Scarlet macaws have very sharp beaks and that could destroy a collar in a second if it's not properly designed."
The macaws, which often stay with one mate for life and have low reproduction rates, are in danger of being wiped out in Guatemala as thousands of acres of forest are cut down to make way for settlers and clandestine airstrips for drug traffickers moving cocaine from Colombia up into the United States.
Poachers rob chicks from their nests and can sell them for hundreds of dollars on the black market to buyers who want them as pets. Heavily armed land invaders and poachers have threatened scientists trying to save the macaws.
There may be only 300 macaws left in Guatemala's nature reserve, home to sprawling Mayan ruins and diverse wildlife including giant anteaters, howler monkeys and the elusive jaguar.
Other conservationists have used similar satellite positioning systems to track rare jaguars through the same jungle.
Macaws are also found in isolated populations across Central America and in the Amazon basin and it is illegal to take them from the wild.
Guatemala has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, with over a third of the jungle already destroyed.
"They are cutting down all the trees where the macaws nest and obviously taking away territory where they feed and live," said Rony Garcia, who works for WCS in the largely lawless Peten jungle.