Hunters No More

Making the Macaw Banditos an Offer They Can't Refuse

In Bolivia's Llanos de Moxos region, a former wildlife trapper named Pocho shows off the delicate snare he devised to nab blue-throated macaws for the illegal pet trade. He points out the seven notches on its stem, one for each macaw caught with this snare. Today, however, the birds are banded and released. Their numbers barely exceed 100 in the wild, and Pocho works as the only guide who can show tourists where they live. “I wouldn't ever catch them again,” he says. “I used to catch them and sell them, and they would be taken away forever. Here in the wild, they can be 'sold' over and over again.”

In the Brazilian state of Bahia, Carlinhos Lima is on parole for wildlife smuggling. Now he provides information that may help save the Spix's macaw. The brilliant turquoise parrot has been reduced to a single male in the world—thanks in large part to this same man. “In prison they treated me like a bandito,” he says. “I don't want to go back there.”

And in neighboring Piaui state, a group of men scale sheer sandstone cliffs with only their wits and a thick hemp rope between them and certain death, in order to enter the nesting caverns of spectacular hyacinth macaws. This time, they do so not to steal the babies as they once did, but to weigh and measure them for scientific study.

These are examples of a new approach some conservationists are using in their efforts to curb wildlife poaching: Make the trappers a better offer. Evidence indicates that the strategy is working.

According to Wildlife Conservation Society senior biologist Dr. Charles Munn, hiring such people makes more sense than fighting them. “I just want [the trappers] to stop what they're doing,” he says. “These aren't evil people. They have to make a living and they've done better by selling animals than they could by doing anything else around here. As a result, they know more about these birds' behavior and where to find them than anyone else in the world. As a scientist, I'd be foolish not to take advantage of that knowledge. But I also recognize the potential risk we run by protecting people who know where to sell endangered wildlife, and facilitating their access to those same animals. So we're very careful about who we hire, and we use a carrot-and-stick approach: Pay them well and make sure they know we'll do our best to put them in jail if they try to play it both ways.”

Where does the money come from to pay them? Donations play a small part, and come from a variety of sources. But by far the largest source is ecotourism—visitors from North America and Europe for the most part, as well as photographers and filmmakers eager to take advantage of access to wild animals made possible by this insider information. Dr. Munn has made sure these former smugglers share in the profits. Any surplus money goes to expand the projects.

Many species of wild parrots have been driven to the brink of extinction, due mainly to aggressive trapping for the illegal pet trade. Crammed into tiny cages, their beaks bound to keep them quiet, more than half of these birds die from suffocation, stress and disease before reaching their destination.

Munn first met Jose Lima in 1987 when he was hired by the Brazilian government to count hyacinth macaws for consideration for CITES Appendix 1 status. (The huge blue parrot is still on this list of most-endangered animals.) Munn needed a guide who was familiar with the species and knew where to find them. Who better than someone who already made his living studying these very birds? Still, it bothered Munn that someone could be so overt about his poaching activities. Munn warned Lima that he would do his best to see the trapper put in jail for his efforts. Lima just laughed. “I caught birds my whole life,” he says now. “My father taught me. Even after the new laws were passed, the worst that had happened to anyone caught with illegal wildlife was that the animals were confiscated. Traffickers got murdered by their competitors, but never arrested.”

Years passed. Ecotourism blossomed throughout South America. Tougher anti-smuggling laws were passed. Munn kept tabs on Lima, increasingly convinced he was drawn to trapping because he enjoyed working with wildlife and had found a means of making a respectable living in inland Brazil, where unemployment often exceeds 50 percent.

Finally, Munn broached the subject of a partnership with Lima, who initially resisted. Perhaps, surrounded by crushing poverty his entire life, he could not conceive of people traveling thousands of miles merely to look at “his” birds.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Bahia state, Carlinhos Lima (no relation to Jose) thrived as a “trafficante,” or middleman. Despite having been caught numerous times, he was still in business. Among the animals he sold were the babies from the last known wild nest of Spix's macaws. Later he sold their mother. If captive birds aren't released soon, the species will be extinct in the wild.

Federal police arrested Carlinhos. “They tapped our phones,” Lima muses. “They thought we were smuggling drugs. Otherwise they never would have bothered.” Eight months later, he began a seven-year prison sentence.

Jose Lima called Munn. “Let's talk,” he said. “I don't want to go to prison.” The Hyacinth Cliffs Project is now the only place in the world where visitors can be guaranteed a close-up view of dozens of these giant blue macaws.

Carlinhos, in the meantime, found prison unbearable. Locked in a 10-foot by 10-foot cell with four other men, he had plenty of time to reflect on his options. He was a rich man thanks to smuggling, but times were finally changing. So when Salvador-based conservation group BioBrasil approached him, he seized the opportunity to change his life. It could be the beginning of the end for parrot trapping in Brazil.

(The author thanks Dr. Charles Munn and Richard Hartley for arranging and translating the interviews from the Spanish.)