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12 years of Conservation Biology of the Great Green Macaw

By Olivier Chassot and Guiselle Monge Arias

Project Leaders of the Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project,

Costa Rica




The Great Green Macaw

        The great green macaw (Ara ambigus) has a limited distribution in the Atlantic wet lowlands of Central America, from Honduras south to northern Colombia, with a small isolated population in the Pacific in Esmeraldas and Guayaquil, Ecuador. In Costa Rica, this species is currently limited to approximately 600 km2 of tropical very wet forest in the northern part of the country, in the border area with Nicaragua. It highly depends on the Almendro tree (Dipteryx panamensis) both for feeding and nesting substrate. This endangered species, which is listed in Appendix I of CITES, is in serious danger of disappearing from Costa Rica in the near future.


The Project

        The Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project was launched by Dr. George V. N. Powell and aims since 1994 to study the conservation biology of the great green macaw in northern Costa Rica and has developed the major biological data base on this species. The project is administered by the Tropical Science Center since 1997. The concerns of the Dr, Powell were supported by the project's first-year findings that the nesting range of these macaws in Costa Rica had already been reduced by 90% since the early XX Century.


        Preliminary studies found that the great green macaw's limited distribution and relatively large home range, combined with its dependence on a complex array of food resources implied that the protection of its habitat and resources would benefit a multitude of other species that reside in these lowland wet forests. Due to the fact the study site was lacking an important protected area, the potential of this species as an "umbrella species" for the fauna and flora of the habitat where it thrives makes it a critical key species to study in order to set up conservation priorities. The Northern Zone had suffered the highest deforestation rate in the country over the eighties and nineties, leaving less than 30% of the original forest standing. Nevertheless, several studies have found that the forests in this region still maintain a high species diversity which is among the most diverse in Central America.


        In the first years of the study, we estimated the great green macaw population in Costa Rica to be approximately 35 reproductive pairs. Our great green macaw population of Costa Rica depends on the more extensive habitat and presumably larger macaw population in the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, logging incursions across the San Juan River into the Indio-Maíz are increasingly common, and even this reserve, Central America’s most important, is not safe from the chainsaws. Today, our great green macaw population is already in a precarious and fragile condition, and the loss of remaining forest habitat in northern Costa Rica or southern Nicaragua may push it to regional, if not global, extinction.


Research Results

        At the onset of this project, little was known about the ecology of the great green macaw. While it was thought to migrate seasonally and use a variety of habitats at different elevations, its nest had not been described by scientists, and its primary habitat and food sources were largely unidentified. The objective of our research, therefore, was to compile basic data on the macaws’ habitat and spatial requirements in order to set priorities for the conservation of sufficient habitat to support a viable population of great green macaws in Costa Rica.


        Preliminary research on the great green macaw began in 1993; a full research project was initiated in 1994 and has continued through 2002. We used radio-telemetry to determine macaw home ranges and habitat use. In addition, we have monitored the status of all known or suspected nest sites and collected data on nest site characteristics. Finally, we studied the fruiting phenology of tree species that were discovered to form part of the macaws’ diet.

Our extensive data base includes information on:

        - Breeding Range in Costa Rica

        - General Nesting Data

        - Nest Sites

        - Nest Fidelity

        - Defense of Nesting Resources

        - Nest Productivity

        - First-Year Survival of Juveniles

        - Non-nesting Population

        - Migration Patterns

        - Foraging Behavior


The Conservation Plan

        The survival of the great green macaw depends on the availability of adequate, intact forest habitat. For this reason, together with local and national stakeholders, we proposed in 1998 the implementation of a conservation plan that could protect enough habitat to maintain a small and viable breeding population in Costa Rica. This integral conservation plan is known now as “San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor”, and included the creation in 2005 of the “Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge”, with an extension of 54,000 ha of natural ecosystems embracing the breeding range of the great green macaw.


        With this perspective, we managed to restrict or prohibit the cutting of forest in the critical nesting zone of the macaw as well as to partially prohibit the harvest of almendro. To promote sustainable development in the Northern Zone and the conservation of the great green macaw, we encourage local farmers and communities to manage their lands in a sustainable manner by way of the extraction of non-timber products such as medicinal plants, fruits and seeds and to support reforestation initiatives with native trees that are both commercially important and benefit the great green macaw through incentives from the Government.


        To resolve nest poaching, we developed an intensive environmental education program at the beginning of the Project for 18 months in different communities within the influence area.


The Biological Corridor

        The zone of humid Atlantic tropical forest of the north of Costa Rica maintains the only viable lowland habitat able to maintain the continuity of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the greatest breach in the route of the corridor between Honduras and Colombia. The San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor (246.608 ha) promotes restoration and preserves the connections between remnants of forest in the Central Volcanic Mountain range and the La Selva Biological Station (125.691 has) in the north of Costa Rica, united with the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge (102.165 ha) and Tortuguero National Park (29.068 ha) in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. At the same time, the connection becomes more important with the extensive conservation complex that includes Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve (306.980 ha), Punta Gorda (54.900 ha) and Cerro Silva (339.400 ha) in Southeastern Nicaragua. The San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor will consolidate these six protected areas into a single biological unit, which sums up 1.204.812 ha.


        The central conservation unit of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor is the Maquenque Mixed National Wildlife Refuge (59.717 ha), located to the south of Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve and contiguous with the westernmost limits of Barra del Colorado. This new protected area will conserve the corridor portion with the highest percentage of forest cover. The humid tropical forest of the Atlantic included within the proposed protected biological corridor and adjacent protected areas that will be connected, are biologically diverse, considered the home of 6.000 (36) species of vascular plants (number of vulnerable and endangered species between parenthesis), 139 (32) species of mammals, 515 (64) birds, 135 (35) reptiles and 80 (45) amphibians.


The Alliance

        The Executive Committee of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor was officially formed in March, 2001 as a result of an alliance between the Tropical Science Center, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Organization for Tropical Studies, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor-Costa Rica, the Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project, the Association for Environmental Welfare of Sarapiquí, the Association for the Preservation of Flora and Wildlife, the Association for the Management of Forest Areas of San Carlos, Friends of the Great Green Macaw, The Association of Volunteer Research and Environmental Development, the Center for Environmental Rights and Natural Resources, the Commission for Forestry Development of San Carlos, the Arenal Huetar Norte Conservation Area, the Central Volcanic Range Conservation Area, La Tirimbina Biological Reserve, the Municipality of San Carlos and the Municipality of Sarapiquí. Likewise, in 2002, the Local Office of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor was created in Puerto Viejo and soon will be operated by the Ministry of the Environment from Boca Tapada at the outskirts of Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge. The Committee has its headquarters at the Tropical Science Center, in San Pedro de Montes de Oca, San José, and assumes the responsibility of coordinating and promoting the implementation of the corridor, and its main components.


        Each organization has clearly defined responsibilities within the design of the Executive Committee of the Corridor.


Responsibilities of Executive Committee organizations




Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project


General coordination and research

Tropical Science Center


Administration, institutional and legal endorsement

Wildlife Conservation Society



Mesoamerican Biological Corridor-Costa Rica


Consulting and logistical support

Organization for Tropical Studies



Arenal Huetar Norte Conservation Area


Local implementation, Environmental Service Payment

Central Volcanic Range Conservation Area


Local implementation, Environmental Service Payment

Friends of the Great Green Macaw


Research and community work

Association for the Preservation of Flora and Wildlife


Wildlife welfare, control, surveillance and community work

Association for the Management of Forest Areas of San Carlos


Community work

Women Association of Quebrada Grande


Community work, ecotourism, gender

Farming Association of Santa Elena


Community work, ecotourism

Alianza Garabito


Community work, ecotourism, organic agriculture

Association of Volunteer Research and Environmental Development


Environmental education

Center for Environmental Rights and Natural Resources


Legal aspects, land tenure, conservation easements

Commission for Forestry Development of San Carlos


Reforestation, Environmental Service Payment

Ministry of Environment and Energy


Political support

Municipality of San Carlos


Local political support

Municipality of Sarapiquí


Local political support

La Tirimbina Biological Reserve


Environmental education and research

Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center


Environmental education, community outreach

Ornithological Association of Costa Rica


Ornithology, bird conservation


The alternative

        Territory for Maquenque Mixed National Wildlife Refuge, the principal conservation area within the Corridor, is considered highest priority. Three tracts of intermediate priority constitute the Corridor “nuclei”, the remaining territory comprising the Corridor matrix. The goal of the Corridor initiative is to preserve 100% of nuclei and 50% of matrix habitat via environmental service payments to private landowners. Such financial incentives strongly influence land use trends in this region and will be expanded and better publicized to foster landowner participation at larger, more biologically relevant scales required to implement the Corridor.


        The creation of Maquenque will generate employment opportunities in an economically depressed area that currently depends on limited forestry and agricultural activities. Conservation easements have also proven to be an effective measure for the conservation of scenic locations of touristy value in Costa Rica and will be used in the Corridor nuclei and in the Corridor matrix


        Costa Rican and Nicaraguan people are becoming increasingly aware, and species such as the manatee and great green macaw are part of their national heritage. The environmental education program will inform schoolchildren how conservation efforts that preserve and connect habitats can help protect such species of national importance. Furthermore, the initiative works on a community-based ecotourism development strategy enhanced by the implementation of the “San Juan-La Selva Birding Route”.


        The Corridor initiative is led by the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor Executive Committee with the participation of the Tropical Science Center (TSC) as the coordinator and resource manager. The committee is comprised of an alliance of institutions


Nicaragua-Costa Rica

        In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, great extensions of pristine and partly intervened forests are threatened by the fast logging that happens as much in the buffer zone of the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve as in northern Costa Rica. In these areas, the forest industry takes advantage of the absence of policy for an integral development and mechanisms that warrant the sustainable management of forest resources.


        The environmental partnership between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is the result of various workshops held to build an integrated model that initiated in the eighties with the SI-A-PAZ initiative (International System of Protected Areas for Peace). In April 1999, the Biosphere Reserve of Southeast Nicaragua was created.


        In 2000 and 2001, The United Nations Program for Development (UNPD) facilitated bi-national meetings amongst Nicaraguan and Costa Rican institutions, establishing a working network of the environmental, academic, cultural and media sectors from both countries. Since 2001, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor has supported bi-national collaborative experiences originated since the SI-A-PAZ process, which led to the identification of the El Castillo-San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor, where the Great Green Macaw, flagship species for these territories, thrives and reproduces.


        The bi-national campaign “Save the Great Green Macaw” is being implemented since 2001 together with Fundación del Río and the Tropical Science Center, in Nicaragua and Costa Rica respectively. This bi-national experience teaches us that Nicaraguan and Costa Rican protected areas maintain a clear biological and social relationship within the San Juan-La Selva basin. In 2002, we worked on building these links. By mid 2002, we decided to strengthen the identification of stakeholders by the way of specific actions. Such was the case, for example, of the crystallization on the topic of the Great Green Macaw: eleven workshops about the biology and conservation of the great green macaw were held in Nicaragua and five bi-national festivals were organized. This partnership produced many outreach in the buffer zone of Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve. This process led to the creation of the Bi-national Commission of the El Castillo-San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor in November 2002, which is integrated by government agencies, local governments and NGOs from both countries, with the aim to develop bi-national actions that had been conducted on an informal basis until then.


        Our endeavour to conserve the metapopulation of great green macaws and the habitat that this magnificent bird represents is clearly oriented towards the strengthening of collaborative links between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.


For more information on the great green macaw and the biological corridor initiatives, please visit


To admire pictures of the great green macaws in their natural environment, please visit


Contact information

Guisselle Monge Arias & Olivier Chassot

Great Green Macaw Research and Conservation Project

Executive Committee of the San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor

Tropical Science Center


PO Box 8-3870-1000 San José, Costa Rica

Ph: (++506) 253-3267 / Fax: (++506) 253-4963






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