Nearing 100 individuals perched in the crown of a large kapok tree (Ceiba trichistandra), in the fading daylight the flock of amazons suddenly took flight and found voice, calling loudly to each other until all had entered the stand of American carob trees (Prosopis pallida) to roost in silence. They were part of what appears to be the biggest remaining population of Lilacine Amazons (Amazona lilacina), with the initial discovery of the roost by Dr. Jose Tella (of Doñana Biological Station, Spain). This led to a Chester Zoo expedition to Las Balsas to confirm and study the roost of approximately 400 individuals, and to pass on the information to the Ecuadorean NGO, Fundación Jocotoco, for development of its project. A field team of Fundación Jocotoco started a regular population count, arriving at an estimated 1,200 individuals, with fluctuations throughout the year.
Previously considered a subspecies of the Red-lored Amazon (Amazona autumnalis), it was re-classified based largely on the research of Dr. Mark Pilgrim, Director of Chester Zoo, UK, who studied the birds in the wild and in captivity, including the specimens in the breeding centre of the Loro Parque Fundación. Thus, from 2014 the Lilacine Amazon achieved species-level recognition and instantly acquired the status of rarest mainland amazon parrot. This species, endemic to south-west Ecuador, now finds itself included in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as ‘Endangered’, and Birdlife International estimates its total population to be no more than 3,000. The main causes of decline of the wild population continue as threats today: trapping pressure is on-going for the local pet trade, and habitat loss and degradation are driven by agricultural expansion, timber and fuelwood harvesting and development. Sadly, in the native distribution of the amazon most of the forests and mangroves have been cleared since the mid-20th century.
To help in the battle to prevent the extinction in the wild of the Lilacine Amazon, the Loro Parque Fundación is supporting Fundación Jocotoco in a multi-faceted conservation project. Because their geographical distributions and forest habitat largely coincide, much of the project can also benefit the Great (Guayaquil) Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus guayaquilensis).
The project is now searching for new populations of Lilacine Amazons and monitoring the already known populations. The biggest new population was found in Las Balsas community, which is located in Santa Elena Province in the Chongón-Colonche cordillera, a range of hills of great biological importance which stretch north-west from Guayaquil city to the Pacific coast. The Las Balsas community owns a total of 24,000 hectares of dry to semi-humid forest, of which 9,993 ha. are protected by an agreement between the community and the governmental SocioBosque programme. The SocioBosque programme gives an annual payment of US$7/ha. to communities and private persons who register their properties for conservation over the next 20 years. At Las Balsas, the core area of the programme consists of some of the best remaining semi-humid primary and secondary forests in western Ecuador, which include breeding and foraging areas of Lilacine Amazons. This protected area is currently relatively free of deforestation, but hunting occurs.
In general, the local people farm for their own consumption, primarily in the fertile valley beneath the forested slopes. However, delays in payments to all participants of the SocioBosque programme threatens the future of the protected forest, because dissatisfied local farmers might begin to use the forest for other purposes, and the fire risk associated forest conversion activities is an important threat to the entire area. Lilacine Amazons have previously been recorded as roosting in mangroves, but in Las Balsas they travel at dusk to specific roosting sites in six forest patches (total of 42.5 ha.) of American carob trees along the Piedras river valley. These trees have hard timber and are threatened by logging for charcoal production by the local farmers, even though some natural regeneration occurs along the river banks.
The amazons are very faithful to these roosting sites, which offers a unique opportunity to study them. The project plans to track five adult individuals by satellite in order to confirm the key areas in the Chongón-Colonche hills for the conservation of the species, and to use the information to create a Fundación Jocotoco reserve with the best foraging, nesting and roosting areas that are currently unprotected. Improved protection will also have the intention to benefit the Great Green Macaw and the critically endangered Ecuadorian Capuchin monkey (Cebus aequatorialis) as well as many other threatened species unique to this so-called Tumbesian biological region, a remarkable centre of endemism. Furthermore, by monitoring the breeding and foraging sites, and variations in the size of this population, the project will gain insights on how to design and establish a conservation corridor over the longer term, to be able to maintain gene flow between Ayampe reserve on the Pacific coast and Cerro Blanco protected forest close to Guayaquil city.
Assessment of the pet trade and its effects remains incomplete not just in the area of Las Balsas but also in western Ecuador more widely. The fact that Lilacine Amazons are kept as pets in the Las Balsas community confirms that direct persecution happens in this area. In consequence the project is in the process of identifying the extent of parrot exploitation in the Las Balsas community and will raise local awareness for the plight of the species, in particular by addressing parrot trade and pet keeping. Surveys by Chester Zoo have confirmed that Lilacine Amazons are poached in some areas, including the important area around Isla Corazón at Bahia de Caraquez on the Pacific coast of Manabí province, but quantifying the effect on the population is part of ongoing research by Chester. Information collected by Fundación Jocotoco about sales of Lilacine Amazons in the Isla Corazón area point to the exploitation level being unsustainable for that local population.
As an insurance for the wild population the Lilacine Amazon is managed in captivity as a European Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP), coordinated by Chester Zoo. Lilacine Amazons have been kept and bred well in captivity for the last thirty plus years, with a corresponding accumulation of information on their management. This has resulted in the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Best Practice Guidelines for the successful husbandry of this species.
As the project to promote and protect the charismatic Lilacine Amazon in the Cordillera Chongón-Colonche matures, the hope is that the label ‘rarest species of mainland amazon’ will no longer apply.
Author: Dr. David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación
Title photo: Adult Lilacine Amazon (Amazona lilacina) (c) D. Arias Cruzatty