The costs and rewards of conserving the Lear’s Macaw

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How much does it cost to save from extinction a
parrot, or any other species for that matter? There is no straight-forward
answer because of the complexity of compiling all necessary information on
likely costs. However, it is imperative to try, because the resources available
for conservation are limited and should be used to optimum effect.

Over seven years ago an authoritative scientific article (McCarthy et al. 2012) gave an overview of the probable financial costs to prevent extinctions of threatened species and to protect and effectively manage all terrestrial sites of global conservation significance. These costs were calculated to be US$4.76 billion annually to reduce the extinction risk of all globally threatened species, and US$76.1 billion annually to establish and maintain the protection of terrestrial sites.

Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) feeding on licuri palm fruits.

When put into context, these are not impossibly large sums of money. For instance, the amount required for terrestrial sites is only 1% of the US$75.59 trillion Gross World Domestic Product in the year the article was published. In the preceding 15 years the world lost an estimated US$4-20 trillion per year in ecosystem services (supply of clean water, natural flood control, soil formation, etc) due to human-induced change of natural areas. The authors of the article, projecting a decade ahead, estimated that only 12% was available of the total funds needed annually to reduce the extinction risk of all globally threatened bird species.

A view of arid caatinga forest and nesting cliffs of Lear’s Macaws.

The Loro Parque Fundación supports projects intended
to reduce the extinction risk of threatened parrots, and to help maintain their
natural habitats. Since 2006, one of those species has been the endangered
Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari)
which has a very small geographical distribution in the arid caatinga biome in
the north of Bahia State, Brazil. Found in the wild only in 1978, with a
population of about 60 individuals, the Lear’s Macaw nests in cavities in
sandstone cliffs. It is threatened by extensive livestock grazing and other
agricultural activities which cause the loss and degradation of its habitat,
especially when an important food resource for the species, the fruits of the
licuri palm (Syagrus coronata), is
affected. Furthermore, Lear’s Macaws are removed from the wild in two ways: the
poaching of chicks from nests for illegal trade, and killing by farmers because
of damage to maize crops by the macaws. In the past the macaws were also hunted
for food. Currently the species is mainly concentrated in two protected areas called
Raso da Catarina Ecological Station and, 38km further west, Canudos Biological

Licuri palms (Syagrus coronata) are a key food source for the Lear’s Macaw.

Returning to the question of calculating the cost to
prevent the extinction of a species, a recent article by Antonio Barbosa and
José Tella, researchers respectively at the National Centre for Bird Conservation
and Research, Brazil and the Doñana Biological Station, Spain, details how they
have done this for the Lear’s Macaw (Barbosa and Tella, 2019). They developed a
framework which not only detailed the costs of conserving the Lear’s Macaw in
the wild, but also the rewards of such conservation actions, not just for the
target species but also for habitat protection, restoration of ecosystem
services and economic rewards for local people.

Graph showing the funds invested annually in the project and the growth of the Lear’s Macaw population. Only 0.6% of the total funds was invested in 1992 to 1995.

The study found that the total funds invested in
Lear’s Macaw conservation in situ over
the 25 years to 2017 reached US$3.66 million (after adjusting for inflation of
the Brazilian currency). The proportional contribution of different sectors of
society to the total were as follows: state (principally Brazil) 59%, private
funders 6%, national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) 10% and
international NGOs 25%. As an international NGO, during the period in question
the Loro Parque Fundación donated US$462,602, being half (50.6%) of the total
for that sector. The proportions varied over time, with the international NGOs constituting
the main funding source for the early years, but with the state assuming a
major role, in particular between 2001 and 2012 when the Brazilian authorities
established and maintained a research
base and full-time field team.

Biologists and a farmer assess the damage to his maize crop from Lear’s Macaws.

Different conservation activities received funding in the
following proportions: research 51%, protection 22%, social
(awareness/capacity-building with local communities) 16%, annual census 4%,
meetings (National Action Plan) 4% and population reinforcement 3%. The
Brazilian government supported most of the costs of research, annual censuses
and meetings as well as almost half of spending on social activities. The
international NGOs were the major contributors to the direct protection
activities, and covered about 50% of the social activities. Indeed, an
important part of the support from the Loro Parque Fundación has included the
building of capacity within the local communities (Associations of Artisans) to
produce and market handicrafts, for example made from the leaves of licuri
palms. The LPF has also helped to supply maize seed to compensate farmers for
crop damages caused by Lear’s Macaws, and also contributed to monitoring nests
on the cliffs. Of the funds used for protection, the study showed that 80% were
used against nest poaching for illegal trade and 16% against killing of macaws
farmers. Poaching and killing by farmers caused 103 Lear’s Macaws to be removed
from the wild population.

Products made from dried licuri palm leaves.

No funds were devoted to modify power lines to reduce
collision risks, which cause 2% of the losses of macaws from the wild population.
Neither were any funds assigned to protect foraging habitats, a matter which
should be seriously deliberated by the Brazilian government given that the
acquisition, wages and maintenance of land and property are highly expensive.
In terms of habitat loss within the foraging distribution of the Lear’s Macaw
over the 16 years from 2000, the study showed that forest cover had decreased
by 20% from the original

2,219,170 ha, while the agro-pastoral surface
increased by 23%. Despite the obvious trends, because of high inter-year
variability these changes over time were not statistically significant.

The conservation rewards
were satisfactory, with the cost and time needed to down-list (in 2009) the
Lear’s Macaw from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered’ being similar to
those invested in other bird species. Its global population has increased in
parallel with conservation funds invested. However, economic rewards through
ecotourism and handicrafts linked to the conservation of the species were low and
require promotion. The study did not quantify ecosystem services provided by Lear’s

An adult Lear’s Macaw in the captive breeding programme.

The study has the private sector as the only supporter of population reinforcement. However, in the two most recent years, the Loro Parque Fundación has been contributing funds, as well as captive-bred Lear’s Macaws which have been released at a location frequented by two wild individuals 135 km to the west of Canudos. It is expected that this reinforcement and the international captive breeding programme will continue, with ongoing investment in ex situ conservation by the programme partners, of which the Loro Parque Fundación is a founder.

Author: David Waugh, Correspondent, Loro Parque Fundación

Photos credit: 1 – LPF, 2 – J. Cornejo/LPF, 3 – A.E. Barbosa, 5 – ECO, 6 – S. Tenorio, 7 – M. Reinschmidt


Barbosa, A.E.A and Tella, J.L. (2019) How much does it cost to save a species from extinction? Costs and rewards of conserving the Lear’s macaw. R. Soc. open sci. 6: 190190. McCarthy, D. P.,

Donald, P.F., Scharlemann, J.P.W., Buchanan, G.M., Balmford, A.,Green, J.M.H., Bennun, L.A., Burgess, N.D., Fishpool, L.D.C., Garnett, S.T., Leonard,D.L., Maloney, R.F., Morling, P., Schaefer, H.M., Symes, A., Wiedenfeld, D.A.,Butchart, S.H.M (2012) Financial costs of meeting global biodiversity conservation targets: current spending and unmet needs. Science 338: 946–949. (doi:10.1126/science.1229803)

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