The endless desert dunes that cover Qatar are not what make the Middle Eastern monarchy considered an antithesis of "green." Concepts like conservation and eco-friendliness may translate into Arabic, but their application to everyday life is nonexistent. Since its nearly 1.4 million constituents do not pay for basic utilities, such as water and electricity, Qatar's energy consumption ends up grossly disproportionate to its population size. In spite of its arid geography, Qataris use a stunning average of 400 liters of water every day. Not to mention that the tiny country remains guilty of the largest carbon footprint in the world: 55.5 metric tons per person in 2005 - three times greater than the United States' per-capita carbon dioxide emissions - and rising fast.
Understandably, to say that Qatar would seem an unlikely location for one of the world's most successful conservational efforts would be an understatement. And yet, in spite of its embarrassing environmental track record, the Al Wabra Wildlife Preserve has achieved just that. In the geographic heart of the country, this literal oasis for rare wildlife has proven integral to the salvation of one of the most critically endangered species on the planet: the Spix's Macaw.
The sad and amazing story of the Spix's Macaw begins not in Qatar, but far away - across the African continent and Atlantic Ocean, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. It was there that the bird's namesake, German naturalist Johann Baptist von Spix, traveled to in 1817 and discovered the curious creature. At that time, these metallic blue birds thrived in the silvery green leaves of Caribbean Trumpet Trees that lined riverbanks throughout the region.
Standing approximately 56 centimeters (22.5 inches) tall and weighing 360 grams (less than 1 pound), Spix's Macaws were always distinctly recognizable. Black facial skin surrounding the eye, feet, and beaks contrasted the otherwise shiny, lighter plumage that seemed to camouflage against the sky. Even when not seen, the parrots could often be heard, their squawking calls frequently echoing throughout the woodlands.
A creature of habit, the Spix's Macaw maintained a strict schedule, often performing its regular routines - bathing, eating, resting - at the same time every day. It would even replicate its flight paths on a daily basis, soaring above the same spots at the same hours. True to its particular personality, the Spix's Macaw only occupied areas of woodlands that met certain criteria: most importantly, it relied on Tabebuia aurea, or the Caribbean Trumpet Tree, a ten-meter tall deciduous plant often covered in vibrant yellow flowers. Along the Sao Francisco River and other nearby tributaries and creeks, these trees served as essential sanctuaries for roosting and nesting.
A complete dependence on the Caribbean Trumpet Tree prevented the Spix's Macaw from ever expanding into surrounding territories, leaving the species extremely vulnerable to any disruptions in its habitat. When Portuguese settlers began their expansion into Brazil, the brilliantly colored bird caught their attention and became subject to extensive hunting and trapping. Those that evaded capture often lost their homes to deforestation; given such specific living criteria, relocation often proved a difficult task. As if the introduction of humans was not enough, the invasion of Africanized bees plagued the Macaw population throughout the twentieth century. Swarms of the killer insects took over the coveted Caribbean Trumpet Trees, stealing nesting sites and even murdering breeding birds.
Just a century and a half after its discovery, the Spix's Macaw was perched on the precipice of extinction. Captive specimens lived in private collections and zoos around the world, but by 1970, no more than a few dozen individuals survived in the wild woodlands of Bahia. Within a decade, persistent trapping and deforestation turned a perilous situation into a hopeless one. By 1985, scientists could only locate five remaining birds; even though this small group included two pairs, the wild population of Spix's Macaw had reached a point of no return.
Three trappings and one disappearance later, the wild population had reached just one: a mature male who in 1990 was discovered to have mated with a female blue-winged macaw. In 1995, scientists released a captive female to mate with this male, but she vanished just weeks later. In October 2000, the last wild Spix's Macaw was found dead.
With this realization, conservationists around the globe joined together to save Cyanopsitta spixil. While certain private entities remained uncooperative, enough institutions and individuals offered their specimens to provide scientists with the necessary genetic diversity to initiate rebreeding programs.
Since its inception in 1990, the international breeding program at the Institute Chico Mendes of Biodiversity Conservation has played an instrumental role in the species' recovery. While the organization is a natural heritage branch of the Brazilian government, less than a handful of the birds involved in this initiative remain in their historic homeland. As of 2010, more than 50 of the estimated 120 Spix's Macaws still alive can be found not in Brazil, but in Qatar at Al Wabra.
Now owned and operated by Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al Thani, Al Wabra has proven the most successful breeding ground for the Spix's Macaw. While scientists have provided ideal conditions for the birds to reproduce, the mating process in captivity differs greatly from what it was in the wild. In Brazil, mature Macaws mated for life, joining together in lifelong union after elaborate courtship displays at the beginning of spring. On the makeshift Middle Eastern breeding grounds, there is no courting at all.
After the twenty-six days of incubation, the captive chicks are hand-raised by their keepers. Unlike in the wild, where devoted parents continued to feed their clutch eight months after hatching - including three months after the young parrots had already fledged and left the nest - human scientists band the chicks' legs, implant microchip transponders, and raise them in their initial months. If Al Wabra sustains its success, perhaps when the Spix's Macaw chicks of today mature in seven years, they will have the chance to raise their own offspring - maybe even in the wild.
Caribbean Trumpet woodlands along rivers and creeks
Historically in Bahia, a northeastern state in Brazil
Various plants, fruits, and seeds
In the wild, the Spix's Macaw primarily consumed the Euphoribacae plant, fruit from the cacti-covered caatinga trees, and seeds from the faveleira and pinhao trees.
An already loud bird, the Spix's Macaw often mimics surrounding sounds.
The Spix's Macaw is a shy yet social bird, generally living and traveling in pairs or family groups.
Spix's Macaws could be sold at a price of up to $200,000 - a staggering cost, but a small fraction of the $15 billion that are made through the illegal trafficking of vulnerable and endangered species every year.
If a Spix's Macaw parent sensed danger, it would hop onto the ground and lay on its side, thus drawing attention away from its nest.