National Geographic : 1994 Jan
TWINING CHANNELS of the Tambopata River bring water from the Peruvian Andes to rain forest at the edge of the Amazon basin. Mostly untouched by the development that has scarred neighboring areas, 50,000 square miles here shelter an especially diverse group of plants and animals, including eight species of macaws. assault it with their loudest cries, and the eagle quickly flies away. I came to appreciate the close-range power of that ulti mate macaw shriek early on in my ten years of studying these extraordinary birds. A trumpet blown straight into your ear would not feel worse. THE FIRST MACAW clay lick I ever saw was 150 miles northwest of the Tambo pata lick, in Manu Na tional Park, where I was researching small forest birds. Other biologists and I assumed that it was the only macaw lick in the world. That's how little was known in 1984 when I began the first study of macaws in the wild for the New York Zoological Society, now called NYZS/The Wildlife Conserva tion Society. Macaws: Winged Rainbows Today we have counted 18 major licks in southeastern Peru and heard reliable reports from the region's native people of 15 others. There are likely dozens more on riverbanks in the inac cessible reaches of this forest arguably the most biologically diverse and intact rain forest in the Amazon, and in the world. Sixteen species of macaws inhabit tropical forests from central Mexico to northern Argentina, distinguished among the world's 340 parrot species by their long tails and huge beaks. Eight are considered large; the others weigh a pound or less. Nine are endangered or threatened, and Spix's macaw of Brazil may soon be extinct in the wild. Macaws' intelligence ranks them among birds as chimpanzees rank among apes. Eight species of macaws remain abundant in southeast ern Peru. But when I began to study the region's three largest-the red-and-green, the scarlet, and the blue-and yellow-the birds and their for est were facing some of the pressures that have imperiled macaw species elsewhere. Fortunately, export of rain forest birds (outlawed by Peru in 1973) had not been a problem in this wilderness east of the Andes-it was simply too re mote. But the 400 Machiguenga Indians in Manu National Park would occasionally shoot macaws for their tough, stringy meat if a day's hunt for spider monkeys and tapir had failed. Also gold miners were pushing into tributaries of the Tambo pata River. And that region's virgin stands of timber were luring commercial harvesters.