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Smuggled Lear’s Macaw in Bangladesh: Can the endangered birds return to the wild?

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In a recent wildlife incident at the Hazrat ShahJalal International Airport, a trio of endangered Lear’s macaws found themselves in Bangladesh, raising questions about their future and the prospects of returning them to the wild. Lear’s macaws, also known as Indigo macaws, are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These remarkable birds were seized by the Forest Department late last month, among a consignment of illegally imported birds.

The initial confusion surrounding the identity of these precious avian imports resulted from their striking resemblance to Hyacinth macaws. However, the Forest Department later acknowledged their uniqueness, with Hyacinth macaws also being classified as vulnerable.

These rare birds, alongside 69 other seized avian species, including Tawny frogmouth, Toucan, and lovebirds, were confiscated at Hazrat ShahJalal International Airport. Lear’s macaws and Toucans are both protected under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). In response to this smuggling attempt, the importer was fined Tk72 lakh, and their license was suspended for a year.

The seized Lear’s macaws now find themselves under quarantine at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park in Gazipur, a temporary home arranged by the authorities. Conservationists, both locally and internationally, have expressed concerns regarding the trafficking of these endangered birds.

“Lear’s macaws are highly endangered with only a few hundred surviving in the wild in Brazil. Their wild populations have been decimated by capture for the pet trade,” says Dr. Rowan Martin, Director of Bird Trade Programmes at the World Parrot Trust.

“We are hugely encouraged by the actions being taken to address the illegal trade in wildlife in Bangladesh, which has become a major center for the global bird trade, importing tens of thousands of wild birds annually from all over the world. The concealment of a highly valuable and extremely rare species within a secret compartment suggests a well-organized trafficking operation exploiting the legal trade of birds into Bangladesh,” Dr. Martin added.

The future of these Lear’s macaws remains uncertain, as authorities have not yet finalized their plans for the rare birds. While options are still under consideration, there is a possibility that they will be placed in a regular display cage, allowing visitors to observe and appreciate them. Such a setup already exists for other macaw species, including Red-and-green macaws and Blue-and-yellow macaws.

Imran Ahmed, Conservator of Forests and Project Director of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park, noted, “A case has been filed in this regard, and we’ll take a decision once the trial is over. However, since the birds are not native, there is a possibility that they will be kept in the safari park. There are precedents of it in the case of seized animals and birds.”

However, releasing Lear’s macaws into the wild in Bangladesh is not a viable option, given their natural habitat in South America. These birds may struggle to survive in the unfamiliar environment, and the risk of poaching remains a significant concern.

Efforts are underway to prevent these magnificent birds from becoming permanently confined to cages in the safari park. Conservationists have undertaken breeding programs for various endangered macaw species in Brazil and Europe. These programs are aimed at reintroducing these birds into their natural habitats.

Last year, a conservation effort saw eight captive Spix’s macaws, the inspiration for the movie ‘Rio,’ reintroduced into the forests of Brazil, and more such releases are planned. Similar programs are in place for captive-bred Lear’s macaws to reinforce dwindling wild populations.

“With a species this close to extinction, it’s vitally important that these macaws are integrated into legitimate conservation breeding programs in Europe or Brazil so they can help secure the future for these incredible birds. It would be the best possible outcome from this tragic situation,” Dr. Rowan Martin stressed.

The forest department has indicated a willingness to cooperate in such efforts. CF Imran Ahmed expressed, “If any intergovernmental arrangement allows the sending of the birds to a breeding program with a view to repopulating in the wild, I believe this will be a good thing.”

For years, Bangladesh has been a notorious transit point for transnational wildlife smugglers. Wildlife law enforcement agencies have frequently intercepted exotic birds and animals destined for illicit trade. Smugglers often blur the lines between legal and illegal trade to evade detection, highlighting the ongoing challenges in the battle against wildlife trafficking.

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