Brazilian Bird Extinct in Wild Makes Return to Jungle
By Pedro Biondi
Extinct in its habitat for at least three decades, the Alagoas curassow (Pauxi mitu) is now back in the jungle and facing a test of survival, thanks to the joint efforts of more than a dozen institutions to pull this pheasant-like bird back from the brink.
Three pairs of curassows were reintroduced a month and a half ago in a 980-hectare (2,400-acre) area of the Atlantic Forest in the Brazilian state of Alagoas. Researchers are keeping tabs on them remotely, via GPS tags, to see whether they can find food and shelter, reproduce, and stay safe from predators on their own.
The bird is the first case of the reintroduction of an animal declared extinct in the wild in Latin America, and one of just a handful in the world. According to Luís Fábio Silveira, curator of the ornithological collection at the Museum of Zoology of the University of São Paulo, there are "very few similar cases" in the world. Success stories include the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), the Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis), the black-footed ferret or American polecat (Mustela nigripes), and the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus).
The journey that led to the Alagoas curassow's resurrection started four decades ago, thanks to the obstinacy of Pedro Nardelli, a businessman who kept a scientific bird-breeding facility in Nilópolis, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In 1979, he traveled to the metropolitan region of Maceió, in Alagoas state, looking for specimens of the curassow, a red-billed, black-bodied, fowl-like bird. Described for the first time in the 17th century by the German naturalist George Marcgraf — who included a mention of its culinary use, one of the factors behind its eventual extinction in the wild — the species was very rarely seen in its original territory, a small area of Atlantic Forest between the states of Alagoas and Pernambuco. Besides the hunting, the bird was also threatened by the advance of sugarcane plantations in the region.
The five curassows that Nardelli was able to rescue were captured in a forest area that, ironically enough, would give way to a new sugar and ethanol plant, thanks to the accelerated pace of deforestation imposed by Proálcool, a national program aimed at stimulating sugarcane ethanol production. "If Nardelli had arrived two years later, there would be no more [curassows]," said civil engineer Fernando Pinto, who worked at the ethanol plant at the time and later became the breeder's main partner in the rescue mission. "Destiny called."
A pair of Alagoas curassow at the moment of release, after leaving the acclimatization aviary. Clarice Maia / Agência Alagoas / Mongabay
Back in Rio de Janeiro, Nardelli managed to get one of the male curassows and two of the females to reproduce. The trio would spawn the sole lineage responsible for passing on the species' DNA. Pinto began traveling to Rio de Janeiro more frequently. "We spent whole weekends literally inside the aviary, talking only about birds," he said. "That breeding facility, perhaps the biggest in Latin America, was my Disneyland."
While testing the constitution of a safe breeding stock, Nardelli promoted the idea of crossbreeding with the closely related razor-billed curassow (Pauxi tuberosa) to try to secure a sort of "DNA backup" of the nearly extinct bird. In the process, however, the breeders lost the spreadsheets that identified the genetically pure individuals and the hybrids. A team from São Carlos Federal University (UFSCar), led by Mercival Roberto Francisco, joined in to separate the wheat from the chaff: in 2008, a genetic rescue program for the species was initiated, using minute analysis to differentiate the pure birds from the hybrids.
Francisco, a professor of ex situ (out-of-habitat) conservation and wildlife management, kept in close contact with breeder Roberto Azeredo, of the Society for Wildlife Research (Crax), who 20 years ago inherited part of Nardelli's breeding stock. Their challenge now is to increase the genetic diversity of purebred Alagoas curassows. For this, Azeredo has suggested that pairs with the greatest DNA difference be made to breed — or rather, to marry, since the bird is normally monogamous; pairs stay together until one individual dies.
This selection process is the central point of the project to reintroduce the Alagoas curassow into the wild, considering the risks of inbreeding in a lineage that descends from just three individuals.
Back to the Habitat
An Alagoas curassow in captivity. The species waited three decades to come back to nature. Luís Fábio Silveira / Agência Alagoas / Mongabay
In 1996, already thinking of creating the conditions under which the bird could return to nature, Fernando Pinto founded the Atlantic Forest Preservation Institute (IPMA). The NGO coordinates environmental education actions in the communities and farms of the Zona da Mata, a coastal plain in Brazil's northeast. It seeks to sensitize sugarcane farmers, whose fields comprise the largest areas of remnant vegetation in the region, to conserve or restore the habitat of the Alagoas curassow. Pinto counts 9,000 hectares (22,240 acres) already converted or in the process of being converted into private natural heritage reserves (RPPNs).
One of these areas is the RPPN Mata do Cedro, in the municipality of Rio Largo, a forest fragment situated within the area of the former Utinga Leão plant (now just Utinga), a sugar and ethanol producer struggling to avoid bankruptcy. The researchers selected the area for the reintroduction of the Alagoas curassow into the wild because of its extension — the ideal habitat should span at least 500 hectares (1,200 acres) of forest — and also because of the absence of hunters.
To ensure it was a safe environment for the bird, the Alagoas Environmental Institute (IMA) and the Alagoas Environmental Police ran daily patrols over the course of two years to monitor the area. "There was no incident of illegal hunting, but we can't lower our guard. In Brazil, especially in the north and the northeast, there's a very strong hunting culture," said Epitácio Correia, the manager of the fauna, flora and conservation units at the IMA.
On Sept. 19, six individual Alagoas curassows were transferred by plane from Contagem, in the state of Minas Gerais, where the Crax breeding center is located, to Alagoas. For the first time in three decades, the species was back in its natural habitat. The birds were initially taken to an acclimatization aviary, built within an Atlantic Forest fragment, in preparation for permanent released on Sept. 25.
Thanks to the satellite tags, the researchers will be able to monitor literally every step of the six newly released birds. If the curassows succeed in the challenge of evading natural enemies such as small wildcats, and prove themselves able to generate offspring, the task force's plan is to release three more pairs into the wild each year until 2024. Meanwhile, the breeding in captivity continues; there are about 90 Alagoas curassow in aviaries across Brazil.
The sugar plant also provided an area to build an environmental education center, to be inaugurated in January and named after Pedro Nardelli. A fourth pair of curassows will be kept there, in captivity, as a living exhibit for children and adolescents.
Nardelli didn't live to see his dream come true. He died in August, the month when the reintroduction was initially scheduled. But he could, at least, honor the event at which Alagoas Governor Renan Filho named Pauxi mitu the official bird of the state in 2017.
Watch the video of the release:
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
- Climate Change Threatens Two-Thirds of North American Bird ... ›
- Nearly 30,000 Species Face Extinction Because of Human Activity ... ›
- Invasive Species Have Led to a Third of Animal Extinctions Since 1500 ›
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jake Johnson
Amid reports that oil industry-friendly former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz remains under consideration to return to his old post in the incoming Biden administration, a diverse coalition of environmental groups is mobilizing for an "all-out push" to keep Moniz away from the White House and demand a cabinet willing to boldly confront the corporations responsible for the climate emergency.
Anger, anxiety, overwhelm … climate change can evoke intense feelings.
- Your Guide to Talking With Kids of All Ages About Climate Change ... ›
- 7 of the Best Ted Talks About Climate Change - EcoWatch ›
- Katharine Hayhoe Reveals Surprising Ways to Talk About Climate ... ›
An extremely rare North Atlantic right whale calf was found dead off the North Carolina coast on Friday.
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="24c36ab7f041f96875677ba1e9dc1944"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/CapeLookoutNPS/posts/3608024915884969"></div></div>
- 411 North Atlantic Right Whales Remain: This Solution Could Help ... ›
- Sixth North Atlantic Right Whale Found Dead Prompts Concern ... ›
- First North Atlantic Right Whale Calf of the Season Spotted off ... ›
By Andrea Germanos
A new report released Tuesday details the "shocking" state of global land equality, saying the problem is worse than thought, rising, and "cannot be ignored."
- We Need a Green New Deal for Farmland - EcoWatch ›
- The Netherlands Can Feed the World. Here's Why It Shouldn't ... ›
- The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil - EcoWatch ›
- Urban Farming Booms During Coronavirus Lockdowns - EcoWatch ›