The scarlet macaws is one of the most dazzling birds to be found in the Belizean wild. Their greatest population is concentrated in the Chiquibul Forest. And right now, they are in their breeding season.
The Friends for Conservation and Development which co-manages the area reports that there are an encouraging number of macaws flying but their prospects remain precarious as the illegal pet trade in the Chiquibul facilitated by Guatemalan poachers is still thriving.
They report that every week they observe nests being attacked by Guatemalans. We visited the Chiquibul exactly a year ago and found a forest full of splendor but also swarming with threats.
Here's that story which originally aired a year ago on June 10, 2009:....
Today the rangers are in a motorboat, but usually they paddle up this wide waterway to conduct their patrols. Cormorants or what most people call a sheg lead the way. But it's not the common sheg, we're looking for today, it's the scarlet Macaw, the prize of Chiquibul - there's an estimated population of about 200. Lenny Gentle explains.
Larry Gentle, Scarlet Macaw Project Field Biologist
"This is where we are on the Macal River. So we are heading towards the Rascapulo Branch which is the main territory for the Macaw. The Macaws are not only in the reservoir, they are also outside living all about the forest but there is a high concentration of nests around this area."
And he's right, within minutes after we set off, we sight a flock of scarlet Macaws in the wild, a special moment, as the brilliant colours of their wings lead a dance above the forest canopy, and they disappear into the cover, diving into green. The macaws live nearby in Quamwood trees on the river bank. They depend on the soft wood and the forces of nature to make a home for them.
"The macaws don't know to make cavities and so they depend on nature to make cavities for them."
Like this one - where you can saw the Macaw's colourful beak peering out. And those high trees where they make their nests added to the clamour they create make them an easy target for poachers - which is an increasing problem for FCD.
"What we're founding since over the last two years we have a lot of the Guatemalan xatero poachers who basically cross the border and they come almost 15 miles to collect their chicks and also we've been finding some places where they actually cut the trees down with chainsaws, cut them down with machetes or axes to get to the chicks if they cannot climb."
There are also other problems that Guatemalan encroachers create like these burnt trees. This tree used to be the nesting area for a pair of macaws, but now it's as burnt and destitute as a solitary matchstick. This quamwood tree shows the trail of climbing spurs, meaning someone has clambered up to capture the macaws. It's a sore sight and an unbelievable activity for an endangered bird in a national park, but it's real and it is economics.
"For me it is definitely frustrating after being out here for the last five years. I've seen a lot of damage, you know the flooding of the dam and now we have poaching. This is unprecedented poaching. Basically we have lost about ten macaw nests cavities so far. Ten, and now we have reports that these things are being sold in Guatemala for about 3,000 quetzals."
And while that's a sore sight, those are in the minority those who traverse the Chiquibul, be they Xateros or wide eyed sightseer like me, will inevitably encounter natural wonders like this, natural, year round spring, a juvenile tapir, feasting on fresh grass. He seemed shy but not too disturbed, as he made a slight retreat - but we still found him through the thicket maybe even posing for us. His business finished, he rushed along. Later on, in another area, we spotted a slightly larger juvenile gamely navigating this tangle of limbs.
But the Tapir's have company, and we don't mean us. These rafts are what the Xateros use to cross the river after coming from the west through dense difficult forests.
"At first they were not around here because we actually are about 15 miles from the border but now they have penetrated our forest so far, it is unbelievable to know how far they are now extracting xate. This is considered like a core conservation area."
Core conservation in the heart of the Maya Mountain range, but fair grounds for Xateros. In just a few minutes we come across half a dozen rafts all on the west side of the river, parked there and ready to take the Xateros east where the plant is plentiful. Eventually it's too much, and the FCD rangers take the decision to disable the rafts. It's fairly simple and just requires detaching the cross member or severing the tying wire with a machete. The rafts are not much, two logs nailed or tied together but the Guatemalans who use them just need something to flat them across the river - and some judging from the size of this monster could float a family across. It's just one sign of a battle FCD continues to fight even if only symbolically.
Rafael Manzanero, Director - Friends of Conservation and Development
"The cutting of the raft or the tine material used for the rafts, at least it means that people can get the feeling that there is a presence, that people are around that area. But it has to be much more consistent."
We are in a core conservation area where the macaws are breeding and we have Guatemalan contractors working here. We have illegal and legal Guatemalan personnel working at this camp. So basically it is not a good idea to have people working where we have a species like the macaw."
And indeed about 200 feet away just after a bend in the river we did see a pair of Macaws on this quamwood tree announcing their presence with their usual loud shrieks - definitely within earshot of the Xate camp too close for these conservationists.
Rafael Manzanero, Director - FCD
"The scarlet macaw it does bring, it can range from in the range of 2,500 quetzals and above. Then certainly I think it is going to be quite like tempting to go for this bird but we cannot really prove that indeed these guys are involved right now but certainly does give the environment to provide for such an opportunity."
"The xateros are not only collecting xate, they thief our caves, there are a lot of caves over here. They take our scarlet macaws, they loot our other types of animals, and they kill animals for subsistence so we lose a lot in the whole thing."
"It is really is a piece of land, it is a patrimony for all Belizeans and we want really to bring up that the magic that we have here, it belongs to all of us and we don't really want for these things to be destroyed, particularly by people who perhaps are not really versed with our laws, people who don't understand why we live as a society, and we need really to bring out this."
And no doubt Chiquibul is a place of wonderment - almost beyond words, and looking at them now, not even the camera images do it justice - but while its beauty is a blessing, its breadth, the sheer expanse is a curse, and preserving this national treasure will take a unified, concerted effort - and we're not convinced all the players are on the same page.
The scarlet Macaw is one of the most valuable and sought after birds on the black market....