Remember the blue macaw pair from the 2011 animated film 'Rio'? The movie was inspired by the plight of Spix's macaw, a macaw species that was on the brink of extinction in the wild at that time.
In the movie, a male Spix's macaw, raised in captivity in the United States travels all the way to Brazil to join the last living female of its species to repopulate the wild. The movie played an important role in spreading awareness about illegal/unethical pet businesses that pushed many bird species to extinction
But it was too late.
A study released in 2018 found that the Spix's macaw had gone extinct in the wild years ago.
In a similar turn of events, three blue macaws, belonging to Lear's macaw species, have ended up in Bangladesh. Lear's macaw, also called the Indigo macaw, is listed by IUCN as Endangered. The birds were seized by the Forest Department from Hazrat ShahJalal International Airport late last month, in a consignment of illegally imported birds.
The birds were first identified as Hyacinth macaw by the forest department due to the two species' identical appearance, but as the news alerted many international experts, the FD later realised the smuggled birds were more of a rare variety. The Hyacinth macaw is also listed as Vulnerable.
Also among the 69 seized birds were Tawny frogmouth, Toucan and small parrots commonly known as lovebirds. Lear's macaw and Toucan are protected under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). The importer was slapped with a Tk72 lakh fine, and its licence has also been suspended for a year.
The birds were sent to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park, Gazipur, where they are currently kept in quarantine.
Conservationists from both home and abroad expressed concern over the smuggling attempt of the 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," Dr Rowan Martin, Director of Bird Trade Programmes at the World Parrot Trust told The Business Standard.
"We are hugely encouraged by the actions being taken to address the illegal trade in wildlife in Bangladesh which has become a major centre 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-organised trafficking operation exploiting the legal trade of birds into Bangladesh," Dr Martin added.
The authorities have not yet decided exactly what to do with the rare birds, but there is a possibility that they will be put in the regular display cage where visitors can see them. Currently, there are several individuals of Red-and-green macaw, and Blue-and-yellow macaw in a large cage where visitors are allowed to enter and pet the birds and take photos with them.
"A case has been filed in this regard, we'll take the 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," Imran Ahmed, Conservator of Forests (CF) and Project Director, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Safari Park told TBS.
Macaws breeding in captivity is extremely rare in Bangladesh. In 2011, two Blue-and-yellow macaw chicks were hatched in a private zoo in Dhaka. Last month, a chick from the same species was hatched in the Safari Park. The parent birds have been in the park for about 8 years.
However, there is no way for the macaws to be released in the wild in Bangladesh, as the birds are native to South America. They might not survive in a Bangladeshi forest, and also the risk of poaching is high.
This would mean that the fate of Lear's macaws is sealed, and they might have to live the rest of their lives in cages in the safari park.
Reintroduction to the wild
Conservationists have been attempting to undo the fate of the birds extinct in the wild.
There are well-managed breeding programmes for different species of endangered macaws in Brazil and in Europe.
Last year, eight captive Spix's macaw (the bird from the movie 'Rio'), was reintroduced into the forest in Brazil thanks to a remarkable international conservation effort. And there are plans to release more in the coming days. The birds have been held in captivity around the world, Europe included.
Under similar programmes, captive-bred Lear's macaws are already being used to reinforce wild populations.
"With a species this close to extinction, it's vitally important that these macaws are integrated into legitimate conservation breeding programmes 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 said.
The forest department says it is not impossible.
"If any intergovernmental arrangement allows the sending of the birds to a breeding programme with a view to repopulating in the wild, I believe this will be a good thing," said CF Imran Ahmed.
For a long time, Bangladesh has been used as a transnational transit point by wildlife smugglers. Many exotic birds and animals have been rescued from smugglers by law enforcers from time to time. Smugglers often mix illegal trade with legal ones to get away with it.