When you think of Brazilian forests, the Amazon is probably the first place you think of. But Brazil is also home to the Atlantic Forest, which originally covered around 15% of the country and is now home to 72% of the 200 million Brazilian citizens. The Atlantic Forest was once a continuous strip of green, but it was quickly cleared and converted into sugar cane plantations, pastures and cities, leaving small patches of vegetation scattered along the east coast of South America. Today only 12% are in Brazil. These forest islands are the last refuge for a large number of bird species, many of which are critically endangered. Of the 1,919 bird species in Brazil, 891 (almost half) are found in the Atlantic forest.
The forest areas in northeast Brazil are currently most threatened. Tragically, the region has just lost two of its unique bird species: the Alagoas leaf catcher Philydor novaesi and the cryptic tree hunter Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti were officially declared extinct by BirdLife in 2019. Despite this bleak situation, there is still hope of turning the tide of extinction with other species.
Serra do Urubu and Murici are two important bird and biodiversity areas that are 100 kilometers apart and between which there are only a few small areas of forest. Murici has 242 species of birds, 17 of which are threatened – including the Alagoas Antwren Myrmotherula snowi (critically endangered) with fewer than 50 birds. This alarming situation drew SAVE Brasil to Murici for the first time in 2000 to ensure the protection of the region. In 2001, in collaboration with their partners, they helped set up the Murici Ecological Station, which is operated by the Brazilian Federal Environment Agency. Despite being officially declared a protected area, important parts of Murici’s conservation plan are still not being properly implemented and the forest is still prone to being degraded and attacked at its edges.
Ruby Topaz Hummingbird, Copyright Pete Morris, from the Surfbirds Galleries
At the other end of the “corridor”, SAVE Brasil bought land in Serra do Urubu in 2004 and turned it into a private reserve to start a bold conservation project. With a proven combination of community engagement, on-site monitoring, restoration, bird surveying and ecotourism, the project has succeeded in maintaining the trees of Serra do Urubu. In addition to stopping logging, conservationists have restored 40 hectares of degraded forest – with dramatic results. In 2005 only three bird species were recorded here, today more than 70 species can be found here. These include fruit- and nectar-eating birds (like nine species of hummingbirds) that spread seeds and fertilize flowers and keep replenishing the plants of habit in a beneficial cycle.
Birds are exceptional indicators of an area’s biodiversity because they are well studied and they respond quickly to changes in the world around them. By looking at birds, we can learn about the type and quality of vegetation, the lie of the land, and even the altitude. Learning from the successes of Serra do Urubu and using birds as indicators, our next step is to connect the corridor between the two forests. With the support of BirdLife International / Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation and WWF-Brazil, our new project aims to restore 70 hectares of Atlantic forest between Serra do Urubu and Murici by the end of 2022. By planting trees and protecting habitats, we will attract more birds, and just like before, the birds themselves will do the rest of the work of regenerating these ecosystems.
Meanwhile, SAVE Brasil is working on a different approach in southeastern Brazil: fighting local extinction to prevent a species from becoming completely extinct. The black-front piping guan pipile jacutinga was originally found in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. But today poaching and habitat destruction has driven it from all but a handful of forest areas, and it is now endangered.
In response, SAVE Brasil started a project to reintroduce the guan to places where it was extinct. Starting in 2010, researchers started breeding birds in captivity and in 2016 began releasing them into three patches of well-preserved protected forest within the species’ original range. Once again, the restoration of this majestic bird has helped restore the entire forest. The black-fronted piping guan swallows the fruits of more than 40 species of trees and distributes large seeds that other birds cannot. This helps fight climate change by helping forest regrowth, especially large curls that absorb more carbon. One of his favorite foods is the jussara palm, Euterpes edulis, an endangered species in Brazil that is the victim of heavy illegal logging. In bringing back the guan, we are bringing back this tree and many more.
Over the past 5 years this successful project has created a model that can be replicated in other locations in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Since 2016, researchers have housed 75 birds in partner zoos and breeding facilities and released 30 individuals in three locations. The released birds are monitored with radio transmitters and also observed personally by scientists on site. The project also has a strong educational and contact component – including publications for students and teachers – and has reached more than 12,000 people. In addition to its ecological role, the Black-Fronted Piping-Guan is proving to be a charismatic flagship species that helps to win communities over to the conservation of the entire Atlantic Forest.
The project is now preparing for the release of a new group of Black-Fronted Piping Guans. These birds have been trained for the past two months in a large enclosure that mimics their natural habitat. During this training, the birds learn to eat the food they find in the wild, improve their flight skills, and recognize potential predators. As soon as they are released, they can play their natural role in the ecosystem together with their fellow human beings.
We are about to enter the UN Decade for the Restoration of Ecosystems, which runs from 2021 to 2030. The Atlantic forest and its birds are the perfect way to demonstrate that with a concerted effort and innovation, it is possible to save the world’s biodiversity before it’s too late.