Prized pair disappeared from aviary at the dead of night

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Parrot poachers have struck at what might be considered the ultimate prize ­ the Puerto Rican parrot, possibly the rarest parrot in the world.

The attractive green birds with red foreheads and blue flashes on the wings are down to fewer than 50 birds in the wild and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a captive breeding programme to reintroduce them.

But on the night of 22 April poachers got over the fence at the aviary in Luquillo in the Caribbean National Forest, in the mountainous east of the island where the breeding programme is centred, broke into the cages and stole a pair of breeding birds.

"We have no way of knowing what they're worth," said a conservation biologist, Pablo Torres, "although it is likely that black-market fanciers would pay huge sums for the birds." The Fish and Wildlife Service is offering a $2,500 (£1,800) reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

Puerto Rican parrots are so critically endangered because of the high rate of destruction of their native forest and for a raft of other reasons: low reproduction rates, hunting, crop protection and even Caribbean hurricanes have all taken their toll. The captive breeding programme began in 1972 and there are more than 100 birds in captivity but reintroduction has gone very slowly. Ten birds were released last year and five of them are already known to have died. A further 16 birds were released last month.

The parrot is considered an important part of Puerto Rico's cultural and environmental heritage because it is an endemic species. It is protected under the US Endangered Species Act and to kill, damage, harass, trap, buy or sell one can carry a fine of $100,000 and a year in prison. But such is the lure of rare parrots, people are still willing to get over the federal aviary fence.