World's loneliest bird is missing, feared dead

The last wild Spix's macaw, the blue Brazilian parrot that for 10 years has been the world's loneliest and rarest bird, has disappeared and may be dead.

The last wild Spix's macaw, the blue Brazilian parrot that for 10 years has been the world's loneliest and rarest bird, has disappeared and may be dead.

It has not been seen in its territory in Bahia, north-eastern Brazil, since 5 October and extensive searches have failed to find any trace.

The male bird was the last free-flying example of a species now down to just 60 individuals, all held in zoos or by private bird collectors, and had been the focus of international hopes of a reintroduction programme. Five captive-bred birds were due to be released to join it early next year.

Its disappearance, greeted with anguish by ornithologists involved in the project, is an enormous and possibly fatal blow to the chances of re-establishing a wild population, as conservationists had hoped the wild bird would teach its captive-bred colleagues the skills needed to survive in the arid thorn-scrub savannah that is their natural habitat

Cyanopsitta spixii, discovered in 1819 by Johann Baptist von Spix, a naturalist working for the Emperor of Austria, has never been common since it was first recorded and was gradually driven to the brink of extinction, first by grazing animals destroying its wooded-creek habitat, and then, as it became rare, by bird collectors.

It was believed to be extinct in the wild until the last bird was discovered by the British parrot expert Tony Juniper and a Brazilian colleague near the small town of Curaca in July 1990. For the past decade, this bird has managed to survive alone, while a committee set up by the Brazilian government has tried, without great success, to put together a reintroduction programme.

The wild bird had grown very cunning, but it may at last have succumbed to a predator, or to an age-related disease. It had never previously disappeared from its territory for more than 15 days.

Mr Juniper, who is now policy and campaigns director for Friends of the Earth in London, said: "This bird had clung on grimly despite all the odds for a whole decade. If it has died, it is an absolute tragedy anda major setback for any conservation programme. The conservationists have had 10 years to try to secure this species in the wild, and it certainly raises the question of whether or not more could have been done."

Britain's leading expert on the rare birds of the world, Nigel Collar of BirdLife International, which is based in Cambridge, said there was still hope. "If it was a really dry summer it might have moved somewhere else, but it has never done so before as far as anyone knows, and it doesn't look good," he said.

The wild bird, he said, had "a wonderful map" in its head of how to survive, knowing how to find water, where to roost, which nuts to open when, and how to avoid predators. If this link could not now be passed on it was a severe blow to hopes of restoring the species.

However, the man who has funded the conservation project, Yves de Soye, the director of Loro Parque, a Tenerife zoo that houses the world's biggest parrot collection, said he thought the reintroduction programme should continue. "I am very saddened about the possible loss of the last wild bird but it's certainly not the end of the recovery effort," he said. "I have a lot of hope left, if we really manage to get the programme refocused."

The options were to release young birds by themselves, or to try to put eggs of the Spix's macaw into those of other parrots that occupied a similar ecological niche, such as Iliger's macaw, he said.

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