In 1817 Dr Johan Baptist Ritter von Spix set sail from Gibraltar on the start of what would be an arduous and debilitating journey to Brazil collecting birds. Two years later - in a vast peculiarly thorny area of woodland known locally as caatinga - he shot a long-tailed blue parrot. As Tony Juniper writes in this remarkable book, "Spix didn't realise that he had just taken the very first specimen of a bird that would one day symbolise how human greed and ignorance were wiping countless life forms from the record of creation".
It wasn't until 1832 that a Bavarian naturalist called Wagler recognised that the parrot specimen was not - as Spix had thought - a Hyacinth Macaw, but a new species belonging to a new genus: Wagler named the bird after it's original discoverer, and Spix's Macaw became catalogued for the first time.
Confined to gallery woodland along the banks of the huge Sao Francisco River, Spix had recorded that the parrot "lives in flocks, although very rare". He was right - it was very rare. It was also very beautiful and - according to some - highly collectable. Spix's was lusted after, hunted down, and stolen from the wild in totally unsustainable numbers. By 2001 - about 180 years after its discovery in a remote area of Brazil that hardly anyone visited - Spix's Macaw was officially declared extinct in the wild.
"Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird" tells the detailed story of how a species goes from being unknown to being extinct in the wild with an unflinching frankness and steadiness. It's not an easy read - not because it's poorly-written (which it isn't in any way at all) - but because what the story does is to hold up a mirror to the human race and reveal the very worst of us. It reveals our "greed and ignorance", it reveals our selfishness, it reveals our belief that we are the only species of importance on this planet, and it does so without becoming hysterical, over-emotional, or ever straying from the facts. Given the subject, that's a remarkable achievement: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and I still get angry...how I would have behaved if like Tony Juniper I had been involved in trying to save Spix's Macaw I can only guess, but it wouldn't have been pretty!
Tony Juniper, formerly of the International Council for Bird Preservation, co-author of "Parrots - a guide to parrots of the world", and now Executive director of Friends of the Earth, has an impeccable pedigree when it comes to talking about conservation, and with his vast experience he has every right to be an angry and dispirited man. However, he is also aware that a conservation message that is delivered in shrill tones is one that won't be listened to - and the strength of his writing is that it never declines into ranting or rancour. He tells what is an apallingly sad story in a measured and authoritative voice - and the book is all the stronger for it.
And the story of the disappearance from the wild of the magnificent Spix's Macaw is both apalling and sad. It tells how disorganisation on the ground in Brazil resulted in the last wild bird - a male - being on its own and virtually unprotected for THIRTEEN years. It reverberates with the clashes of egos and wasted opportunities. Although there are a number of Spix's in captivity collectors holding (often illegally obtained) birds refuse to take part in breeding programmes because of the "intense jealousy, rivalry, and suspicion between them". It highlights the ridiculous sums of money that a rare bird attracts from wealthy and obsessional collectors - by the second half of the 20th century the birds "became gram for gram more valuable than heroin", worth up to $40,000 on the black markets. What hope did it ever have?
Spix's Macaw was seemingly doomed from the moment Johan Spix first clapped eyes on it. Like an ever-increasing number of species it was whittled away at until - to all intents and purposes - it ceased to exist. Only unlike some virtually unknown species of "little brown job" that live in a tiny fragment of isolated habitat and that will disappear without many of us ever knowing it existed, Spix's Macaw was well-known and the whereabouts of virtually every individual alive was listed. There is no excuse for extinction under any circumstances - but the fact that we humans are completely to blame for the loss of this beautiful bird should make us all hang our heads in shame. Quoted in the final chapter of this book is another eminent and life-long conservationist, Dr Nigel Collar: "If you have something as beautiful as a Spix's Macaw the thing itself deserves to be to be conserved and looked after. It's the same as taking a van Gogh and burning it - however many van Goghs you have left, everyone would be outraged at the very idea. They would see that act as part of a dimunition of the world's riches".
That Spix's Macaw probably won't be the last psittacine species to disappear in similar circumstances is even more shameful. Across the planet rare and so-called collectable parrot species are being stolen from the wild in vast numbers and condemned to live out their lives in aviaries. Which will be the next species to feature in a book like this I wonder...one of Indonesia's cockatoos perhaps, or one of the island endemics in the Caribbean or Indian Ocean?
This book deserves to be read. In my opinion it should be required reading in schools everywhere. It is educational without being preachy, it's a warning, a modern-day parable for all that is wrong with how we view Nature. At the same time it is superbly written. You won't be uplifted by the end of it - but if you're not still thinking about this book weeks after finishing it I will be amazed.
Hardback (2002) and softback (2003), 296 pages, "Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird", Tony Juniper. This is a superbly written and authoritatively-voiced book, which unflinchingly details the story of how the beautiful Spix's Macaw was driven to extinction in the wild by selfishness and greed. It's not an easy or comfortable read, but it should be required reading. Highly recommended.