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Home » Alagoas curassow: almost extinct bird returns to nature and tests survival capacity

Alagoas curassow: almost extinct bird returns to nature and tests survival capacity

  • Three couples of Alagoas curassows (Pauxi mitu) were reintroduced in September in an area of ​​980 hectares of Atlantic Forest in Alagoas. After three decades extinct in the wild, victimized by hunting and deforestation, the bird returns to occupy its habitat.
  • The feat is the culmination of a project started in 1979, when a businessman rescued some of the last specimens of the species from an area that was about to be deforested. Kept in captivity ever since, these birds are the parent stock of the nearly one hundred Alagoas curassows that exist in Brazil today.
  • The six birds released in the wild will be monitored by GPS. But the challenge of survival in the jungle will be entirely theirs: alone, they will have to find food, reproduce and stay safe from predators. If successful, the plan is to introduce three more pairs into the wild per year by 2024.

Barely saved from the end, missing from its habitat for at least three decades and the target of a joint effort by more than a dozen institutions, the Alagoas curassow ( Pauxi mitu ) now faces a test of survival in the wild.

Three couples were reintroduced a month and a half ago in an area of ​​980 hectares of Atlantic Forest in Alagoas and put to the test the maintenance of their instincts to find food, shelter, reproduce and stay safe from predators on their own.

The bird is the first case in Latin America of reintroducing an extinct animal into the wild. According to Luís Fábio Silveira, curator of the ornithological collections of the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo, there are “very few cases” similar in the world. 

Among them, “the Mauritian hawk [ Falco punctatus ], the California condor [ Gymnogyps californianus ], the Hawaiian crow [ Corvus hawaiiensis ], and the black-footed ferret [ Mustela nigripes ]”.

The road to this unprecedented feat began four decades ago, thanks to the stubbornness of businessman Pedro Nardelli, who ran a scientific poultry farm in Nilópolis.

In 1979, the enthusiast traveled to the metropolitan region of Maceió in search of specimens of this black-colored chicken with a red beak, also known as the northeastern curassow.

First described in the 17th century by the German naturalist George Marcgraf – including a mention of its culinary use, one of the factors behind its decimation – the species was almost no longer seen in its original territory, a small area of ​​the Atlantic Forest. between Alagoas and Pernambuco. 

In addition to hunting, the bird had also been victimized by the advance of cane fields in the region.

Ironically, the five curassows that Nardelli managed to recover had been captured, after months of attempts, in a forest area that would give way to a new sugar and alcohol plant.

In the accelerated pace of deforestation imposed by Proálcool, a national program aimed at stimulating ethanol production. of cane. 

“If Nardelli came two years later, there wouldn’t be any [more curassows]”, comments civil engineer Fernando Pinto, who at the time worked on the venture and who would become the breeder’s main partner in the rescue mission. “Fate dictated.”

Back in the Baixada Fluminense, Nardelli managed to make one male and two females reproduce from the five curassows recovered. 

The trio would give rise to the only lineage responsible for carrying forward the animal’s DNA. At the time, Pinto’s trips to Rio de Janeiro became more frequent. 

“We spent the weekend literally inside the aviary, talking only about birds”, recalls the engineer. “That breeding site, perhaps the largest in Latin America, was my Disneyland.”

While testing the constitution of a minimally safe breeding stock, Nardelli promoted the crossing with specimens of horse curassow ( Pauxi tuberosa ) to try to guarantee a kind of backup of the almost extinct bird’s DNA. 

In the process, the spreadsheets that identified genetically pure individuals and hybrids ended up being lost. Professor Mercival Roberto Francisco’s team, from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFScar), entered the field to separate the wheat from the chaff: in 2008, a program for the genetic rescue of the species was started, using detailed analyzes to differentiate purebred birds from hybrids.

Professor of ex-situ conservation (outside the habitat) and fauna management, Francisco has since then maintained a little table with breeder Roberto Azeredo, from the Society for Research on Wild Fauna (Crax), who 20 years ago inherited part of Nardelli’s herd. 

The challenge for both now is to increase the genetic diversity of pure Alagoas curassow specimens. 

For this, Azeredo suggests couples with the greatest difference in DNA interbreed – or better yet, get married, since the bird is normally monogamous, that is, the pairs last until one of the individuals dies.

This selection is a central point in the project to reintroduce the Alagoas curassow into nature, considering the risks of inbreeding a lineage descended from just three individuals.

back to habitat

In 1996, already thinking about creating conditions for the return of the bird to nature, Fernando Pinto founded the Institute for the Preservation of the Atlantic Forest (IPMA). 

The NGO has been coordinating environmental education work in communities and farms in the northeastern Zona da Mata and seeking to sensitize sugar mill owners, holders of the largest remnants of vegetation in the region, to conserve or recover the habitat of the Alagoas curassow. 

The engineer accounts for 9,000 hectares converted, or in the process of being converted, into Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPNs).

One of these areas is the RPPN Mata do Cedro, in the municipality of Rio Largo (AL), a forest fragment located within the area of ​​the former Usina Utinga Leão, today just Utinga – a sugar and ethanol producer in the process of judicial recovery. 

The place was chosen by the researchers for the reintroduction of the Alagoas Curassow in nature due to its extension (the forest area should have at least 500 hectares) and also due to the absence of hunters.

To make sure it was a safe environment for the bird, the Alagoas Institute of the Environment (IMA) and the Alagoas Environmental Police Battalion made daily inspection raids in the area for two years. 

“There was no occurrence of illegal hunting, but we cannot let our guard down. In Brazil, especially in the North and Northeast, there is a very strong culture of hunting”, observes Epitácio Correia, manager of Fauna, Flora, and Conservation Units at IMA.

On September 19 of this year, six specimens of the northeastern curassow traveled by plane from Contagem (MG), where the Crax breeding site is located, to Alagoas. 

For the first time in three decades, the species found its habitat. The birds were initially taken to an acclimatization nursery, built within a fragment of the Atlantic Forest, to then be released definitively on the 25th.

The researchers will literally monitor every step of the six newly released specimens. If the curassows are successful in the challenge of escaping natural enemies – such as wild dogs and small cats – and show themselves able to generate offspring, the task force’s plan is to place three more pairs in nature per year until 2024.

follows reproduction in captivity – today there are around 90 representatives of the species in nurseries.

The plant also provided an area for the construction of an environmental education center, to be inaugurated in January, which will be named after Pedro Nardelli. 

A fourth couple of curassows will be held there, in captivity, in full view of children and adolescents.

Nardelli did not survive to see his dream come true. He died in August, the month in which reintroduction was initially scheduled. But he was at least able to attend the activities in which Governor Renan Filho made the Pauxi mitu official as a bird symbol of Alagoas, in 2017.

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