March 3rd was a historic date for the small town of Curaçá, in the Bahian Caatinga. A great celebration marked the arrival, after two decades, of 52 Spix’s Macaws.
It was the return home of this endemic species of the region, one of the symbols of the fight against the extermination of fauna in Brazil.
Victim of wild animal trafficking, the bird had been declared officially extinct in the wild in 2000. The birds brought to Bahia (26 males and 26 females) are the result of a successful captive breeding program carried out by an organization.
In Germany, the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots e. v.(ACTP), signed a partnership with the Brazilian government.
The event was considered so important that the Minister of the Environment, Ricardo Salles, was in Petrolina (PE) to receive the macaws, alongside the owner of ACTP, the German Martin Guth, and other Brazilian authorities.
The repatriation of the birds is part of the National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Spix’s Macaw, coordinated by the Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation and Biodiversity – ICMBio, an agency linked to the Ministry of the Environment.
Two other foreign entities are also part of the repatriation program, Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation, from Qatar, and the Pairi Daiza Foundation, from Belgium. The latter is linked to a zoo of the same name where four Spix’s Macaws are on display, the only ones in Europe that can be seen by the public.
The fate of the birds, for now, is the reintroduction center built especially for them in Curaçá. According to ICMBio, the prediction is that the “German” macaws will only be released in nature in 2021, after an adaptation process.
When that happens, it will be in the two conservation units created in June 2018 by the federal government, dedicated exclusively to the reintroduction and protection program of the species.
The Ararinha-Azul Silvestre Life Refuge, with an area of 29.2 thousand hectares, and the Ararinha-Azul Environmental Protection Area (90.6 thousand hectares).
The Origin of Money
All costs for the reintroduction program and construction of the Blue Macaw Wildlife Refuge were covered by the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots.
According to Martin Guth, the cost of the work on the center was US$ 1.4 million and he calculates that, annually, US$ 180,000 will be spent to keep the project in operation.
which will be coordinated by Cromwell Purchase, scientific and zoological director of the ACTP, together with the ICMBio team.
In Germany, the association founded in 2006 has registration as a non-governmental organization.
According to information obtained from the Bundesamt für Naturschutz (BfN), Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, it was recognized by the competent regional authorities as a zoo.
However, in practice, ACTP does not function as one. There is no open visitation to the public. On-site, just over an hour from Berlin, there is no visitor parking and access by public transport is limited.
In a report published in July 2019 by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, entitled “The Spix’s Macaw is the most valuable parrot in the world. A German breeder with a dubious reputation wants to bring it back to the wild. Can he be trusted? ”
The journalist, who was personally at the association’s headquarters and interviewed Guth and his partner, the real estate broker Jürgen Dienst, says that German legislation determines that, to be considered a zoo, an establishment must receive visits at least seven days a year – is what happens there, usually on guided tours with school students.
In order to support itself financially, ACTP states, on its website, that it depends on donations. However, there is no mention on the page of who these natural and legal persons would be.
The only company cited as an “exclusive partner” is Deli Nature, from Belgium, which sells animal feed.
They are not just Germans.” Between the end of February and December 2019, there is only one mention of partners in the ACTP timeline.
There are Deli Nature, mentioned above, Pairi Daiza, and Knutis Shop – Generalvertretung Roudybush-Pellets Deutschland, also from the feed sector.
In the case of the Belgian foundation Pairi Daiza, for example, on its website, multinational companies such as DHL and Unilever, among others, appear as supporters.
It is noteworthy that ACTP has one of the largest private collections of endangered parrots on the planet. Until very recently, it held more than 90% of the world’s captive Spix’s Macaws in its hands, as well as individuals of the Lear’s Macaw ( Anodorhynchus leari), also Brazilian), the St. vicente (Amazona guildingii) and the Saint Lucia parrot (Amazona versicolor).
For Paul Reillo, founder and president of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation and director of the Tropical Conservation Institute in the United States, one of the golden rules for non-governmental organizations is total transparency.
“Where does the ACTP money come from? It needs to be clear who your donors are, and how the money is invested, in addition to being essential that you have access to a complete inventory of your birds – sex, age, number of births and deaths, and the import and export processes”.
There is also no reference on the website to who its professionals are and their scientific qualifications, nor if there is an administrative board or even the address of the association.
Biologist, ecological geneticist, and environmental engineer, Reillo has serious reservations about the work of ACTP and Martin Guth.
And he has expressed this several times in interviews with different publications. According to him, other members of the international conservation community also came forward to demonstrate their criticisms of the German farm.
Denunciations and accusations
It’s not just the lack of clarity and transparency about the source of the money that funds the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots e. V. which has caused discomfort among specialists in the field.
In December 2018, the British newspaper The Guardian published an in-depth investigative report on Guth and ACTP, which had wide repercussions worldwide.
For six months, journalists Lisa Cox and Philip Oltermann conducted a survey of the German’s previous life, with serious suspicions about his work, including his possible involvement in the trafficking of wild animals and the use of the association to launder money by European mafias.
Titled “ A legitimate zoo? How an obscure German group cornered global trade in endangered parrots ” (“A legitimate zoo? How an obscure German group cornered the world trade in endangered parrots”), the article reveals that.
In the 1990s, when he was about 25 years old, Guth served five years in prison for kidnapping and extortion. Still, according to the journalists, at least one of the employees who worked at ACTP at that time was accused of involvement in the illegal trafficking of birds (it is estimated that this market moves approximately US$ 42.8 billion worldwide, second only to the of drugs and weapons).
It’s not just that. The first Spix’s Macaws that Guth bought for his collection were purchased from a Swiss breeder, to whom he allegedly paid €15,000 for them.
The man in question would be linked to two well-known members of a mafia in Berlin, known for organizing robberies, being involved in drug trafficking, in addition to using methods such as blackmail.
In a photo that can be found on the internet, the German breeder can be seen with Arafat Abou-Chaker, one of the leaders of the gang.
Guth claims he was unaware of the connection of the person who sold him the birds to the mafia. But he doesn’t deny his mistakes in the past.
The Brazilian government required proof of clean records as a condition of continuing the program and signing a new contract with ACTP. It was signed on June 7, 2019,” he reveals.
The owner of ACTP mentions the government of Australia because the association also has partnerships with other countries, in addition to Brazil – not without controversy, accusations, and complaints.
With permission from the Australians and the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, Guth has imported more than 200 endangered native bird species since 2015, claiming they would be publicly displayed.
In 2018, MP Warren Entsch warned about the export, expressing concern that ACTP did not act like a zoo and behaved more like a private collection.
According to a report by The Guardian , some of the Australian parrots would have been offered for sale on the internet, for prices ranging between 95,000 and 180,000 euros for a couple.
Australia was not the only country to send endemic and endangered birds to Germany. Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent, island countries in the Caribbean, are also on the list, as is Dominica, which in 2018 sent two imperial parrots (Amazona imperialis) and ten red-collared parrots (Amazona arausiaca) to the headquarters of the ACTP.
A few months earlier, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria had passed through the region and hit the island. The claim for the removal of the parrots was that they were no longer safe.
In a letter sent to environmental authorities and the BfN, more than 40 international scientists and researchers stated that the expatriation of the birds had not been allowed by representatives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ( Cites), nor by the Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division of Dominica – who had not even been consulted about the transfer.
“There was no emergency to justify removing the parrots from Dominica. All of these birds were wild and already kept safely in captivity, so there was no reasonable justification for expediting this transfer or violating many basic legal requirements for such an action.
All had survived Hurricane Maria, were being cared for by an internationally recognized veterinary care team and were considered healthy,” the scientists wrote.
To this day, the imperial parrots and red-collared parrots have not been returned to Dominica.
There is an international petition on the Care2 website, which already has 55,000 signatures, asking the Bundesamt für Naturschutz to carry out an investigation into Martin Guth and all suspicions regarding the ACTP. However, the German federal agency has ensured that the association is regularly inspected by the responsible authorities.
“These checks are aimed at proving the legal acquisition of protected birds, the legal breeding and sale of such birds, in accordance with relevant international regulations for species conservation,” said Ruth Birkhölzer.
“No irregularities were observed. After publishing articles in The Guardianand a criminal complaint, criminal investigation procedures were conducted by the police. However, this investigation was closed with no suspicion of illegal actions by ACTP or Mr. Guth”.
fear of reprisals
Paul Reillo is one of the few people interviewed for this story who agrees to have his name published. Other breeders and biologists from Brazil only spoke on the condition of remaining anonymous, claiming that the German businessman is dangerous, has a connection with the mafia, or may suffer reprisals from the Brazilian government, with financial cuts in their projects.
One of these interviewees stated that, in recent years, some scientific breeders (authorized by the government to carry out captive breeding projects for endangered species) have been pressured by Brazilian government agencies to send the Spix’s Macaws to the ACTP, in Germany.
The source also said that there was a breeder very close to having a successful reproduction of chicks, but that, even so, he had to send the birds to Europe.
Asked in 2018 about sending these individuals and the reason why captive breeding was not carried out in Brazil, ICMBio gave the following response, via email from its press office:
“ The exchange of specimens for the purposes of reproduction and genetic variation of the population in captivity is foreseen in the captivity program and follows protocols and technical criteria for pairing, and in the same way, animals were sent from Germany to Brazil. In both cases, the exchanges were carried out following the recommendations of the management consultants.
Unfortunately, breeders in Brazil have so far not been successful in reproducing the species in significant numbers. Since the beginning of the National Action Plan for the Conservation of the Spix’s Macaw, in 2012, only two births were registered in Brazil in 2014, while breeding sites in Germany and Qatar achieved reproductive rates that allowed the population to increase from 79 to 158 individuals”.
In May 2019, two Cyanopsitta spixii chicks were born at Fazenda Cachoeira , in Minas Gerais, a government-certified breeding facility.
The exact number of Spix’s Macaws existing in Brazil and held by ACTP is not clear. In October last year, ICMBio declared that there were 177 Cyanopsitta spixii in the world – 22 on Brazilian soil and the rest in Germany.
It should be remembered that, in 2014, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani, was in charge of Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation.
In Qatar, one of the partnerships of the Brazilian program for the reintroduction of the species died. The billionaire, passionate about birds, owned no less than 120 Spix’s Macaws. After his passing, they were all “loaned” to Guth.
During that time, until the return of the 52 birds to Brazil, the German was in possession of almost all the Spix’s macaws in the world.
lack of transparency
For Reillo, one of the main problems of the German creator and the association he founded is their credentials. Or rather, the lack of them.
“Where is the science? Where are the publications made by ACTP? Which international NGOs and accredited scientists, organizations, and agencies endorsed the reintroduction project? Which scientific groups were invited to consult about the project? How involved are they?” he questions.
The opinion is the same as that of another biologist, a Brazilian, who participated directly in the federal government program but preferred to leave the project after realizing that all decisions favored sending the Spix’s Macaws to the German breeder.
“It is temerity to have this German in Brazil. He only has very rare animals in Germany, which cost a fortune on the black market. Nobody wants to talk about Guth because everybody is scared of him.”
In January 2019, Cromwell Purchase, who will be responsible for managing the reintroduction center for birds in Bahia, said that the main reason for the wave of accusations against Martin Guth and the ACTP would be envy.
“There are many envious people in Brazil, everyone wants a piece of the Spix’s Macaw program, now that we, the project partners, have managed to reach this point with such success.
A lot of partners have been removed along the way due to politics and program disruption, and I’m sure many are involved in the allegations,” he justified.
“You ask why foreign organizations are successfully advancing the Spix’s Macaw program. Because no Brazilian breeder was willing to invest money to save this species… Would you prefer that we simply leave the species extinct?”
Reillo counters: “Of course, we all want the Spix’s macaws back in the wild, but we need answers.”
In addition to the lack of transparency in ACTP’s activities, the Ministry of the Environment has remained silent in the face of all the controversy and does not provide data and information on future actions or what exactly are the terms of the partnership between Brazil and ACTP – the other Macaws – existing blue ones that stayed in Germany will also be brought later to Bahia?
On February 26, an email was sent to ICMBio’s press office with a series of questions, such as the position of the Brazilian government regarding the accusations made against Martin Guth.
The costs of the project, and the current number of macaws. blue and where they are located, but until the closing of this report the answer has not been sent.
Two questions, which have been asked repeatedly, arise again at the end of the story that will lead to the reintroduction of Cyanopsitta spixii into nature: for the sake of a species, should one close one’s eyes to how and with what money its reproduction process took place?
And the second: should captive breeding programs for endangered species be carried out in countries far from their original habitat?