The Scarlet Macaw’s last, best defense against wildlife poachers doesn’t look like much: just a ramshackle collection of tarps, makeshift tables, plastic five-gallon buckets, jungle hammocks, and a cook fire, hidden in the dense understory of a tropical hardwood forest near the fraught and uncomfortably porous border between Belize and Guatemala.
It’s taken us hours to get here—the first leg an overland journey from San Ignacio in the Cayo District of western Belize, haggling our way through military and ranger checkpoints and bumping over red dirt roads that are more rock and ravine than actual thoroughfares. But reaching the banks of the Macal River was merely the first step.
The trip upriver took us another hour or so, the labored whine of the skiff’s outboard motor following us as we passed hundreds of drowned trees jutting skyward from the water and verdant riverbanks. Egrets, cormorants, and Anhingas eyed us suspiciously while a Double-toothed Kite wheeled overhead. The water was glassy flat, the current so sluggish that the river seems caught in stasis. At one point, Roni Martinez, a Belizean bird guide and one of two founders of Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team, pointed out a tapir on the far bank. At first it looked like any other dead log—and then it lumbered up the incline and disappeared into the forest. (Editor’s note: Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team changed its name to Belize Bird Conservancy after this issue of Audubon magazine went to print.)
Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team is a group of roughly a dozen conservation-minded Belizeans (and one American) who are bent on protecting Belize’s Scarlet Macaw from the illegal pet trade. To deter poachers—and monitor the nests for productivity data—the Scarlet Six rangers set up camps in the Chiquibul Forest, right under the trees where macaws nest. There they live for the five months of chick-rearing season, roughly late April through September. If it sounds slightly nuts, it’s because it is—one of the purest distillations of brute-force conservation imaginable. But apparently it’s also not nuts, because it works: Macaw nests are no longer being poached in the areas where the rangers roost…