RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Every morning for the past two decades, the last free blue-and-yellow macaw in Rio awakens alone in the vast Tijuca urban rainforest before flying to share breakfast with her soulmate.
At 7.30 am sharp, the macaw - affectionately dubbed Julieta by zoo supervisors - perches atop a tree branch above the fenced aviary in Rio’s Bioparque and waits for her special companion to emerge from the kaleidoscopic cluster of macaws, parrots and parakeets below. Her caged Romeu whistles and she sweeps closer, opening her small curved beak to pluck the seeds he passes through the fence from beneath.
Such bonding behavior is common for macaws who are choosy about picking the perfect match before mating for life, Neiva Guedes, president of the Hyacinth Macaw Institute in the southern city of Campo Grande, told VICE World News. But like her Shakespearean namesake, this bird is engaged in an impossible love affair with a mate beyond her reach.
Thought to have been extinct in Rio’s wild for two centuries, Julieta is the only blue-and-yellow macaw believed to roam free in the Brazilian state since the last sighting of her kind in 1818, according to the National Museum of Brazil.
Julieta first appeared at the zoo 25 years ago, which means she is now likely too old to mate, said Guedes, a member of the Network of Nature Conservation Experts. Blue-and-yellow macaws reach sexual maturity at the age of 3 and live to around 35 years old in the wild.
But she is not too old for love.
“It’s probable that loneliness compels her to search for her own species to socialize and communicate with,” said Guedes. “They’re very intelligent, have an excellent memory and tend to abide by daily habits.”
Biologists at Bioparque say that mystery shrouds Julieta and she has become part of the park’s folklore, but biologist Angelita Capobiano said that to learn more about her would require capturing her, a crime under Brazilian law.
“Bioparque has good intentions -- but if I could just take a wild animal and put it inside a zoo just for reproduction then another institution with bad intentions could do the same,” she said.
Capobiano said that the feral animal appears to be well-groomed, her feathers are in immaculate condition and she is clearly capable of surviving alone in the wild.
Despite her name, biologists aren’t entirely sure she’s female. Determining her sex is almost impossible by sight and would require capturing Julieta to conduct genetic testing or thoroughly examining her.
Wildlife biologist Anderson Mendes Augusto, who was working at Rio’s zoo when Julieta first appeared, said conservationists are also puzzled by her origins.
“We don’t know exactly where she came from but the most plausible theory is that she escaped from captivity,” he told VICE World News, adding “what we can determine from sight is that she isn’t ringed”.
Blue-and-yellow macaws once soared in abundance above Rio’s rainforest and sandy plains but over the course of history, they became victims of wildlife trafficking and organized crime as urbanization encroached on their habitat.
“Their striking, vibrant features help them identify one another in the wild but that also makes them easy targets for animal traffickers -- as well as their intelligence,” said Capobiano.
“People think it’s spectacular that they can talk to people and repeat their words.”
Macaws are also a symbol of Brazil’s ongoing struggle to conserve its biodiversity, she said.
“You need to think about their habitat. To have chicks, they need to create nests inside hollow trees, which take more than 50 years to regrow,” she said. “The minute you destroy this type of tree, you’re destroying their family. Where are they going to reproduce? They won’t.”
Bioparque’s mission is to sensitize the public about conservation and highlight measures that can be taken to reverse the loss of ecosystems. After 17 months of restoration, it reopened in March. Macaws now have more space to roam, after their roughly 100 square-meter enclosure was expanded to a sweeping 1,000 square-meter netted aviary. The enclosure is home to 14 blue-and-yellow macaws, four scarlet macaws, five red macaws, green parrots, parakeets, sloths and tortoises.
The upgrade to a more natural habitat is also in line with the park’s goal to reintroduce endangered species who live in social groups back into protected areas. One key initiative is Refauna, a project that restores fauna to ecosystems.
And that’s where the blue-and-yellow macaws come in.
Refauna and Bioparque are breeding blue-and-yellow macaws to be released into the 40 square-kilometer Tijuca preserve, an island of rainforest in the heart of the city, beginning next year.
“Macaws have an extremely strong beak which can break large seeds but they don’t always consume them,” Marcelo Rheingantz, a technical coordinator of the program, said. “They tend to fly more than 50 kilometers per day and could drop these seeds in areas where this flora is absent. New trees will grow and biodiversity will return.”
The zoo will breed its adult macaws, who mostly come from rescue centres, and their chicks will follow a rigid training procedure: adapting their diet to seeds and fruits found in the Tijuca forest and learning to avoid power cables and predators, including humans.
But there are risks.
A handful of the city’s most populous favelas skirt the Tijuca rainforest, leaving the macaws more exposed to hunters. Biologists say it’s not even guaranteed that Julieta will find the chicks bred for release in order to form a group.
Her caged Romeu will remain at the park and biologists say it’s possible Julieta will continue to pursue her thwarted love. But still, she’ll have a chance to finally roam free with her kind, said the wildlife biologist Mendes.
“It’s a dream.”