Canberra world premiere for documentary film of Peru's grand parrots
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Canberra world premiere for documentary film of Peru's grand parrots

Bird-blessed Canberra's best and brightest parrots are spectacular in the extreme. And yet even they pale a little by comparison with ANU biologist Dr George Olah's special subject, the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao).

Tuesday sees the world premiere screening, at the ANU, of his documentary film The Macaw Project about the hefty (weighing up to 1.3 kilograms and growing up to 90cms in length) and brilliantly coloured species. It is, no wonder, the national bird of Honduras, rather as the not-so-showy but quietly magnificent Gang-gang cockatoo is the faunal emblem of the ACT.

Dr George Olah, on the Peruvian Amazon, releases a just-examined Scarlet Macaw.

Dr George Olah, on the Peruvian Amazon, releases a just-examined Scarlet Macaw.Credit:Dr George Oah

The species is native to humid forests of tropical South America. Over six years Dr Olah has made 10 expeditions to a stretch of the Amazon in Peru to study these macaws and their species' survival status.

On his most recent visit, in February, he and his team for the first time brought drones (he laughs to recall the initial horror of Lima's customs authorities). The drones help search, by flying above the rainforest and looking down, for macaws and their nests. The fowls can be hard to see from the rainforest floor because the rainforest is dense and dark. The species (just like the ACT parrot species) nests unobtrusively in holes in old trees.

There are places in South America where the besieged species has become locally extinct or is struggling. In parts of Peru illegal gold mining has ruined some macaw habitats. Poaching, too, is a menace.

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But Dr Olah has chosen to focus on a particular stretch of river and rainforest in Peru where the species is "really, really abundant". And he's done this, he explains, because where they're abundant it's possible to develop ideas and programs for their conservation that can then be applied elsewhere where, for the moment, they are battling.

Abundance also enables the relatively easy trapping of individual macaws, whereupon Dr Olah makes some measurements and tests ("I take a drop of blood") before, as in our picture, ushering the bird back into the leafy wild.

He says that his 30-minute film is unorthodox. Instead of imitating those wildlife documentaries that either gush about nature's beauty or despair about atrocities against the environment his film does a little of both of those things. But it errs and eventually ends on the side of optimism. It portrays how biologists, governments and ecotourism companies can cooperate to robustly support a species.

He hopes that the film will evangelise engagingly wherever it is shown. Versions have been made with Spanish narration for showing elsewhere in South America, for the Scarlet Macaw species is also native to several other South American countries. Dr Olah says that for Peruvian audiences the film has been given a narration in Peru's unique "Peruvian Spanish" recited by a famous Peruvian actress.

Tuesday's world premiere at the ANU is rather a boutique, ANU event, but Dr Olah says that there is already some discussion of The Macaw Project being shown on Australian television and in Australian film theatres. Meanwhile, to tantalise, the documentary's trailer, taking us down the Amazon, is available online at www.macawmovie.com.