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Originally published February 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 8, 2008 at 9:13 AM

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"Macaw" One woman's fight to save the world's most beautiful bird

In "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw," Seattle writer Bruce Barcott has written a gripping account of a single woman's dogged campaign to save a rare and beautiful bird.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Bruce Barcott will read from "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw" at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 29 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

"The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird" by Bruce Barcott

Random House, 320 pp., $25.95

Sharon Matola, the "Zoo Lady" of Belize, is an unlikely environmental hero. A one-time Iowa housewife, she trained in jungle survival with the Air Force, rode freights to Florida to study animal behavior and apprenticed to a Romanian tiger tamer. Later she worked as a circus dancer (with tigers) in Mexico. In the early 1980s, she helped film a nature documentary in Belize. At the end of the shoot, she inherited 20 exotic jungle animals, and the Belize Zoo was born.

A quarter-century later, Matola is a widely respected authority on the scarlet macaw and other tropical species. Her zoo is among the most popular tourist attractions in Belize. And she is successfully restoring harpy eagles and other threatened species to the Belize jungle.

Matola is also known among conservationists for her remarkable effort to save the scarlet macaw's only known habitat in Belize from inundation behind a large hydroelectric dam.

In "The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw," Seattle writer Bruce Barcott ("The Measure of a Mountain") has written a gripping account of a single woman's dogged campaign — one that took on a government, an international energy conglomerate and the power structure of her adopted country — to save a rare and beautiful bird.

The scarlet macaw, in Barcott's words, "looks like a creature dreamed up by Dr. Seuss." It is a social, intelligent, wildly multicolored parrot "the size of a housecat." The bird is somewhat plentiful in the jungles of South America, but the northern subspecies that inhabits Central America is becoming increasingly rare due to habitat destruction.

Scarlet macaws have disappeared entirely from El Salvador. Mexico has fewer than 100. Belize and neighboring Guatemala each have about 200. All the Belize birds nest along the Macal River, the place Canada's Fortis Inc. targeted for flooding behind its Chalillo Dam.

A seasoned journalist, Barcott ably handles this wide-ranging, multifaceted story. Employing novelistic scene-setting, pithy detail and crisp dialogue, he covers cumbersome legal hurdles, arcane international legalities and raucous public hearings with the graceful ease of a long-distance runner.

From the start, Matola's plight is a mission improbable. She's an American, for one thing. Her opposition to the dam is framed by proponents as another example of colonial oppression. She is condemned by government officials, excoriated in the press. Even with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, she is heavily outgunned financially, legally and politically. In the midst of her campaign, she has to fight the vindictive placement of a municipal dump next door to her zoo.

Barcott recounts every skirmish, backroom deal and falsified report. He introduces a rogues' gallery of political and corporate players. He brings this poor, postcolonial country, "a black hole for odd foundations, little religious sects, and strange people," vividly to life. His investigation into the financial shenanigans, blatant profiteering and corruption behind the dam project is dizzying in its detail.

On one level, this project dramatizes the social costs resulting from the 1990s rash of privatizing public resources in developing countries. Energy, water and transportation costs spiral upward for populations least able to afford them.

Even more vivid is the light this story casts on other third-world development projects that destroy biodiversity, do little to benefit mostly poor populations and line the pockets of government officials and Enron-like multinationals.

Through tough reporting, colorful travel writing and a touch of natural history, Barcott has elevated an obscure environmental struggle to epic status. In doing so, he dramatizes the signal issue of species diversity in a rapidly globalizing world. And he celebrates the heroic and unsung efforts of those "rare and strange and sometimes aggravating" people who work tirelessly to preserve it.

Tim McNulty is an Olympic Peninsula-based poet and nature writer.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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