Eco-tourism is a glimmer of hope for the Pantanal. We stayed in three eco-lodges there. As I see it, this is one of the best longterm solutions for saving the area as it creates an economic incentive for landowners to preserve the environment. The challenge is the Pantanal's lack of infrastructure. There are very few tourist facilities, and transportation is limited. Flooding occurs during the rainy season, and many areas are accessible only by boat or horseback.

I have supported the efforts of Parrots International for several years, but seeing its successes first hand and helping where I could was one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. I would urge everyone who loves animals to get involved in a conservation effort close to their heart.

While in the Pantanal, we got permission to stay in abandoned farmhouses on private properties that have been converted to cattle ranches. Because of the increasing demand for beef, cattle ranching is on the rise; a sad reality for animals whose homes are being destroyed due to expansion. Flying above, we witnessed dozens of smoky fires, intentionally set to make room for more pastures or encourage new vegetation for the cows to eat. The best we could do was talk to ranchers about the lack of housing for birds there. Some were more concerned than others. For supporters, we hung handmade wooden nest boxes throughout their property to provide a home for hyacinths wanting to breed but unable to find a vacant hollow tree. We also inspected natural nest sites, conducted surveys, examined chicks and gave them medical attention if necessary. We were thrilled to see that many of the nests hung in previous years were filled with baby hyacinths, other species of endangered birds and, in one case, an anteater.

Omar Visits South America to Help Endangered Macaws

When someone mentions Brazil, most people think of exotic retreats like Rio. But when Mark and Marie Stafford, directors of the conservation group Parrots International, invited me to accompany them there, I knew it wouldn't be a beach party.

My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to help the Staffords save endangered macaws in the Brazilian Pantanal, an area known to have the highest concentration of wildlife on the planet. Aside from assisting them with various projects, I would also take pictures and video to record daily activities.

Our two and-a-half-week itinerary included six breeding areas, which required travel on 12 flights, half of them on a tiny four-seater Cessna that was small enough to land in open fields. Our first stop was the Lymington Foundation in Brazil's Atlantic Forest. This preserve is a captive breeding site for endangered species, including the Spix macaw, which is now completely extinct in the wild. The last male disappeared in 2000, and only about 70 known birds exist in captivity, most in a private collection. Parrots International is passionately involved in an international breeding program to reintroduce the Spix to the wild. Toward that goal, I worked closely with the staff at Lymington offering his breeding expertise to increase reproduction of the captive pairs.

Next we were off to Campo Grande to pick up renowned Brazilian biologist Nieva Guedes, who accompanied us on the rest of our journey. Nieva heads the Hyacinth Macaw Project. She started this enormously successful program in 1990, when she realized that without intervention, the majestic macaws would be gone in 10 years. Now there are more than 5,000 in the wild.

Hope Grows for Birds in Brazil

As an educator, I planned to use the images in the classes I teach at my bird stores. These shows bring awareness to children and their families about endangered species and what we can do to help save them. Sadly, many of the animals in this South American wetland are threatened due to illegal trapping and loss of habitat.