Though the distance of the move will be short, it has far-reaching implications: It will foster fledgling hope that this rarest of parrots can be saved. Just 76 of the handsome blue birds — endemic to northern Brazil but unseen there in 11 years — are known to exist, all in captivity. Watson was hired by a member of Qatar’s royal family, Sheik Saoud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani, to rescue the species from the edge of extinction and send it soaring back into the Brazilian jungle.
It’s an audacious plan in an improbable locale, this oil-and-gas-rich kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula. With no signs marking it in the flat, arid landscape, a fenced private wildlife compound extends across 1.6 square miles about 20 miles west of the capital, Doha.
Al-Wabra Wildlife Preservation began as a private menagerie with a questionable past. But it has been transformed into an intensive conservation operation. The desert preserve is owned by Saoud, a keen collector of rare beauties, including Islamic antiquities for his home and, here, slender gazelles, brilliant birds of paradise, Arabian sand cats and majestic macaws.
Aviaries, breeding enclosures, antelope runs and primate houses shelter about 2,000 animals from 90 rare and endangered species. A staff of 200 — including four veterinarians and five biologists — maintains the compound and cares for the animals, kept in 480 enclosures.
Private menageries are common in the region, said Watson, a 33-year-old Australian who heads the blue macaw breeding program. And the preserve once fit that unflattering description. “We make no secret that the sheik collected animals from black-market dealers, from the wild, from wherever he could,” Watson said. Before 2001, when Qatar signed a key international treaty, known as Cites, restricting trade in endangered animals, it was not illegal to import rare animals.
Which is exactly what Saoud did after he inherited the compound. But a 1999 incident triggered a conservation awakening. After Saoud flew rare Beira antelopes out of East Africa, local elders accused him of poaching, according to a BBC report that year.
“That’s the last time there’s been any of that kind of activity,” Watson said. “We’ve made the transition from hobby farm to the breeding center we are now.”
The preserve breeds its animals, does exchanges with other facilities and, on the rare occasion, rescues animals, as it did in 2006, adopting four South American golden-headed tamarins found dehydrated on the back of a truck in Qatar. That was the last new species added to the collection.