Conservationists Celebrate New Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve

Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve by Robin Moore
Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve by Robin Moore
by Robin Moore

Conservationists are celebrating the establishment of a new 6,000-acre Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve in Guatemala, which will protect some of the country’s most endangered wildlife.

Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve is home to a dozen globally threatened frogs and salamanders, five found nowhere else in the world, three species of threatened birds, and the recently discovered Merendon Palm-pit viper (Bothriechis thalassinus), an arboreal, blue-toned viper.

Tucked away in the eastern corner of Guatemala near the Caribbean Sea and running along the Honduran border, the Sierra Caral is an isolated mountain range that is home to numerous rare and endangered animals and plants. Exploration of these mountains has yielded several new discoveries of beetles, salamanders, frogs, and snakes over the past two decades.

The site will offer protections for many birds including threatened species such as the Highland Guan, Great Curassow, and Keel-billed Motmot. Furthermore, the site is known as a haven for an abundance of migratory birds including the Canada Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Wood Thrush, Painted Bunting, Worm-eating Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush.

“The new Sierra Caral Reserve safeguards key stopover habitat for perhaps millions of migrating U.S. birds, making it an invaluable addition to Central America’s roster of protected areas and a real benefit to U.S. bird conservation efforts,” said Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy.

The Sierra Caral forests are especially diverse due to the convergence of floras and faunas from North and South America, as well as many species unique to the region. Only a few Merendon Palm-pit vipers have been found, most often in a palm native to the Sierra Caral. Guatemalan biologist Carlos Vasquez Almazan, one of the few individuals to find a Merendon Palm-pit viper in the wild, drew international scientific attention to the conservation importance of the Sierra Caral in recent years. He was recently awarded the prestigious Whitley Award for Conservation that recognizes outstanding nature conservationists around the world.

Speaking to the accomplishments of Carlos Vasquez Almazan in Guatemala, Sir David Attenborough noted, “Surveys of the area uncovered not only species new to science, but also led to the rediscovery of several previously thought to have become extinct.”

Brian Sheth, Chair of Global Wildlife Conservation, stated, “The Sierra Caral reserve is important not only for the rare and endangered species that are unique to the region, but also as a corridor for animals between the continents.”

The remaining wild lands of the Sierra Caral are a critical component of the “Jaguar Corridor” that will permit large-ranging species such as mountain lions, migratory birds, and other wildlife to continue moving between the continents as they have done for millennia. Still largely unexplored by scientists, the almost 6,000 acres of core forest in this isolated site, and the species that depend on them, were almost lost.

“Each year 180,000 acres of Guatemala’s forests disappear due to the expansion of agriculture and timber extraction, threatening not only wildlife but also the well-being of local people who rely on the clean water and other ecosystem services they provide,” said Sir David Attenborough.

Despite official pleas for forest protection by the local communities and a leading Guatemalan conservation organization, FUNDAECO, this area has been steadily deforested over the past decade. Rampant clear-cutting and shortsighted conversion of the mountain slopes into cattle pasture have followed large land acquisitions by a few individuals. As a result of these activities, the rivers that originate in these mountains and provide freshwater for thousands of people have been degraded for surrounding communities, and the risk of devastating landslides has increased. Local communities persuaded the Guatemalan Congress to declare the area a nationally protected area; however, budgetary restrictions prevented the government from purchasing the privately owned lands.

Over the past year, a consortium of fifteen international conservation groups, led by Global Wildlife Conservation, partnered with FUNDAECO to raise the funds needed to purchase the last stands of primary forest in the Sierra Caral. Critical support was received from the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (USFWS), Rainforest Trust, International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC), American Bird Conservancy, Conservation International, and others.

“This is a real triumph for the planet–conservationists across North and Central America banded together to save the last stand of this unique rainforest,” said Dr. Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust.

Marco Cerezo, CEO of FUNDAECO, said, “This major land purchase lifts the last hurdle for the Guatemalan government to declare the area a National Wildlife Sanctuary, something that local communities and conservationists have been desperately awaiting since 2000.”

“We were very impressed with FUNDAECO’s track record of working with local communities and involving them in conservation, including creating good long-term jobs at their reserves,” commented Anne Lambert of the International Conservation Fund of Canada. “Sierra Caral is also stunningly beautiful, on top of its conservation significance,” she added.

The inauguration of the new Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve occurred on May 2, 2012, and was presided over by Mr. Rafael Estrada, Governor of Izabal, and other dignitaries from local government. Over 200 local community members attended and participated in environmental education activities and festivities, highlighting a win for nature and people.

“The Sierra Caral reserve is a jewel in the biodiversity crown of Guatemala and of the world. This success story demonstrates how international alliances and local and national conservation leadership capacity can come together and protect unique species and habitats for future generations to enjoy,” said Dr. Claude Gascon, Co-Chair of the IUCN/SSC Amphibian Specialist Group.

Conservation Victory For One of World’s Deadliest Animals

Golden Poison Frog
Golden Poison Frog
Golden Poison Frog

Conservationists are celebrating the establishment of a new nature reserve in Colombia that provides the first sanctuary for the endangered golden poison frog, an animal that also has the distinction of being possibly the world’s deadliest animal.

Although it is only two inches long, it is estimated that each golden poison frog has enough toxin to kill ten adult people within minutes.

In one of the wettest tropical rainforests in the world, along the Pacific coast of western Colombia, Rainforest Trust and partners have helped purchase 124 acres of threatened Chocó forest, creating the Rana Terribilis Nature Reserve named for the Spanish word for frog–rana–and the frog’s Latin name Phyllobates terribilis. The reserve is owned and managed by Fundación ProAves, Colombia’s leading conservation organization.

This frog is named because of its bright orange skin that is covered by a secretion of deadly alkaloid poison (batrachotoxins). The toxin prevents nerves from transmitting impulses, leaving muscles in a constant state of contraction, leading to heart failure. Death comes within minutes.The frog’s poison is entirely for self-defense, yet it does little to help its chances of survival against its single biggest threat–bulldozers. Habitat damage and destruction has escalated due to illegal gold-mining and logging.

Despite this frog’s infamous reputation and its importance to indigenous cultures, it is considered by many to be on the edge of extinction, and until now the species was completely unprotected. Dependent on primary forest, the golden poison frog occurs patchily across an area less than the size of the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados. Due to its restricted range and low population, the frog was added to the list of some of the world’s most imperiled creatures identified by the Alliance for Zero Extinction.

“The support from our partners made the creation of this critical new reserve possible, and one of the world’s most amazing creatures, the beautiful and deadly golden poison frog, is now protected,” said Lina Daza, Executive Director of Fundación ProAves.

Acclaimed journalist Simon Barnes, a Rainforest Trust council member, wrote in The Times of London newspaper in September 2011, “Astonishing–we are on the edge of wiping out one of the most extraordinary and thrilling creatures on the planet. No matter how well a creature is protected by nature and by evolution, it is always vulnerable to humans. There’s nothing we can’t do when we put our minds to it. Still, at least we are now beginning to put our minds to saving the golden poison frog; we would all be much poorer without such a creature to give us nightmares.”

The new reserve is also the initiation of an ambitious project called the Chocó Corridor that will connect many highly threatened habitats, from the mangroves on the Pacific Coast to cloud forests on the highest peaks of the western Andes. Rainforest Trust is currently seeking support for this Chocó Corridor initiative.

Expanding Protection of the Fuertes’s Parrot

Fuertes's Parrot
Fuertes's Parrot
Fuertes's Parrot

The critically endangered Fuertes’s Parrot and 11 other globally threatened species of birds, mammals, and amphibians will receive greater protections thanks to a joint effort by Fundación ProAves, Rainforest Trust, Loro Parque Fundación, American Bird Conservancy, and Rainforest Trust Board member Robert Giles. These organizations joined forces to acquire approximately 356 acres of land to double the size of the existing Giles-Fuertesi Nature Reserve. The reserve is being managed by Fundación ProAves–the leading conservation organization in Colombia.

With fewer than 250 individuals thought to exist, the beautifully colored Fuertes’s Parrot is one of the world’s rarest birds. Also known as the Indigo-winged Parrot, it was thought to be extinct for 90 years but was rediscovered in 2002 when ProAves biologists discovered a small population of about a dozen individuals living in fragmented and unprotected high-Andean cloud forests at the site of this reserve. The Fuertes’s sole breeding habitat remains a 19-square-mile area. The main threat to the parrots comes from forests containing key nesting sites being logged and cleared for farming, cattle ranching, and mining.

“The Fuertes’s Parrot is endemic to Colombia and exists only in the wild at two sites where it depends on epiphytic mistletoe fruits,” said Lina Daza, Executive Director of Fundación ProAves. “So with our partners support to secure private lands for its conservation, we have ensured a new and important lease of life to this wonderful parrot and a major step away from the abyss of extinction.”

“With one of the world’s largest discoveries of gold recently uncovered by AngloGold Ashanti just miles from this key population of the Fuertes’s Parrot and with the risk of deforestation sharply rising, we were able to quickly respond to the urgent request of our Colombian partner and assist them in buying and permanently protecting this critical site,” said Dr. Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust.

Since the Fuertes’s Parrot was rediscovered, Rainforest Trust and its partners have worked hard to protect its tiny range. In 2004, ProAves conducted a pilot nest box project that was a huge success thanks to the support of Loro Parque Fundación. By early 2005, 23 pairs of the parrots were nesting in these boxes–all successfully raising broods. In 2009, the Giles-Fuertesi Reserve was established and now protects roughly one fifth of the global population of the Fuertes’s Parrot.

ProAves and other conservation groups have established a series of reserves known collectively as the Threatened Parrot Corridor, which includes one municipal and three private reserves, all managed by ProAves. With the new additions, these reserves conserve over 18,000 acres of key habitat and protect approximately 70% of the Fuertes’s Parrot population, as well as populations of four other species of imperiled parrots: the Yellow-eared Parrot, Rusty-faced Parrot, the Golden-plumed Parakeet, and the Rufous-fronted Parakeet.