Amphibian, tapir paradise in Honduras being ravaged by illegal deforestation

/ Rhett A. Butler

Located in a mountainous area near the border with Guatemala, Cusuco National Park in Honduras is recognized by researchers as a critical refuge for endangered amphibians in a country that has suffered from widespread deforestation. But while the park largely escaped the devastation that has affected other protected areas in Honduras, the situation seems to be changing: since 2010 there has been a sharp increase in deforestation. Poachers, small farmers, and cattle ranchers are moving into the park using a network of research trails and camps established by Operation Wallacea, a British conservation science NGO.

Located in a mountainous area near the border with Guatemala, Cusuco National Park in Honduras is recognized by researchers as a critical refuge for endangered amphibians in a country that has suffered from widespread deforestation. But while the park largely escaped the devastation that has affected other protected areas in Honduras, the situation seems to be changing: since 2010 there has been a sharp increase in deforestation. Poachers, small farmers, and cattle ranchers are moving into the park using a network of research trails and camps established by Operation Wallacea, a British conservation science NGO.

Surveying Cusuco, Operation Wallacea researcher Niall McCann documented “a catastrophic drop in the tapir population” as well as dozens of instances of clearing, hunters’ camps, plantations, and illegal logging. Dismayed, McCann reached out to authorities. His pleas seemed to fall on dead ears, but then after reaching out to local media, the Minister Director of the Institute of Conservation and Forestry (ICF), and the Minister for the Environment, authorities took action, sending patrols into the park and mobilizing support for expanded protection.

“Amazingly, between August and the end of November the military recorded no further deforestation, and plans were afoot to set up a semi-permanent camp inside the Park, and a permanent base (as they have in many villages) in one of the villages from which a lot of the illegal activity stems,” McCann explained.

But the gains may be fleeting. In December and January there were no further patrols and local reports indicated an uptick in deforestation.

In a February interview with, McCann discussed the situation in Cusuco and the challenges of promoting sustainable development around the park.

AN INTERVIEW WITH NIALL MCCANN What brought you to Honduras? And where do you work?

Niall Mccan

Niall McCann: first came to Honduras in 2009 when I started work on my PhD on conservation genetics in Baird’s tapir, the largest mammal in the Neotropics. I have spent over 11 months in the field in four regions in Honduras, mounting expeditions into un-surveyed parts of the country, but my principal study site has been Cusuco National Park, in the north west of the country.

Cusuco is a small (224k sq km) Park in the Merendon Mountains, but is hugely important in terms of biodiversity. Cusuco is important for a range of taxa, but most especially so for amphibians. At this site, 16 of 31 amphibian species are either critically endangered (10) or endangered (6). Nine of these species are endemic to Honduras and 6 of these are endemic specifically to Cusuco; recently acknowledged by the Alliance for Zero Extinction as the greatest hotspot for endemic endangered amphibian species in the country.

Traditionally Cusuco was a stronghold for the endangered Baird’s tapir, with a population estimated at around 50 individuals, which represented approximately 10% of the total population in Honduras. Jaguar are recorded in the Park, which is also a nesting ground for resplendent quetzal and many other Central American jewels. What is the current situation in Cusuco National Park?

Niall McCann: Cusuco National Park was gazetted in 1987, and was largely well protected until the end of the 1990s, when the funding that had paid for local people to be employed as rangers was reallocated after a change in the municipal government. Hunting and deforestation remained very much in the background due to the inaccessible nature of the Park (they say that 70% of the country is at a 40 degree angle, and Cusuco is no exception!), but in 2006 things started to change.

Access into the Park was improved after the creation of a network of transects and camps were created to facilitate ongoing biodiversity surveys by the British NGO Operation Wallacea. The hunters and loggers seem to have used this network of trails to gain access to the remoter parts of the Park, where species such as Baird’s tapir and highland guan have been particularly badly persecuted.

Between 2010 and 2011 I recorded a catastrophic drop in the tapir population, which corresponded with a dramatic rise in the number of areas of illegal deforestation I encountered on my forays away from the transect network. By 2012 the situation had become so severe that my colleagues and I were genuinely concerned that the majority of the west of the Park could disappear unless some action was taken. The guides hired by Operation Wallacea every year implored me to act, knowing that if the forest were to disappear so would their livelihoods.

In surveying all parts of the Park in 2012, I discovered three newly constructed houses in freshly-cut clearings, which were being lived in by one or two individuals at most, probably as temporary dwellings on hunting and deforestation trips. In total I recorded 37 sites of recent disturbance: either hunting trails, clearings, plantations or houses. I encountered a very large number of areas that had been earmarked for deforestation, including one area of approximately 800 hectares that according to local sources had been claimed and earmarked by a single individual.

Many hunting platforms were found throughout the park, as well as direct evidence of hunting such as skulls and plucked feathers. Data on population trajectories in Baird’s tapir and highland guan show alarming decreases in numbers, whereas non-hunted species have maintained non negative-growth trajectories. For the first time ever, I uncovered evidence of timber extraction and the use of large chainsaws, which demonstrated a rise in the level of sophistication in the illegal activity. Who is driving these changes?

Niall McCann: An unrelenting rise in the local population, as well as relatively high urban-to-country migration, coupled with highly unsustainable land-use practices is the main cause of the problem faced by Cusuco National Park, and all other National Parks in Honduras. We could look at the church’s policies on birth control and the lack of investment in civil society by the Government, or the high price of coffee as being overarching reasons for the deforestation; but in practice what we are really seeing is opportunism on one hand, and a tragedy of the commons on the other, which is being perpetrated by a very small number of people.

Camp site within Cusuco. Courtesy of Niall McCann.

Due to poor farming techniques land becomes unviable very rapidly, and farmers are forced to move on to pastures new. Cusuco National Park is 224km2 of land that many local people believe should be theirs to exploit. What we have seen in the last two years is competition between people who are scrambling to claim patches of forest before someone else does. In addition to that, certain rich individuals from towns bordering the Park are paying for large areas to be cleared for pasture or plantations; and some individuals and families are opportunistically moving into the Park where they can hunt and farm unaffected by the inconvenience of having neighbors competing for the same land.

Deforestation is occurring to create space for pasture, or for crops: usually coffee but other cash crops are grown, and I have even discovered small marijuana plantations. All of these activities are illegal, of course, but in a country as lawless as Honduras (which has the highest murder rate in the world) that is hardly a deterrent. Many of the people setting themselves up in the Park are hugely violent, and have shot at local friends of mine as they have been walking in the Park. How do local communities feel about the threats to the forest?

Deforestation and the skull of a poached tapir within Cusuco National Park. Photos courtesy of Niall McCann

Niall McCann: The opinions of the communities are, of course, divided. Many hundreds of people earn much of their living from the Park through ecotourism (principally through working for Operation Wallacea), and these people and their families desperately want the threats to be extinguished, so that the forest will still be there in five or ten years time. These people want to develop better agricultural techniques to maximize the productivity of the land they work, and reduce the pressures on the Park itself, they understand that the Park is the source of their water, and that it is a valuable commodity in fiscal terms not just in aesthetic and cultural terms. Unfortunately there are individuals within those communities who don’t care about sustainability, or about preservation, or about the maintenance of reliable clean water supplies, they just want to make their pot of cash now.

Those members of the community who understand the importance of preserving the Park are also very much afraid of the people operating illegally inside the Park. These people know full well that what they are doing is illegal and that they could be prosecuted, and they are very willing to intimidate local people to deter them from reporting the illegal activity. The threat of violence is very real, and my guide of three years has received a personal death threat for guiding military personnel through the Park. Most of the local people just want to feel safe, and they know that they can’t feel safe with the level of illegal activity currently ongoing in Cusuco. How has the government responded to the threats?

Niall McCann: For the last four years or so Operation Wallacea staff have lobbied the Institute of Conservation and Forestry (ICF) and other governmental bodies to invest in some infrastructure for the Park, but most importantly to implement some form of official protection, as the increase in illegal activity was highly evident. There had been one or two token gestures, sending representatives in to see the damage for themselves, but no real action had been taken at all, despite considerable efforts on the part of Operation Wallacea.

Returning to Cusuco for the fourth year running this summer, I was appalled at the level of deforestation that had occurred in the months since I had last been in the Park. My guides implored me to try to wield a bit of influence, as they realized very well that their livelihoods were at stake, as Operation Wallacea would not be able to return to Cusuco if the level of illegal activity continued to rise at such an alarming rate. I discussed possible strategies at some length with the local people and with my colleagues at Operation Wallacea, and we decided that I should attempt to lobby the government while Operation Wallacea alerted the local press to the situation.

Through some influential contacts I managed to arrange a meeting with the Minister Director of ICF, Jose Trinidad Suazo. I wrote him a letter outlining the severity of the situation in Cusuco, and also received letters of support from the Vice Chancellor of Cardiff University (where I study my PhD), from the Chairwoman of the Tapir Specialist Group (of which I am a member), and from the Honduras office of Panthera (who are great supporters of conservation programs in Honduras). I arranged for a collaboration between Operation Wallacea, Panthera and a local NGO called Expediciones y Servicios Ambientales de Cusuco (ESAC), who all agreed to donate funds towards a protection policy, which I proposed involved the establishment of civilian and military patrols.

I flew back to Honduras to meet with the Minister, and along with Alex Tozer of Operation Wallacea and Franklin Castaneda of Panthera we presented our case for the immediate allocation of resources to protect Cusuco National Park. Franklin focused on the important role Cusuco plays as a keystone area in the Meso-American Biological Corridor; Alex talked about the biological richness of Cusuco, and the amount of money that would be lost in Honduras if Operation Wallacea were forced to abandon their Honduras expedition; and I focussed on the rise in deforestation and hunting, and on my discoveries of illegal plantations of coffee and marijuana.

Our presentation clearly made an impact on the Minister, who authorized the establishment of civilian and military patrols, alerted the Environmental Prosecution Service to the situation, and mandated that the local office of ICF be in charge of logistics for the project, which was seen as a rescue operation.

Photos of herps in Cusuco. Courtesy of Niall McCann. What does militarization of the park involve?

Niall McCann: The local commander of the 105 Infantry Brigade of the Honduran military has taken personal responsibility for ensuring a regular military presence inside the Park. Initially we paid for patrols to be carried out twice a month, starting at the end of August 2012. These patrols made themselves obvious in the villages surrounding the Park, so that word of their presence would reach those operating illegally inside the Park, and then they were guided around the Park by local guides to visit problem areas.

The first two patrols were conducted as fact-finding missions, to locate the areas most affected by deforestation, and to test out what length of patrol was possible. The third patrol actually began to destroy some illegal hunting houses, and rip up a few small coffee plantations. The patrols received support from the local hydro-electric company, whose business is greatly affected by changes in water-levels caused by deforestation, and were well received in the local villages.

I was very concerned that the patrols would suffer reprisals, and indeed one of the local guides received a death threat for helping the military and had to leave the region for some time. Thankfully there were no scuffles, and all deforestation activity appeared to have ceased by the end of November 2012.

At that time the patrols stopped due to local elections, and by the New Year we received reports from local people that the deforestation had started again. ESAC were hugely instrumental in pushing for a rapid response, and ICF have been very proactive in re-energizing the military and other local NGOs. The latest patrol went up on January 29th 2013, and I am eagerly awaiting news from this patrol. On February 2nd Panthera will be flying over Cusuco National Park in a Cessna, with the local commander of the 105 Infantry Brigade to get an aerial assessment of the damage to the Park, and in mid-February a semi-permanent camp will be set up in the most affected part of the Park, where military personnel will spend several days on rotation, patrolling on a daily basis and reporting back exactly what they discover. In addition to this, the Environmental Prosecution Service are beginning investigations into individuals known to have been financing the majority of the deforestation. What’s your outlook for Cusuco National Park? Is there a long-term solution?

Niall McCann: Given the highly enthusiastic response to our lobbying, and the recent response to the recommencement of deforestation, I am hopeful that there is sufficient local and political will to ensure that Cusuco is saved in the short term, but it is clear that militarization is not a long-term solution, and we are looking for investment in a more sustainable policy for the future.

Niall Mccan

The greatest issue is guaranteeing the financial security of people living in the vicinity of the Park. One idea is to purchase land in the surrounding area and donate this land to local people for agricultural development. The investment would cover training in sustainable land use practices as well as the purchase of the land itself. People living in villages bordering the National Park would be encouraged to develop agricultural interests in the newly acquired zone, and become signatories of an agreement that would bind them in to not hunting or logging inside the Park itself in return for subsidized access to this new agricultural area. We would look for additional funds to allocate directly to ongoing efforts to save the Park from deforestation and poaching, namely financing military patrols, creating a network of paid wardens, running workshops on sustainable land use and the importance of maintaining the integrity of the Park, etc.

I have suggested a Park Stewardship Scheme be established, whereby people who have been living inside the Park for some time be paid a stipend from Park entry fees if they agree not to hunt, and not to expand their existing agricultural interests. We don’t want to ruin peoples’ livelihoods by kicking them out of the Park, but most of the people operating illegally in Cusuco are doing so opportunistically and intermittently, and are not reliant upon the Park to feed their families. There are some exceptions to this, which is why I have suggested the Park Stewardship Scheme, for those people who are well established inside the Park boundaries already.

It is crucial that we invest in the sustainable development of the Park, and Operation Wallacea are funding a lot of research into the possibility of applying for REDD+ funds for the area. Sustainable agricultural practices would make an enormous difference to the livelihoods of local people and to pressures on the Park, and in my opinion this is where most of the resources for development should be allocated.

In the long run, only a change in social equality and reduction in population growth will make a lasting difference to Honduras’ protected areas, but in the short term, this kind of front-foot conservation might be our best hope of securing the future of Honduras’ Parks and the species that live therein.

Related articles

Related Articles

Recent comments No Comments

Facebook Comments

Sign In

Connect with

Reset Your Password