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Conservation groups buy land from 109 coffee farmers, create reserve for rare salamanders

  • During an expedition in 2014, biologists discovered that coffee farmers had bought one of the last remaining habitats for the rare and endangered Finca Chiblac salamander and long-limbed salamander.
  • To protect the salamanders, conservation groups purchased the 2,000-acre plot of land from the farmers at over $600,000.
  • All 109 farmers have now vacated the area, and conservation groups have established the San Isidro Amphibian Reserve on the land.
Finca Chiblac salamander. Photo by Robin Moore, courtesy of Rainforest Trust.

It’s good news for two of the world’s rarest salamanders: Finca Chiblac salamander (Bradytriton silus) and the long-limbed salamander (Nyctanolis pernix).

A consortium of international conservation groups has purchased 2,000 acres of forest land from coffee farmers, and secured one of the last remnants of critical habitat for these salamanders and numerous other endangered amphibians. The purchase was completed on September 18 this year.

The 2,000-acre parcel of land, located within the remote Sierra de los Cuchumatanes Range in northwestern Guatemala, is now the San Isidro Amphibian Reserve.

“This is a great conservation success,” Marco Cerezo, executive director of Foundation for EcoDevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), the organization that will oversee management of the reserve, said in a statement.

“It marks the beginning of a regional effort to support the protection of forests in the northwest of Guatemala, a region of exceptional biodiversity. Thanks to all our partners that came together to create this sanctuary for unique and endangered amphibians,” he added.

Long limbed salamander. Photo by Robin Moore, courtesy of Rainforest Trust.

Salamanders re-discovered and saved

For a long time, the Finca Chiblac salamander and long-limbed salamander had eluded scientists. Then in an expedition in 2009, a team of biologists re-discovered the Finca Chiblac salamander in the Cuchumatanes region, 32 years after it was last seen. The next year, they spotted the long-limbed salamander too, photographer Robin Moore writes in a blogpost in National Geographic.

Subsequent expeditions in 2014 revealed that the salamanders’ habitat was under impending threat: coffee farmers were about to start clearing the forest to grow coffee, and some deforestation had already begun. This was a major cause of worry for conservationists.

“Cuchumatanes mountain range is very ancient, very isolated, and has a lot of endemism,” Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust, one of FUNDAECO’s partners, told Mongabay.

In fact, the Cuchumatanes region falls within an Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) site, which is a “site that contains the entire population of one or more species listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” Apart from the two endangered salamanders, the AZE site is also home to endemic and critically endangered Perkin’s tree frog (Exerodonta perkinsi) and the Mayan deer mouse (Peromyscus mayensis)

Yet the region has very little protection, Salaman said, and almost all of it is deforested.  Between 2001 and 2012, for example, the Cuchumatanes AZE site lost nearly 9,000 hectares of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.

Global Forest Watch shows that the Cuchumatanes AZE site (green polygon) has lost 8985 hectares, or 4.2 percent, of tree cover between 2001 and 2012. The San Isidro Amphibian Reserve (small polygon in blue) is located within this AZE site.
Local coffee farmer signing the agreement papers. Photo courtesy of Rainforest Trust.

To save the salamanders’ habitat from the ongoing deforestation, conservation groups decided to purchase 2,000 acres of forest from coffee farmers that had invested in the land.

The land cost a little over $600,000, Salaman said. “It’s quite expensive and the reason is that 109 people owned the land, and wanted to clear the forest to grow coffee,” he explained. “We heard about it, we knew it was the only location for many of these salamanders, and that was why we were eager to buy it from them.”

Negotiations with the coffee farmers began in 2014, and the purchase took about a year to conclude. According to Salaman, all 109 farmers have now vacated the area after being compensated for their land at market value.

Victory for disappearing amphibians

Loss of habitat is threatening amphibians all over the world. In fact, in the last three decade over 200 of the world’s amphibian species have gone extinct, according to a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hundreds more could become extinct in the next century, the study warns.

At a time when amphibians are disappearing rapidly, the San Isidro Reserve seems like a small, but important, victory for Guatemala’s rare amphibians.

“Amphibians are very susceptible to microclimatic changes, and coffee plantations can cause them to perish,” Salaman said. “So I think this is a great example where land purchase for wildlife protection is warranted and can be successful.”

This is just the beginning, though, and some challenges remain.

“The biggest challenge would be that we will need a bigger area in the future to try and get as much habitat protected as possible,” Salaman said. “There are not just salamanders here. There are endemic plants and birds, and several other species that need wider ranges.”