Site icon Conservation news

Rehabilitation of Guatemalan fauna highlights opacity of illegal wildlife trade

Howler monkey, Alouatta pigra, after being released by Arcas Peten, on Thursday 2, November. 02, 11, 2023 Mayan Biosphere Reserve (Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States)

  • Endangered monkeys, some of them trafficked into the pet trade, were among the animals released into the wild in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve last November after rehabilitation at a nonprofit center.
  • According to conservationists, there are major information gaps when it comes to the illegal wildlife trade in Guatemala, with government institutions doing very little to control it.
  • In Latin America, increasing sophistication and specialization in the illegal wildlife trade are complicating detection and enforcement.

EL ARROZAL, Guatemala – A Yucatán black howler monkey, an endangered species, swung from a branch in its enclosure at the ARCAS wildlife rescue center in northern Guatemala. It was just days away from being released back into the wild in November 2023 along with two other black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) rescued from the illegal pet trade. They hadn’t spent much time in captivity.

“As a general rule, the less time animals have been with humans outside of ARCAS, the greater their chance of being released,” said Alejandro Morales, a veterinarian and coordinator of animal health at the center run by ARCAS, the Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Association.

The ARCAS center sits at the southern edge of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, a patchwork of national parks, other protected areas, community forest concessions and other multiuse areas, and a buffer zone. The NGO was created in 1989, just ahead of the reserve’s establishment in 1990.

A group of golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) being released in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Image by Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States.

In another enclosure at the center, rambunctious white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) seized in poor health from wildlife traffickers have no chance of release in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Even if they could be rehabilitated for life in the wild, their habitat range is further south, in Panama, Colombia and Ecuador — not Guatemala.

The illegal wildlife trade in Guatemala carries on with little clarity and little control by authorities, according to conservationists. Seizures are down compared to the 1990s and 2000s, and the origins of “rescued” animals turned in for rehabilitation — and when possible, for release — is often murky.

“There is simply no interest in controlling trafficking,” said Fernando Martínez, the ARCAS director for Guatemala’s Petén region and its rehabilitation center, located a short boat ride across Lake Petén Itzá from the tourist hub of Flores, about 480 kilometers (300 miles) north of the capital. “There are no controls. When there are searches, they are by chance.”

Bordering Mexico and Belize, the 21,602-square-kilometer (8,341-square-mile) Maya Biosphere Reserve covers roughly a fifth of Guatemala and is one of the largest and most important tropical forest areas north of the Amazon region. Rich in biodiversity, it’s home to more than 500 species of birds and numerous iconic and threatened wildlife species.

Fernando Martinez, director of ARCAS Rescue Center Petén, releases a gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Image by Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States.

Some individuals of those species, rehabilitated at the ARCAS center, were released in November into Yaxhá-Nakum-Naranjo National Park in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The three black howler monkeys, two Geoffrey’s spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) and a margay (Leopardus wiedii) — all classified as endangered in Guatemala — were among the 26 animals released. Many had arrived at the center as juveniles, after their mothers were likely killed, but often the circumstances that led to the animals requiring rehabilitation are unclear.

“In Guatemala we have a big information gap. We don’t have certainty about the origins of many animals,” Morales told Mongabay in his office, in a simple two-room building set in the rainforest. “We don’t always know when it is illegal trafficking and when they are rescues.”

Illegally trafficked or rescued?

ARCAS receives between 200 and 400 animals a year, from more than 70 different species. Most of the animals are rescued, donated or injured, and only some 30 to 50 come from seizures. There’s been a drastic shift in the volume and ratio over the decades. ARCAS used to receive between 600 and 900 animals annually, and the majority were from seizures.

“Illegal trafficking has not stopped. Illegal trafficking continues but it is not controlled. So we should be receiving more animals from illegal trafficking but we are receiving more rescues and injured animals,” Morales said.

“In the beginning of ARCAS, in the 1990s and early 2000s we received many animals from illegal trafficking. There was a lot of control over protected areas, along highways, and more. As time has passed, that control declined and now there is very little,” he said.

Biologist Anna Bryant prepares to release a group of pygmy owls, (Glaucidium cobanense). Image by Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States.

Somewhat paradoxically, people’s increased awareness and opposition toward the illegal wildlife trade may also contribute to the confusion regarding the origin of the animals. Over the past decade, Guatemalans coming across trafficked animals have often bought them to turn them over to the authorities or to ARCAS, Morales told Mongabay. Those animals are logged as rescues or donations, even though they come from the illegal wildlife trade.

Several governmental bodies are involved in wildlife protection and related law enforcement activities in Guatemala, but it’s the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) that’s ultimately responsible for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, including fauna. CONAP also helps get seized and rescued animals to the ARCAS center, and they work together on releases back into the wild.

CONAP didn’t offer any extra information on the illegal wildlife trade or provide its position in response to criticism.

Illegal wildlife trafficking goes unpunished

In the Maya Biosphere Reserve, wildlife trafficking is just one of several sometimes interconnected illicit activities, which include illegal logging, poaching, and the looting of artifacts from Mayan archaeological sites that dot the region. Drug trafficking routes into Mexico also cut through the reserve. Park rangers and other government and nonprofit personnel working to conserve and protect the area sometimes face threats and violence.

“We receive threats from hunters, Mayan tomb looters, illegal loggers, and other people who come in to plunder biodiversity in the area,” said Francisco Asturias, the Petén regional director at Fundaeco, the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation.

Released opossum (Didelphis marsupialis). Image by Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States.

On July 28, 2023, police seized a rifle and bushmeat during a joint patrol with personnel from CONAP, Fundaeco, and the Center for Conservation Studies (CECON). The next day, Asturias took to social media to report threats from illegal hunters in retaliation for the seizure. Three days later, assailants shot at two park rangers while they traveled through the same area.

“The hunting being done is not only for subsistence,” Asturias told Mongabay, noting that illegally hunted deer, paca and other bushmeat can easily be found for sale in markets and on restaurant menus in the region. “The government is not doing anything about it,” he said of the commercialization.

Hunters may also engage in the illegal wildlife trade as a side hustle along the way. “Where there is hunting and the hunter can catch the offspring, they will grab them in order to sell them,” Asturias said. “If they find a parrot nest, they will go and loot the nest for the chicks.”

Dedicated wildlife traffickers, on the other hand, are becoming more sophisticated. ARCAS staff noted some seizures in recent years have involved transportation of trafficked parrots in specialized crates rather than the typical cardboard boxes. The illegal wildlife trade has evolved over the years in ways that help evade detection, according to Grettel Delgadillo, Latin America deputy director for the Humane Society International, which supports and collaborates with ARCAS and other wildlife sanctuaries.

“For example, in Costa Rica they are moving to smaller species like glass frogs and even some insects,” Delgadillo told Mongabay. “They are using a lot of online platforms to sell and buy animals, and you have to make a request for that animal. It’s not that they have it available. They will look for the animal if you request it.”

The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Large-scale deforestation in the region has been linked, in part, to narco-trafficking, say experts.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Image courtesy of CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

In Guatemala, the principal market for illegal wildlife trafficking is Guatemala City, according to ARCAS, but there’s also international trade in some species, including scarlet macaws (Ara macao) and other parrots coveted as pets. Without much data or enforcement, sometimes the evidence of international trafficking is just the confiscations of species not native to the countries in which they’re confiscated, such as the capuchin monkeys found in Guatemala and seizures in El Salvador of wildlife from Guatemala and other Central American countries, according to ARCAS.

Back at the ARCAS center, the everyday care of wildlife never stops; on the day Mongabay visited last November, specimens were waiting for Alejandro Morales in the clinic. A few animals had symptoms associated with parasites, so staff collected their stool on leaves. Morales took a swab and examined the slide under a microscope, showing Mongabay the view on a computer screen: clearly visible, moving roundworms.

Many people have misconceptions about the work at wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers, Morales said. “It isn’t going around hugging animals. It’s looking at poop,” he said, waiting for two opossums to be brought in so he could administer doses of antiparasitic medication.

Anna Bryant, a zoologist and the biology program coordinator at the ARCAS center, said she looked forward to the monitoring of monkeys released into the wild. A troop of black howler monkeys made noise in the trees overhead as she walked between the various enclosures, explaining the complex care and behavioral studies for different species. The monkeys now here could very well be descended from the first howlers released years ago as a pilot project; now ARCAS uses radio collars and fieldwork to periodically track down and observe monkeys after their release.

Banner image: A howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) released in November 2023 in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Image by Santiago Bill/AP Images for The Humane Society of the United States.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Exit mobile version