Saving San Isidro: A New Reserve in the Cuchumatanes Mountains of Guatemala

Guatemala

The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes in north-western Guatemala is the highest non-volcanic range in Central America, and a hotbed of unique and threatened amphibians including the Finca Chiblac Salamander (Bradytriton silus), Long-limbed Salamander (Nyctanolis vernix), Jackson’s Climbing Salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni) and the Critically Endangered and beautiful Morelett’s Black-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis moreletii). The mountain range, cloaked in lush forest that filters water into the azure Laguna Maxbal, is also an Important Bird Area, supporting populations of three globally threatened species. The remoteness of the area has protected much of the forest to date, but increasing pressures from corporations looking to exploit the coffee-growing potential of the land place these unique forests at risk, and the area has been identified as one of the highest priorities for biodiversity conservation. An opportunity has arisen for local NGO FUNDAECO to acquire a 2000-acre property called Finca San Isidro to protect an important tract of humid subtropical forest and its unique inhabitants before it is cleared within the next year.

Long-limbed Salamander, Nyctanolis pernix © Robin Moore

The Sierra de los Cuchumatanes in north-western Guatemala is the highest non-volcanic range in Central America, stretching from the Mexican border to Alta Verapaz and an elevational range from 500 meters to over 3,800 meters above sea level. With such a diverse topography, the mountain range hosts a diversity of biomes and a unique richness of rare species, wrapped in a storied history.

The Cuchumatanes were highlighted in the mid 1970s by eminent Berkeley biologist David Wake as a priority for exploration. Subsequent forays into these uncharted forests by two students – Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson – resulted in what Wake described as the finding of the Century – three new species (Finca Chiblac Salamander, Bradytriton silus, Long-limbed Salamander, Nyctanolis pernix and Jackson’s Climbing Salamander,Bolitoglossa jacksoni) and two entirely new genera that represented missing links in the Neotropical plethodontid (lungless salamander) radiation.

Bradytriton silus, a monotypic genus only found in the Cuchumatanes  © Robin Moore

Following their discovery, the three salamander species went unrecorded for over three decades until, at the turn of the century, Bradytriton silus and Nyctanolis pernix were rediscovered during a series of expeditions to the Cuchumatanes mountains. The most recent expedition, in July 2014, confirmed their presence in the subtropical forests of the Huehuetanango region. The third species, Bolitoglossa jacksoni, has eluded detection in 39 years and has been named one of the ten Most Wanted missing amphibian species in the world. Its reappearance in these forests would make headline news.

 Baudin’s Treefrog, Smilisca baudinii, found during the expedition to the Cuchumatanes. © Hussain Aga Khan

The area is also important for tailless amphibians. In 2012 a new species, the Cuchumatan Golden Toad, Incilius aurarius, was discovered and described. But arguably the most charismatic frog species is the Critically Endangered and striking Black-eyed Treefrog, Agalychnis moreletii, a species that is threatened predominantly by habitat loss. The Cuchumatanes have also been identified by Birdlife as an Important Bird Area, supporting populations of three globally Threatened species: the Highland and Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus andPenelopina nigra) and Pink-headed Warbler (Ergaticus versicolor) as well as the Resplendent Quetzal.

Relative to much of the country, the Cuchumatanes mountains have hung on to a considerable amount of forest habitat. But the area has considerable coffee-growing potential, and prime habitats are now threated by the influx of Japanese corporations who are obtaining long-term leases to clear the forests for coffee cultivation. The importance of the forests for biodiversity coupled with this growing threat have led to the mountains being identified by local and international scientists and conservationists as an utmost priority for immediate conservation action.

The Cuchumatan Golden Toad, discovered and described as recently as 2012  © Robin Moore

Upon highlighting the Cuchumatanes as a high priority for conservation in Guatemala, biologist Carlos Vasquez, in association with local NGO FUNDAECO, identified critical habitat in need of protection. Months of groundwork led them to home in on a 2000-acre property in the Hueheutenango region (which boasts the highest rainfall of all Guatemala) of the Cuchumatanes called Finca San Isidro. The property is cloaked in humid subtropical forest, bisected by a major river originating in the surrounding mountains, and spans an elevational range of 1,000 to 1,729 meters above sea level. Expeditions to the area by Vasquez and team have confirmed the presence of Bradytriton silus, breeding populations of the Black-eyed Leaf Frog (more than 40 individuals, including egg-laying females, were observed on several nights) and suitable forest habitat for Nyctanolis pernix. In addition, the Resplendent Quetzal was heard calling within the property. The current owners of the property are coffee growers, and plan to move into the property and clear the forest within the next year, making its acquisition and preservation an urgent priority.Relative to much of the country, the Cuchumatanes mountains have hung on to a considerable amount of forest habitat. But the area has considerable coffee-growing potential, and prime habitats are now threated by the influx of Japanese corporations who are obtaining long-term leases to clear the forests for coffee cultivation. The importance of the forests for biodiversity coupled with this growing threat have led to the mountains being identified by local and international scientists and conservationists as an utmost priority for immediate conservation action.

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Fast Facts

Location
Guatemala

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Habitat
Humid subtropical forest

Cuchumatanes8

Threat

Forests are being cleared by corporations for coffee plantation

Partners

FUNDAECO

World Land Trust

Global Wildlife Conservation

Amphibian Survival Alliance

Rainforest Trust

International Conservation Fund of Canada

Funded 100%

Flagship Species

Finca Chiblac Salamander, Black-eyed Tree Frog

Other Species

Cuchumatan Golden Toad, Mullers Mushroom-tongue Salamander, Long-limbed Salamander, Resplendent Quetzal

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