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Protecting Nicaragua’s Natural Paradise for Jaguars and Other Wildlife

By John Polisar

Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in northeastern Nicaragua is home to extraordinary natural areas and abundant wildlife. Covering close to 20,000 square kilometers, the reserve features more than 300 types of trees, at least 368 bird species (representing close to half of all the birds found in the country), and a variety of large mammals that includes jaguars, pumas, white-lipped peccaries, and Baird’s tapirs in addition to a great number of amphibian and reptile species.

Habitat loss and fragmentation have contributed to the currently endangered status of the Central American tapir. Large wild areas such as Bosawás are important for the species' survival. Photo ©John Polisar.
Habitat loss and fragmentation have contributed to the currently endangered status of the Central American tapir. Large wild areas such as Bosawás are important for the species’ survival. Photo ©John Polisar.

In addition to lowland species, Bosawás has mountainous areas with cloud forests that hold amphibian and plant species adapted to live exclusively in these high natural forests. Bosawás constitutes one of the last forested strongholds where it is possible to find all the medium and large mammal species that originally occurred along the entire length of Mesoamerica’s Caribbean region.

But despite the plenitude of fauna and flora in the core areas of Bosawás, the reserve faces serious threats to its long-term survival, including deforestation of natural forest areas for cattle ranching and unsustainable levels of wildlife hunting. Without attention and action, Bosawás’s magnificent wild resources face an uncertain future.

The Saint Louis Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) worked together on the first jaguar camera trap survey in Nicaragua in 2006. WCS has conducted a number of surveys since. Photo ©Fabricio Diaz Santos.
The St. Louis Zoo and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) worked together on the first jaguar camera trap survey in Nicaragua in 2006. WCS has conducted a number of surveys since. Photo ©Fabricio Diaz Santos.

A decade ago, WCS, where I work as coordinator for the Jaguar Conservation Program, joined up with the St. Louis Zoo to conduct the first camera-trap studies of jaguars and their prey in Nicaragua, in coordination with indigenous groups and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Nicaragua (MARENA).

The studies, conducted in some of the most remote areas in Mesoamerica, produced the first photographic records of jaguars in the country. Jaguars are powerfully built stealth hunters that prowl the forest searching for prey and mates, and as they do our camera traps record their passing. But these extraordinary big cats do not exist in isolation. Biodiversity is now threatened by hunting and conflict with pastoralists living on the edges of Bosawás, and the risks cannot be overstated.

People in the interior of Bosawás live by the rivers, and travel by them. Photo ©Braden Gunem.
People in the interior of Bosawás live by the rivers, and travel by them. Photo ©Braden Gunem.

Saslaya National Park, one of the first protected areas in Nicaragua lies on the southeastern edge of the biosphere reserve. The park stands out from neighboring territories that allow the traditional use of natural resources by its stricter protection and species that are little known outside of Nicaragua and the larger region of Mesoamerica.

The first and most essential step in maintaining accurate records of wildlife population expansion and decline is the creation of a baseline of local species: which ones are present, and how abundant they are. With that in mind, WCS, MARENA, the national military, the national police, and the indigenous communities of Mayangna Sauni Bas worked together in early 2015 in an unprecedented level of cooperation to assess the status of the forest, bird populations, and large mammals in the high mountains and ridges of Saslaya.

White-lipped peccaries are sensitive to over-hunting and habitat reduction. They need large forested reserves like Bosawás. Photo by John Polisar ©WCS.
White-lipped peccaries are sensitive to over-hunting and habitat reduction. They need large forested reserves like Bosawás. Photo by John Polisar ©WCS.

The team of researchers, led by WCS’s Fabricio Diaz Santos, was impressed by the area’s spectacular terrain, wealth of biodiversity. They were also impressed – or rather, alarmed, by the threats to the park posed by incursions for hunting, and observed that deforestation north of the park could result in Saslaya becoming an isolated mountain island.

My experience over more than two decades working with people to achieve conservation in the tropics tells me that successful conservation takes team work and commitment. Agencies, local people, non-government organizations, and the private sector all need to come together to preserve the beauty of natural areas that sustain wild animals.

The three-wattled bellbird Procnias tricarunculatus lives exclusively in cloud forests, such as the higher elevations of Saslaya National Park. Photo ©Heydi Herrera.
The three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus) lives exclusively in cloud forests, such as the higher elevations of Saslaya National Park. Photo ©Heydi Herrera.

The jaguar needs huge areas, which are now shrinking throughout much of its range. It is important to work with the indigenous territories and traditional campesino areas of Bosawás to improve farming practices, control deforestation, manage hunting for sustainability, and use techniques WCS and our partners have developed to reduce conflicts with carnivores for the benefit of humanity and nature alike.

Much of Bosawás is remote and challenging to visit. In contrast, Saslaya is accessible for tourism on the edge of the reserve. If it is adequately protected, the park can show tourists wilderness within a day. As people come to see the birds, mountain views, and magnificent pools of the Labu River, the beauty of exemplary Nicaraguan nature can cultivate a constituency to protect this unique ecosystem.

The Saslaya salamander Nototriton saslaya is only found in Saslaya National Park, Nicaragua's first national park, and the southeastern corner of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Photo ©Gunther Koehler.
The Saslaya salamander (Nototriton saslaya) is only found in Saslaya National Park, Nicaragua’s first national park, and the southeastern corner of the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Photo ©Gunther Koehler.

The wild world is now diminishing. Some of that is inevitable, as we humans seek to satisfy our needs. However, there are places where nature should rule and where people are merely visitors to behold the world as it once was. Saslaya National Park can play that role, but only through a commitment to protect it by eliminating hunting within its borders and maintaining habitat connectivity with the remainder of Bosawás.

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Dr. John Polisar is Coordinator of Jaguar Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).