Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
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 an interview with Mongabay.com, McCann discussed the situation in Cusuco and the challenges of promoting sustainable development around the park.
mongabay.com: What brought you to Honduras? And where do you work?
Niall McCann: I 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.
Read the rest of the interview here.