2017 Project Update

Community outreach and capacity-building for long-term conservation of the endangered Guatemalan Spiny-tailed Iguana Ctenosaura palearis

Report submitted by Daniel Ariano, Johana Gil, Gilberto Salazar, and Eric Lopez (Zootropic), and Edwin Castañon, Kervin Cardona, and Guido Rossi (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala)

Ctenosaura palearis
Motagua Spiny-tailed Iguana

This report is an update to research and community engagement started in 2015 with IIF funding, addressing serious conservation needs for the Guatemalan Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura palearis) in the upper Rio Motagua Valley.

Education program. Because of the great success we had with the education component of this project in 2016, we visited elementary schools in four other small villages in 2017: San Luis, Quebrada Honda, Las Anonas, and El Tambor, which makes a total of around 300 children and teachers we have reached.

We carried out eight visits that included environmental education talks, group dynamics, songs, animated videos, presentations with wild animals, and a component we call the “treasure chest of the dry forest”. In May, the children and teachers were given a promotional Ctenosaura palearis conservation T-shirt (300 shirts) that reminds the community of these lessons for an extended period of time. In August, we held a drawing and short poem competition with the main theme focused on the role of the iguana and germination of its preferred food in the dry forest, the Organ Pipe Cactus. Through drawings and messages, the children expressed the importance of the iguana as part of the dry forest, the threats they face, and how they can be part of the conservation of this species by learning to identify it correctly. The contestants were separated by grade level and backpacks and educational books were given to the winners.

After the second year of this program, we already see positive results regarding the student’s knowledge of iguanas. Children as well as adults have learned to identify iguana species correctly, are knowledgeable about their habitat, food, reproduction, their importance in the dry forest, and the threats Ctenosaura palearis is currently facing. It is gratifying to listen to teachers and parents who tell us they are no longer eating Ctenosaura palearis because their children have absorbed the message of caring for the iguana. These children are in almost daily contact with iguanas now because the extent of deforestation taking place in the area forces iguanas to use refuges near houses and schools, so it is important they know more about the relevance of species conservation.

Some of the students have related to us they are interested in working in conservation for their professional careers, and particularly with endangered iguanas. To us, this exemplifies how a project like this, managed and carried out by locals, can have a huge impact on the lives of people involved in it and a great impact for species conservation within the country.

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Johana Gil with student winner of the drawing and poem contest at El Tambor elementary school, showing her book prize. Photo by Gilberto Salazar.
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Awareness T-shirts with a Motagua Spiny-tailed Iguana drawing on the front given to the children of La Puente elementary school. Photo by Johana Gil.
Ctenosaura palearis
Gilberto Salazar and Johana Gil teaching Quebrada Honda elementary school children how to identify C. palearis from C. similis. Photo by Erick López.

Genetic assessment. We have completed research to determine the genetic structure and identify possible evolutionary significant units (ESUs) in Ctenosaura palearis populations throughout the valley. A total of 45 individuals were sampled from six distinctive locations throughout the iguana’s range, in all of the Motagua Valley. We amplified two mitochondrial genes with primers that we designed. Three different ESUs have been identified with our analysis: one in the central and western part of Motagua valley, a second from the eastern-most part of the species’ distribution (on the southern Motagua river bank), and a third from the northern Motagua river bank. This information is important for better management of the species. Performing this analysis also served as an important capacity building trigger within the country for students interested in iguana conservation genetics.

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Population genetics research team during fieldwork at Heloderma Natural Reserve. Photo by Erick López.
Ctenosaura palearis
Daniel Ariano monitoring students while taking blood samples for the genetic analysis at Heloderma Natural Reserve. Photo by Gilberto Salazar.

Research and interpretive signs at Heloderma Natural Reserve. We continued camera trap monitoring of the iguana’s daily activity patterns and radio-tracked four male iguanas during the dry season. Tracking occurred from 2 January to 19 May 2017, when the last radio failed.

Finally, we designed and installed four interpretive panels for the “iguana trail” inside the Heloderma Natural Reserve. We feel the signs have had a very strong impact on visitors by illustrating the relevance of Ctenosaura palearis as a keystone species for dry forests in Guatemala.

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One of four interpretive panels installed at the “iguana trail” inside Heloderma Natural Reserve. This panel discusses the relevance of iguanas as cactus seed dispersers in the dry forest. Photo by Johana Gil.

Future. Our outreach project has been so successful that the future directions will be aimed at strengthening the management of the Heloderma Natural Reserve. The Reserve has been shown to be a very important area for Ctenosaura palearis conservation and may be developed as the environmental education center for the Motagua Valley. For these reasons, we plan to apply for an IIF grant in 2018 that will focus on covering management expenses of the HNR, to continue active conservation in situ and receive school groups for education talks. It is necessary to have funds directed to improve Ctenosaura palearis management within the reserve to move forward on conservation of this endangered species in Guatemala.

Ctenosaura palearis
Reserve interpretive trail shown in yellow, and sample signs