Managing Latin American Wildlife

Biologists and nature reserve managers study complex tropical ecosystems in local programs

THREE times a night, seven days a week, Eduardo Carrillo leaves his rented cabana and disappears into the nearby rain forest to check the raccoon traps he sets each day at dusk. With the bright light of his headlamp illuminating sandy trails, he stops occasionally to spotlight rain forest night creatures: a whippoorwill on her nest; the pale lavender eggs of the chicken-like tinamou; and two different species of opossum. A raccoon crosses the arc of light and vanishes in the jungle. Mr. Carrillo does his nighttime research in one of Costa Rica's most famous national parks, Manuel Antonio, which embraces 1,500 acres of beach and rain forest on the southern Pacific Coast. With its wide crescent beaches and trails through virgin rain forest, the park attracts thousands of tourists each year, and Carrillo is studying the impact of the park's popularity on the raccoon population. Those lured into his live traps by the scent of a ripe banana are given a mild sedative, tagged (some with radio collars), measured, and weighed.

It's a data-collecting procedure familiar to professional wildlife managers in the United States, but Carrillo is not a professional - not yet. His field studies are part of his thesis work for a graduate program in wildlife management at the National University of Costa Rica, a program funded in part by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Until the FWS, with support from such groups as the World Wildlife Fund, Organization for Tropical Studies, and a German environmental agency, began funding the program in 1987, there were no graduate courses in wildlife management in all of Latin America, which meant that those trained in other countries, mainly the United States, had to import what they had learned in a nontropical clime to the vastly different ecosystems of Central and South America.

``In the early '80s we began to recognize the tremendous lack of knowledge about tropical wildlife species and their habitats,'' says Herbert Raffaele, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Service's Western Hemisphere Convention Program, which supports not only Carrillo's graduate program, but also other wildlife-related programs throughout Latin America. ``We wanted to shift training from US centers to Latin American institutions,'' he says.

Carrillo, whose research led to his discovery of a new species of raccoon in Manuel Antonio, is one of 33 students from 13 Latin American countries currently enrolled in the program. He will receive his degree this spring, as will his Costa Rican classmate, Grace Wong, who is also conducting research in the park. Ms. Wong is studying the status and ecology of one of the park's most endearing native residents, the small, fuzzy squirrel monkey, whose immensely long tail launches its one-foot body through the rain forest canopy.

OFTEN colonies of up to 60 squirrel monkeys, or monos titis, as they're called in Spanish, pass noisily above the heads of park visitors. ``Squirrel monkeys are very shy,'' Wong says, ``so tourists, even those who can't resist trying to feed monkeys haven't had a serious impact on them yet.'' The biggest threat to the tiny primates is loss of habitat, as forest outside protected parkland is cleared for banana and coffee plantations, cattle pasture, and facilities for tourists who come to the park to see, ironically, squirrel monkeys.

At the current rate of deforestation, Costa Rica will have almost no forest outside of its national parks by the end of the century. ``We need to start arming ourselves now with reliable statistics about the habitat needs of wildlife in Latin America,'' says Christopher Vaughan, a professor and director of the university program. Dr. Vaughan has spent the last 20 years in Costa Rica, teaching and conducting wildlife research. ``We can't manage or protect a wildlife species unless we understand its natural history, its habitat requirements, and its place in the ecological scheme of things,'' he explains.

Even in the United States, wildlife management is a relatively young science, dating back some 50 years. In Latin America, there is a vacuum of basic information on wildlife species, partly because of the daunting problems involved in collecting data.

Tropical ecosystems are much more complex than their northern counterparts. The vast number of species in Central and South America is overwhelming. In tiny Costa Rica alone, experts have counted 237 mammals, 848 birds (more than in all of North America), and 361 amphibians and reptiles, and the tally is far from complete.

Tracking these animals, especially such elusive and solitary species as the tapir or jaguar, through the tangled, dim rain forest requires the persistence and fortitude of a special kind of biologist. So new is the field in Latin America, says Vaughan, ``we're not even sure which species are most endangered.''

Carlos Cerrato, one of the program's first students, has just completed his thesis work on two endangered species - the crocodiles and caimans that inhabit the Mosquito Coast of his native Honduras. Mr. Cerrato's studies are providing something more than valuable information on the impact of poaching and habitat loss on these reptiles: He is now able to pass on what he has learned. In February, Cerrato, a biology professor, began teaching the first course in wildlife management at the National University of Honduras.

``There are many problems in Honduras with our wildlife,'' he says. ``And so much research needs to be done.'' Cerrato says he hopes one of his students will continue with his caiman and crocodile research. ``It's surprising how little is known about these animals,'' he says. ``What month do they lay their eggs and at what age and size? What do they eat?'' He says that the reptiles could be raised on farms, providing rural Hondurans with a sustainable income through the sale of crocodile and caiman skins, eggs, and meat. ``This would provide a livelihood for Hondurans and reduce poaching,'' he explains.

Realizing that the Costa Rican program could not provide training for all of Latin America's growing cadre of wildlife biologists, the Fish and Wildlife Service provided funds to initiate two additional graduate courses - one in Brazil, now a year old, and another in Venezuela, which accepted its first class in September.

WHILE the wildlife management graduate programs receive the bulk of funds allotted by Congress to the FWS's Western Hemisphere Convention, Mr. Raffaele emphasizes that US taxpayers also support a growing number of other wildlife management efforts in Latin America: for example, helping to overcome the problem of ``paper parks'' - wildlands that have been unofficially designated by governments, yet are completely unmanaged, without rangers or guards or even marked boundaries. Raffaele's program established - with Ducks Unlimited of Mexico - Latin America's first international training center for reserve managers.

Based in Cerro Prieto in north central Mexico, the school accepted its first seven students from seven Latin countries in September. All are reserve managers now but have received little, if any, previous training, says Raffaele, even though ``they often are assigned to oversee reserves as large as New Jersey that contain more animal species than all of North America.''

Other FWS Western Hemisphere funding goes to projects that aim to increase local awareness of wildlife and parklands, such as pamphlets and videos distributed to residents who live near Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras; a film on tropical conservation, starring the endangered spectacled bear, that will be shown to rural and urban Colombians; and a series of radio programs on local wildlife and conservation that will be broadcast throughout Bolivia.

``Better wildlife management in Latin America means more than just training professionals, as vital as that is,'' says Raffaele. ``We also have to educate local residents, so that they'll support the wildlife management decisions our new research allows us to make, whether it's the establishment of a closed hunting season, declaring certain areas off-limits, or listing a certain species as threatened or endangered.''

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