Posts Tagged ‘Wildlife Conservation’

Thai Days: Good news for the good guys via USAID

April 21, 2011

Hugh Paxton’s blog is pleased to pass on this Thai US embassy news.


US Embassy Bangkok Press Release


Bangkok, April 8, 2011 – The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has chosen the Thailand-based Freeland Foundation to lead an $8 million regional project to help Asia protect its unique biological diversity and fight against the illegal trafficking of wildlife.

Under the terms of the five-year agreement, the FREELAND Foundation will work with the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to improve wildlife trafficking enforcement, strengthen regional cooperation and reduce consumer demand.

Illegal trade in protected plants and animals is a multi-billion dollar industry that affects every country in Asia and threatens to cause irrevocable biodiversity loss.  In 2010 alone, more than $15 million in wildlife contraband was recovered, and on March 31, 2011, Thai customs agents seized more than two tons of Africa elephant tusks, the largest seizure of illegal ivory in Thailand’s history.

If the current illegal activity continues, over 40% of Southeast Asia’s animal and plant species could disappear this century.   Wildlife plays a vital role in sustaining human life.  The illegal wildlife trade weakens natural ecosystems, supports organized crime, and increases the risk of transmitting emerging infectious diseases such as avian pandemic influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Since 2005, USAID’s support to FREELAND and other partners has helped establish the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN).  This region-wide system created dedicated national task forces in seven countries and a secretariat to coordinate their activity.   Some 2,000 officials have been trained and arrests for wildlife trafficking has increased substantially.

At the same time, a broad public education process has alerted million to the importance of protecting the region’s wildlife, and numerous public-private sector partnerships set up in support of the counter trafficking effort.  As a result, ASEAN-WEN is now a model for collaborative wildlife enforcement networking which other regions are seeking to replicate.

The new program will:

  • Strengthen the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network;
  • Expand the network to China, South Asia, the United States and other parts of the world;
  • Develop regional centers of excellence in marine enforcement, forest protection, and wildlife forensics;
  • Help replicate the “WEN” (Wildlife Enforcement Network) model throughout Asia;
  • Produce a special television series with National Geographic, which will be seen throughout Asia and help reduce demand for endangered species; and
  • Launch internet public awareness campaigns in China, Vietnam and Thailand and build on these to reach out elsewhere in Asia.

The program will also work with the South Asia Wildlife Enforcement Network (SA-WEN), an organization modeled after the USAID-funded ASEAN-WEN program; Global Tiger Initiative (GTI); the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity; and government agencies across Asia.  Local NGOs from Vietnam, Cambodia, China and other countries will also participate.   International partners include INTERPOL, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of State.

Don Clark, Acting Mission Director for USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia, said “This new program demonstrates the commitment of the United States Government to work through local organizations that are change agents who have the cultural knowledge and in-country expertise to ensure USAID assistance leads to real local institutions and solutions.  Wildlife trafficking affects everyone.  Through the Freeland Foundation and ASEAN-WEN, and with the support of many partners, this region has taken great strides to protect its unique biodiversity.  This new award will build upon that success, protect the region’s environment and help turn the tables on organized crime.”


Guatemala: Turtle Diary

March 28, 2011



Hugh Paxton’s Blog is lying in a restless, one might say vicious, hammock on the Pacific coast of Guatemala waiting for nesting sea turtles to leave the crashing surf. There’s a volcano erupting inland. Raindrops as big as pennies are rattling off the palm-frond roof of our shelter. Lightning is tearing the night sky apart.

“Is it usually like this?” I yell across to Colum Muccio.

Muccio should know. He has been working with ARCAS, a Guatemalan conservation organisation for years. Many years!

“Usually like what?” he yells back.

“Like apocalypse! And why is this b****dy hammock trying to throw me on my b****dy head?”

Muccio’s answer is drowned out by a thunderclap.

My eagerness to conduct a nocturnal beach patrol dwindles. This is real tropical rain. Drenches you in seconds. Floods roads. Washes away defoliated mountain slopes. Drowns sea turtle beach patrols.

Then, abruptly, someone turns off the tap. The silence is deafening – for about 30 seconds. Then, as if a conductor has twitched a baton, there is a concerted explosion of insect orchestrals from the mangroves behind us.


The actual location of Hawaii (that’s Hawaii, Guatemala, as opposed to that other place in the Pacific) is as striking as as its storms and shrieking insects. The turtle beaches are black volcanic sand cut off from the mainland by a mangrove-lined canal that is main road, bath and larder to local fishermen. Similar mangrove canals follow the coast as far down as El Salvador hosting a rich and idiosyncratic wildlife population: basilisks or “Jesus lizards” walk – or more accurately scuttle- on water using their flat webbed feet, and four eyed fish among others.

BLOG ED NOTE: The evolutionary four eyes plan is cunning. It enables the fish to keep two wary eyes on avian predators above while keeping two alert eyes focused on potential prey and predators below the water’s surface.

But I digress. Back to the plot!


ARCAS runs two volunteer programmes; there is a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre on the shore of Lake Petenista near the ancient ‘lost’ Mayan city state of Tikal, in the jungles of Peten near the Mexican border. And there is this turtle hatchery (complemented by caiman and green iguana breeding facilities) in Hawaii.

Volunteers are not just welcome but needed. They pay a nominal sum for bed and board.

The beaches of Hawaii suffer a problem common throughout Central America. Poaching.

Turtle eggs are regarded – yes, you are probably ahead of me on this one – as an aphrodisiac.

“Guatemala’s human population is growing at nearly three percent a year, so aphrodisiacs are the last thing this country needs,” Muccio says wryly, “and this beach is technically a protected area so we shouldn’t have to be doing this at all.”

He hauls himself out of his hammock. “Oh for a perfect world! Let’s go and meet the crowds.”

Crowds may be overstating the case somewhat, but, despite the recent torrents, the beach has more people on it than I ever saw during the day – hueveros (egg collectors) one and all.

Two old men wobble past on bicycles proving an exception to the general rule: Egg poachers mainly seemed to operate alone, heads turning sheepishly away from us as we passed.

Muccio isn’t a policeman (from Washington DC he isn’t even Guatemalan) so stopping hueveros is not an option. Also they’ve got machetes and not a few smell of Venado, a vicious sort of local gin that aids bad temper.

Instead of becoming involved in blood drenched beach brawls, ARCAS has hit on a pragmatic, if less than perfect, agreement with local hueveros: They are asked to hand in 12 eggs, roughly ten percent of a nest load, to the protected hatchery. According to Muccio, about 50 percent comply with the egg agreement.


…is ‘finders keepers’.

 First one to a nest takes all. Hence our patrol. If we get there first – well, it will be 120 olive ridley turtle eggs in the bag, into the nursery and then, once hatched, into the sea.

There the little fellahs will have to run the usual sea turtle gauntlet of shrimp trawlers, pollution, bull sharks, ghost nets lost by fishermen, etc. before eventually returning to their birth beach to lay the next generation. How any of them make it is frankly beyond me.

Still, at least we are giving them a start in life. Before the ARCAS operation began, not one single nest escaped the hueveros. Every egg was taken. Truck loads of eggs headed inland. This ultimately self-defeating practice was only made possible for as long as it was by the sea turtle’s extraordinarily long life span.

 “The key to success is to watch the sand just above the surf line for tracks,” Muccio explains. “Follow the tracks and you’ve got your nest. Easy.”

 As we plod along the beach, the din of the surf is our constant companion.

Turtles aren’t.

 One hour later – zip. Nada. My initial alertness fades. My thoughts wander towards the profound. Why the bloody hell am I doing this when I could be in bed? Why do I care about sea turtles? Why does Muccio care about sea turtles? The man could have a comfy well-paid job in the States instead of an incredibly unpaid job in Guatemala. Why have I signed up for two weeks of this slog?

And then the utterly profound! What will we be having for breakfast!

Hours pass. Still no turtles. Just one emptied nest. A hole in the beach, a wound in the world. Turtle tracks and human footprints.    


Breakfast turns out to be cold beer, bananas and chilli shrimps. No eggs. It happens at 4:30 a.m. And after it is done I hit the hammock like a hammer, which of course bounces me straight out again.  After hitting the floor like a hammer I fall asleep.

IN RETROSPECT: Precious Moments.

 The fortnight I spent on the beach passed swiftly. Days were spent dozing in the hammock, surf too rough and currents too weird for swimming, heat beating the black sand, too hot for naked feet at high noon.

There were moments of great beauty: sitting on the wonky wooden Hawaii dock watching the four eyed fish watching for herons above and fishy business below,. Pelicans on patrol. Sunset firing the mangrove canal’s water, fishing bats flitting low above the glowing surface. Flotillas of water hyacinth drifting slowly, slowly past. The jewelled eyes of a young caiman.

There were moments of of great excitement: finally finding a nesting ridley before a huevero, waiting patiently for her to finish her lay. What seemed to be tears were running down her cheeks. Muccio explained something technical about salt glands, but watching the turtle at her strenuous, ancient, fragile work I decided to stick with the tears interpretation.

There were moments of great optimism: the huevero who turned up with 50 eggs for the hatchery. The visit to a local school-run hatchery just down the coast, the children’s eyes gleaming with pride as they released hatchlings.

There were moments of great ugliness: two men in Chicago Bulls t-shirts, reeking of Venado (that vile rot gut I mentioned earlier), hauling a female off her nest before she could scrape sand back to cover it.

The turtle made no effort to regain the sea. Just lay there on the sand making feeble flicking motions with her flippers, water from her eyes driving narrow channels through the sand that caked her cheeks.

Local rules on this one. We watched them take every egg. We helped the turtle make it back to her sea. After dawn we waited for the two men to bring us the agreed ten percent of their raid. We waited in vain.

The last night in Hawaii was again split by storm. The volcano’s glow had faded. Quite a fortnight! And I finally got the hang of my hammock!       



BLOG ED NOTE: Colum Muccio is our Hugh Paxton blog Guatemala columnist. Noteworthy for not actually having time to really submit any columns. ARCAS remains doing what it does. He remains doing what he does. And he remains not earning much. But he keeps his Guatemalan wife in re-fried beans and his kids are doing good. The turtles are still coming back to the beach. The struggle goes on. If you are feeling rich and generous (Bill Gates! Can you hear me????) a donation would help! If you are interested in sea turtles read anything written by Archie Carr. A great start!

Guatemala: ARCAS wins conservation award

August 14, 2010

Hugh Paxton’s Blog is proud to announce that its Guatemala correspondent’s efforts to preserve tropical forests, sea turtles, and combat the illegal trade in wildlife have deservedly received presidential recognition.

We would all like to congratulate Colum and his colleagues on their efforts, will power, patience and achievements. At the same time, we would like to remind Colum that the next post of his Hugh Paxton’s Blog column, “Colum’s Column” is eagerly anticipated. And long overdue!  


BLOG ED NOTE: A trifle dry in my opinion. But here goes!   


In recognition of its 20 years of work protecting the wildlife of Guatemala, on the 5th of August ARCAS was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Environment in a ceremony held in the National Palace.

Attending the ceremony were the Vice President of the Republic, the Minister of Environment, members of the diplomatic corps, DIPRONA and NGO colleagues. During the same ceremony, Vida Amor de Paz of the Tropical Forest Foundation was awarded the Medal.

Reconociendo sus 20 años de labor en pro de la fauna silvestre de Guatemala, el 5 de agosto ARCAS fue condecorado con la Medalla Presidencial de Medio Ambiente en una acta que se llevó a cabo en el Palacio Nacional con la participación del Vicepresidente de la Republica, el Ministro de Medio Ambiente, miembros del cuerpo diplomático, DIPRONA y colegas de otros ONGs. Durante la misma acta, la Medalla Presidencial también fue condecorada a la Sra. Vida Amor de Paz de la Fundación del Bosque Tropical.

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