2016 Conservation Report
Education for conservation of the Endangered Guatemalan Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura palearis) as a key seed disperser in the seasonally dry forests surrounding four rural communities in eastern Guatemala

Report submitted by Daniel Ariano and Johana Gil

 

Adult female Ctenosaura palearis at the Heloderma Natural Reserve. Photo by Johana Gil.

The Guatemalan Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura palearis) is an endemic species of Guatemala. Research completed in 2015 with IIF support had shown that hunting pressure on this iguana still exists, making the implementation of an education program relevant in the rural communities surrounding the Heloderma Natural Reserve (HNR). The objective was to increase awareness of the role of the iguana as a key seed disperser in the dry forests. We targeted the children and teachers in elementary schools from 4 rural communities surrounding the HNR (639 children and 50 teachers). We also implemented a camera trap program to follow the activity of four iguanas. Each school “adopted” one of the monitored iguanas and was shown videos of their iguana’s activities. We also conducted field trips to the HNR with the children, to explain in situ the camera trap process, the natural history of the iguanas, and their role in seed dispersal. Lastly, all the school children were given a Ctenosaura palearis conservation awareness t-shirt.

 

Education program. This year we implemented a conservation education program for children of elementary schools in four rural communities surrounding the HNR. We also included a fifth private school that was not originally considered at the request of the principal of the school to be part of the program. Altogether we reached a total of 639 children and 50 teachers. As part of the program, we carried out eight environmental education workshops, which included group dynamics, songs, animated videos, and questionnaires at each school. During the month of May, all the children and their teachers were given a t-shirt with a C. palearis conservation awareness slogan (689 t-shirts distributed).

As part of our environmental education program, a drawing contest was held among all elementary school children in the area. Photo by Johana Gil.

Education program workshop showing students the iguana “Shero”. A school teacher holds the iguana for her students at Cabañas School, Cabañas, Zacapa. Photo by Erik López.

We also promoted a drawing contest entitled “The Guatemalan Black Iguana, a friend from my forest”. We received very nice drawings with conservation messages showing the children’s interest and commitment to protect iguanas. Additionally, the students and teachers learned to distinguish them from other species of iguanas that live within the same area (Iguana iguana and Ctenosaura similis). The contest was carried out at each grade level and prizes were given to the best drawing from each grade. The prizes were soccer balls, which were bought thanks to a donation from a group of students from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.

 

Transportation of children of San Vicente Elementary School to the HNR with one of the buses rented for the field workshop activity. Photo by Johana Gil.

Starting in September, we took the students to the HNR for a field workshop allowing them to experience the dry forest ecology firsthand. We taught them how camera traps function, the relevance of iguanas to forest conservation, and more about the natural history of iguanas. By the time of this report, four groups of students and their teachers had visited the Reserve from Cabañas, El Arenal, San Vicente, and San Sebastian elementary schools. Eight more student groups will visit the reserve in the next several weeks from El Rosario, a second group from San Vicente, and a second and third group from Cabañas.

 

During the months of October and November, environmental education workshops were held for the villagers of El Arenal, who are very important to reach since they are in direct contact with the iguana. All the participants said they eat C. palearis, but some commented and praised the work being done with their children in schools. They told us that their children have asked them not to eat the iguanas because they are being extinguished. The objectives of this workshop were to show the adults in the community the threats this iguana faces, why it is important to preserve it, learn how to distinguish it from other iguanas, and gradually to also be involved in the conservation of this species. As part of the workshop activities, villagers were shown videos of C. palearis taken with camera traps and learned how important these traps are for conservation studies.

During the month of October an environmental education workshop was held for the villagers, who are very important since they are in direct contact with the iguana. Photo by Daniel Ariano.

 

Our environmental education program for elementary schools had a very good acceptance among children and their teachers. We documented the great impact or our education program on the students and their teachers through the questionnaire. At the beginning of the program many children stated they killed iguanas just for fun (20%, n=128) and also the vast majority of students told us they ate C. palearis meat (70%, n=447). After the workshops had passed, which included showing videos of iguanas in the wild, the drawing contest, receiving conservation awareness t-shirts, and the field trip to the reserve, we completely changed the minds of children and their teachers. They now have an appreciation of the iguanas and changed their consumption to other kinds of meat (such as Ctenosaura similis which is not threatened and very abundant in the area). They now understand their role in forest conservation and many want to get involved in their care and conservation. Less than 1% of the students (n=4) reported they still kill iguanas for fun and only 5% (n=32) said their families still eat C. palearis meat. We expect that the students, and especially the teachers, may spread the message of iguana conservation within their families and community.

 

El Arenal elementary school children (Cabañas, Zacapa) wearing their environmental awareness t-shirts during the field workshop at the HNR. Photo by Gilberto Salazar.

Because of the great success we had with schools that were initially part of the education program, we have had many requests from school principals in towns that were not encompassed by the project to consider them for 2017. The Local Coordinator of the Education Ministry said that the program has changed the lives of many children in those impoverished rural communities. For us, there is nothing more soul-fulfilling than the smiles of children that gave their best efforts in drawing the iguana friends they learned to protect.

 

Camera trap monitoring. Beginning in the last week of April, we implemented a camera trapping program to follow shelter activity of four iguanas that were radiotracked in 2015. These iguanas were monitored with eight Stealth Cam camera traps. This video data was shared in the school workshops and allowed the children to learn about iguana behavior in the wild. With the camera traps we also documented that adult C. palearis actively search and hunt for ants (Formicidae) and velvet ants (Mutillidae). The daily activity patterns obtained to date show that C. palearis usually emerges from their shelters at approximately 9:00 AM and returns to them at 4:00 PM. We now have a better understanding of C. palearis wild behavior and ecology by documenting daily activity, shelter use, and behavior. We also documented other species visiting iguana shelters, such as the Southern Spotted Skunk Spilogale angustifrons, Margay Leopardus wiedii, and the Central American Lyre Snake Trimorphodon quadruplex.

 

Future. In response to requests from school principals in neighboring towns, we intend to expand the conservation education program in 2017. We will next visit the elementary schools in San Luis, Cerco Piedra, Quebrada Honda, and Puente. We also need to continue camera trap monitoring of iguana daily activity patterns and continue microchip marking for long-term population monitoring. We also need research to determine the genetic structure of the population and identify possible evolutionary significant units throughout the valley. Additionally, we intend to assess basic health parameters such as hemogram and parasite testing, and also determine the gut microbiota that may affect germination of gut-passed seeds. Finally, we need to radiotrack iguanas in the dry season (January through June) to get a better understanding of mating behavior and complement our data from the wet season (July–December 2015).

 

We will seek additional IIF funding to achieve these goals, which will cover lab reagents, transportation costs, education materials, microchips, and an education program coordinator’s salary.