By John Polisar
In early 2017, I participated in an ecological survey led by Conservation International to assess the biological attributes of archaeological site in Honduras known as Ciudad Blanca, or the Lost City of the Monkey God. The area was so remote that we were helicoptered in. We walked through rivers and atop ridges, obtaining as much information as we could, then left camera traps installed in the area to be helicoptered out six months later.
I told the team I had seen white-lipped peccary tracks under dense understory way downriver. Knowing that this formerly widespread pig-like animal has now been eradicated in 87 percent of its original range in Central America, the team expressed doubts they were there. Six months later, the camera trap images showed herds marching through creeks and across trails, almost everywhere.
Such sightings in Mesoamerica are quite rare. Their occurring at this site, which had not been visited by humans for 500 years, marks Ciudad Blanca as a jewel. But it will not stay that way without visionary large-scale conservation efforts.
Honduras has renamed the site the “Lost City of the Jaguar” based upon ancient jaguar sculptures encountered by archaeologists, as well as the presence of living jaguars recorded by camera traps this year. It lies in the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor of Honduras and Nicaragua, also known as the Moskitia Forest Corridor, one of the five largest remaining forest blocks in Central America.
The rugged ridges of this region still harbor wildlife at risk regionally such as great green macaws, and provide essential winter habitat for many migratory bird species. Most valleys are occupied by Miskito, Mayangna, Pech, and Tawahka indigenous groups. Unfortunately, at least 30 percent of the forest cover in Moskitia was lost between 2000-2015, mostly to cattle ranching operations that converted primary forest into pastures.
However, jaguars and white-lipped peccaries continue to persist according to camera trap surveys conducted by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) in Nicaragua’s Bosawas Biosphere Reserve over the past decade, and now verified during the expedition to the Lost City site.
To keep their populations viable, conservationists, park managers, and governments must maintain large blocks of forests and keep them connected.
A recent effort to assess the status of the Moskitia involved a group of adventurous graduate students from Yale’s Environmental Protection Clinic, who joined me on a trip down the Rio Coco in Nicaragua and the Patuca River in Honduras. One major goal was to “ground-truth” the rapidly changing realities of Mesoamerica’s wildest frontier, and explore how shared forest across national borders can be kept intact.
Our fact-finding trip included conversations with ranchers and indigenous leaders, meetings in remote community centers, and discussions with lead conservation agency personnel. Participants in both countries were keenly interested in forest and wildlife conservation and connectivity (uninterrupted habitat spread across a given landscape, often crossing national borders). However, the last remaining possibilities to connect core wild zones across the two countries are shrinking.
A key breakthrough in the survey was the identification of four narrow bands (“pinch points”) that are crucial to maintaining connectivity between core zones.
A major threat to forests in this region is uncontrolled expansion of cattle ranching, which has converted forest into pasture along the Rio Coco river inside protected areas. Ranches in Honduras use the waterway to deliver cattle to slaughterhouses. More recently, a road was constructed in Honduras’s Patuca National Park to transport cattle across mountains to the Patuca River and from there to slaughterhouses.
Reversing these recent and increasingly widespread losses seems daunting. Actions taken now can stop the tide, keep forests intact, and protect the forest that surrounds the Lost City. What’s important to remember is that the conservation solutions can also be economically productive, and the archaeological sites have enormous tourism potential. There are examples of shade cacao systems that mix hardwoods, bananas, and cacao in the Patuca River valley of Honduras, places that peccaries and jaguars could call home.
The work to safeguard Moskitia has already begun. With support from the Darwin foundation, and the American Bird Conservancy, we are advancing pilot projects that mix forest and pastures in both countries. One possible solution for protecting forests would be to require 50 percent forest cover and prohibit wildlife hunting for any livestock operation located within one of the pinch points.
The Lost City epitomizes the best of the uplands of Moskitia, a diverse forest ecosystem filled with iconic species. Saving these remaining natural wonders will depend on slowing—and eventually stopping—the tide of deforestation and implementing conservation solutions that protect vital connections for jaguars and peccaries and the forests they call home.
John Polisar is Jaguar Coordinator for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).