Illegal traffic and wildlife rehabilitation

Eco-volunteer for Arcas, a second chance for victims of the traffic of species

singe atele
The Geoffroy's spider monkey, Ateles geoffroyi

After weapons and drugs, business of wild species is the third largest traffic on a global scale. ARCAS, Guatemalan international NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) has been fighting for more than 20 years against this catastrophe that threatens many protected species in Central America. Each year, its rescue center in Petén department receives 400 to 600 animals, numerous parrots and monkeys among them, confiscated by customs or returned by individuals. With the aid of volunteers from all over the world, these animals are taken care of, fed and some even follow a program of rehabilitation hoping to return to their natural environment. Fernando Martinez Galicia, director of the center, opens its doors and explains the objectives of his organization. An idea for useful vacations…

Guatemala, Petén Department.

We weigh our luggage on Flores Island, a small charming town of 25 000 inhabitants, built on waters of the lake Petén Itza. Like many adventurers, we succumbed to the charm of its colorful alleys, many affordable restaurants and hotels, sunsets, which every evening set ablaze the shores of the lake. If travellers passing by Guatemala know Flores, it is mainly because this is a strategic point to discover the Petén department and an ideal place of departure for those who want to visit well-known remnants of Mayan city, Tikal. Though the main reason for staying here is not climbing on pyramids but to participate in an eco-volunteering program and understand the challenge of the conservation of the biodiversity in this region.

Maya biosphere reserve / Tikal city, Guatemala.

The thirds of the north of the Petén department is covered with the largest surface of Guatemala tropical forest. Maya biosphere reserve protects, at least on the paper, some 21 000 km². Petén is the zone of primary importance for the biodiversity and a cornerstone for the continuity of the biological corridor formed by Central America. But every day, deforestation, reason for unreasonably growing agriculture, hunting and the traffic of wild species threaten the survival of this biological heritage: atelines, aras, jaguars are, among others in the frontline of this disaster.

Jaguar, Panthera onca

In a 10 minutes distance from Flores, a rescue center for this suffering fauna looks like like a fighter. It belongs to the NGO Arcas, having for mission from 1989 the protection of biodiversity generally: environmental education, management of protected areas, ecotourism and community development are the fields in which it intervenes.

If several Guatemalans founded the NGO concerned about offering a second chance to animals, victims of illegal trafficking, Fernando Martinez, the present director of the Petén rescue center, often mentions that Arcas cannot function without the help of numerous volunteers. Like us, every year, there are about 400 volunteers, arrived from all around the world, to offer their time and service to take care of animals, maintain the infrastructure and educate the tourists.

« Fernando, what is the main goal of Arcas?

Our principal work is the rehabilitation of the wildlife. We work in cooperation with National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), on the problem of illegal trafficking of the wildlife in Guatemala, but in other countries as well like Mexico or the United States. Our team comprises 5 permanent members and several agents of CONAP support us. For 20 years we have been fighting for the conservation of the fauna of Maya biosphere reserve.

The center keeps howler monkeys, atelines, parrots, crocodiles, a jaguar, etc. Have all these animals been victims of trafficking?

We receive between 250 and 300 animals every year. 95% of it come from illegal trafficking and the rest of 5% were donated, captured by CONAP, other NGOs or other institutions. Maya biosphere reserve is a largely extended forest. It is one lung of America and keeps a wide variety of wildlife. Some people who visit national parks leave it with animals like young parrots of 5 or 6 months, for example. All animals of the center are the species living in the Petén forest.

Which are the most endangered species in this region?

There are several of them but with spread of farmlands, animal breeding and disappearance of the habitat, the jaguar and the scarlet macaw are two iconic species in extinction here: they need vast forest surfaces and are classified in annex 1 of CITES. It is believed that Maya Biosphere reserve shelters less than 200 scarlet macaws.

Are all the animals kept in the center reintroduced into the wild?

75% of animals entering in the center of Arcas are parrots. Others are more diverse: birds, monkeys or reptiles. Each individual must follow a special long procedure before being freed in his natural habitat. This is a less sensitive procedure t hough for the reptiles like crocodiles, turtles or iguanas: these animals do not need a behavioral rehabilitation, but the medical aid only. Their instinct lets us release them easily into the nature. In the nature, a crocodile or a turtle lays her eggs and hatchlings grow without their parents, they have this innate understanding of the way they can survive.

he family Psittacidae, which includes budgies and parrots, they need a clinical rehabilitation for a regrowth of their plumage or to recover from an eventual illness, and an ethological rehabilitation. When featherless young birds of 10 or 15 days are received at the center, we have to feed them and their daily life is permeated with our omnipresence. Later, when they begin to fly, they will have to pass several steps before being freed: this may last two years and a half.

Feeding in an Amazon enclosure, Amazones autumnalis.

For the primates, this is much more difficult: these are intelligent animals that recognize us very well. If they don't follow the due procedure of rehabilitation, they develop like humans and not like monkeys. Here we have several groups received at an adult age and they cannot return to the nature. Those who have such a chance are younger ones aged one year and a half at most. Then we form social groups among them until the age of sexual maturity of 4 years: only at this time, when the group has its leader we may begin the rehabilitation procedure. This procedure will last from 4 to 6 years for a spider monkey.

Our center can shelter a parrot that speaks or an adult monkey but they could not be rehabilitated. Only 60 to 70% of kept animals will have an opportunity to follow the rehabilitation procedure and only a part of them will be reintroduced, for example, last year we formed a group of 124 parrots: only 80 could have been liberated. Many of this group will not be able to adapt, to feed themselves and will not survive after liberation. So we are far from an absolute success but Arcas offers all these animals best opportunities to regain their habitat.

With global warming, deforestation and illegal trafficking, do you think that we have one more chance to save these species?

This is a difficult question! This year, according to the forecast, will be very dry, like in 1998, when more than half of Maya biosphere reserve was burnt. This is a real race against the time. We, alone, as Arcas or CONAP, will not be able to save these species. A global awareness is necessary and you are here as well to spread this message. Remember one thing: if illegal traffic exists, it is because there are people who want to have these animals. It is very important to say NO to pets that come from illegal trafficking: we have dogs and cats for this… I hear people telling me "I have just one parrot, that doesn't change anything!", but on a global scale, in the whole region, one cannot imagine how many of animals are torn off from their environment. My message is clear: do not buy these trafficked animals, neither dead, nor alive! The problem remains if we buy a souvenir made from a bone, a carapace, leather or other things with the so-called aphrodisiac properties. It is clear that all our work is useless if the trafficking remains a weak link of the chain.

Interview done by Marie-Anne and Sylvain Lefebvre
for the association Exode Tropical

To get more information about Arcas and eco-volunteering programs, click on

Spider monkey
Spider monkey enclosure, Ateles geoffroyi

Feeding at the monkey enclosure

Howler monkey
Howler monkeys, Alouatta pigra

Parrots enclosure, Ara macao

Scarlet macaw, Ara macao

The Crested Guan, Penelope purpurascens. The Great Curassow (second plane), Crax rubra

Red-lored Amazons enclosure, Amazones autumnalis

The Keel-billed Toucan, Ramphastos sulfuratus

rocodiles enclosure

Paca, Agouti paca

Spider monkeys feet, Ateles geoffroyi

Spider monkey in quarantines, Ateles geoffroyi

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