On the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Honduran service members hang meat in some trees in an enclosure. Suddenly, a jaguar leaves its den, comes closer, and jumps on a branch to grab the food. Nearby, a group of biologists observe the scene with satisfaction: The feline showed favorable skills for its release.
The service members and scientists are part of the Center for Wildlife Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release, a unique project in Central America conducted by the Honduran Armed Forces, under the leadership of the Ecosystems and Environment Support Command (C-9, in Spanish). The project, launched in January 2019, seeks to protect and preserve the national fauna through a comprehensive program that rehabilitates rescued animals, victims of illegal trafficking.
Honduran Army Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Francisco Pacheco Palma, C-9 head of Operations, told Diálogo that the project started after a 2018 fire at Little French Key resort in Roatán Island, revealed that jaguars were held captive illegally and in poor conditions. As the Armed Forces lacked proper facilities, technical personnel, and equipment to sedate and transport the animals, they decided to execute this project to rescue and release those that could live in the wild. The C-9 took charge of the program and invested in the infrastructure.
“[In Honduras] we don't have wildlife management in mind,” said Lt. Col. Pacheco, who hopes the project will change society and raise environmental awareness. “When citizens take a macaw [national bird], which is illegal in our country, they are committing a crime, which is animal trafficking.”
According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a multilateral treaty aimed at protecting species from the illegal international trade, there are more than 20 endangered species in Honduras. Among them are jaguars, tapirs, green iguanas, and scarlet macaws.
With its jungles, rainforests, mountains, and swamp areas — and two World Heritage Sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization — Honduras has hundreds of reptiles, birds, amphibians, and mammals in natural areas covering almost half of the country's territory. Although the environment is favorable for wildlife, its hard-to-reach areas enable crimes, such as wildlife trafficking and poaching, deforestation, and fires to prosper, which leads some species to extinction.
While transnational criminal organizations involved in narcotrafficking have taken part in illegal wildlife trafficking, the problem, Lt. Col. Pacheco explained, is also cultural and due to people's lack of education.
“Honduran people are used to eating this sort of animals. The famous spiny-tailed iguana soup and the iguana in coconut milk are part of a custom of overexploitation, since some [species] are endangered, and we are trying to solve [that problem],” the officer said.
Rehabilitating and releasing
More than 100 exotic animals, including jaguars, jaguarundis, ocelots, iguanas, and scarlet macaws, can be found at the C-9 rehabilitation center, as part of the program that reintroduces them to their habitat. Since the project started, about 20 animals were released, Olvin Andino, a biologist who coordinates the C-9 wildlife rehabilitation and transport management program, told Diálogo.
“These animals were not rescued from one cage to live in another,” Andino said. “If the animal learned, being fed, it can also unlearn that.”
The release process includes training for animals to recover their strength after losing muscle mass in captivity. Birds, for instance, relearn how to spread and flap their wings, while felines learn to sniff and hunt their prey, just like they do in the wild.
Part of the project includes using military engineers’ technical skills. Since the beginning, service members have been working on developing tracking collars for felines to monitor their movements and study their habits. In the future, project members will also develop a genetic databank for felines with the help of a geneticist, to detect levels of consanguinity, among other factors, before releasing animals to a specific area.