Image used in hero section:Bradytriton silus. Photo: Hussain Aga Khan.

In the heart of the Western Guatemalan Highlands, several indigenous communities refer to salamanders as the “sleeping child” in their local language. It is here, in the Northern Region of Huehuetenango, that local conservationists from the Foundation for Eco Development and Conservation (FUNDAECO) joined together with academics and conservationists from around the world to establish “Yal Unin Yul Witz” (or “Sleeping Child Between Mountains” in the Mayan language Q’anjob’al), an ecological reserve aimed at protecting some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in all of Guatemala—and the wildlife species that call this area home.

This article was originally published in FrogLog. This AZE site is in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, a mountainous region of Guatemala known for its high biodiversity.

And many species do. The region is a biodiversity hotspot and serves as refuge for dozens of threatened endemic animal and plant species, such as the Endangered Guatemalan Fir (Abies guatemalensis), the Endangered Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus), the Vulnerable Highland Guan (Penelopina nigra) and the Near Threatened Resplendant Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno).

Monitoring in the reserve has identified relatively healthy populations and reproductive activities of many frog species. Currently, 10 species of Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered amphibians are found in the Yal Unin Yul Witz Ecological Reserve:

  • Morelet’s Treefrog (Agalychnis moreletii)
  • Xucaneb Robber Frog (Craugastor xucanebi)
  • Guatemala Treefrog (Ecnomiohyla minera)
  • Perkins’ Treefrog (Exerodonta perkinsi)
  • Ikil Spikethumb Frog (Plectrohyla ixil)
  • Hartweg’s Spikethumb Frog (Plectrohyla hartwegi)
  • Copan Stream Frog (Ptychohyla hypomykter)
  • Bromeliad Treefrog (Bromeliohyla bromeliacia)

The Vulnerable Salamander Müller’s Mushroomtoungue Salamander (Bolitoglossa mulleri) and the Large-Crested Toad (Incilius macrocristatus) can also both be found within the reserve. Endemic plants, insects and reptiles are present, including the beautiful and Vulnerable Palm-Pitviper (Bothriechis aurifer). The first bird survey in the area revealed eight Nearctic/Neotropical migratory bird species and nine endemic resident species.

Yal Unin Yul Witz reserve. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez.

In the early 1970s, scientists from the University of California at Berkeley conducted amphibian and reptile surveys in the area, finding an exuberant forest with few and scattered coffee farms at the time. During that survey, the scientists discovered two new genera of salamanders; several endemic species, including the Critically Endangered salamander Bradytriton silus and the Endangered Nyctanolis pernix; and the Data Deficient Bolitoglossa jacksoni, a salamander that has been lost to science since the original discovery.

The Perfect Home for Wildlife

This spectacular ecological reserve was the ideal location to establish a preserve to protect unique amphibian species and their habitat in perpetuity. Huehuetenango contains the greatest coverage of coniferous forests in the country, in addition to broadleaf and mixed forests. It is an area that contains a great diversity of ecosystems, from riparian wetlands and dry forests, to wet tropical forests, karst sinkholes, montane forest and subalpine moorland. These varying types of ecosystems surround the Yal Unin Yul Witz Ecological Reserve. Elevations here range from 1,000 meters to 1,770 meters above sea level. The Yal Witz (or Between “Cerros” River) intersects the reserve and helps provide the magnificent natural conditions that support the various habitat types. With two local offices, FUNDAECO has been working in Huehuetenango since 2006 on issues related to the sustainable use and legal conservation of protected land in Guatemala.

Bradytriton silus. Photo credit: Carlos Vasquez.

The reserve itself is located in the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) site of Mountain Los Angeles, close to the town of Santa Cruz Barillas, north of Huehuetenango. It is part of the Caribbean slope of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, adjoining a few kilometers at the border with Mexico and the Lacandona forest. It is one of Guatemala’s wettest regions (around 5,000 mm of precipitation annually), creating unique moisture conditions for many species that, as a result, are especially sensitive to changes in their ecosystems. The Mountain of Los Angeles is also the site of a joint project, “Debt-for-Nature Swap,” between the governments of Guatemala and the United States and two NGOs, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy.

Feet on the Ground

With less than one year since the reserve’s formal establishment, studies and research on the ground are just starting. Currently, FUNDAECO is taking the lead on two critical strategies to complement regional efforts for the reserve. First, the local organization aims to expand the conservation property to the nearby flooded mountain area, a magnificent and rare open area that is paradise for amphibians and both resident and migratory birds. The second
strategy is to expand the area of the Reserve to the highest elevation in the adjacent north-east Mountain El Quetzal, to protect the Yul Witz River basin that runs through the Reserve.

AZE Partner Profile:AZE partner organization Fundaeco has worked for over 25 years to create and manage protected areas in Guatemala and to promote sustainable development in communities near protected areas.Support Fundaeco

FUNDAECO is implementing initial management activities and the construction of a Mountain Refuge will serve as the first phase to support general management, and both biological and surveillance activities. The organization recently recruited a reserve manager to focus on community outreach with local leaders and private owners to ensure their support and participation in the implementation of sustainable strategies for habitat protection and sustainable community development. Communication (vision, management principles and administration of the natural resources produced within the reserve) is among the top priorities so that the implementation of sustainable strategies in done in partnership with the local community.

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FUNDAECO will continue to implement these ambitious and highly critical conservation initiatives to protect the Yal Unin Yul Witz Ecological Preserve and the species that live there, with the goal of broadening these conservation efforts in an area that is critical to amphibian biodiversity.

Acknowledgements: Funding for fieldwork was provided by the Fondo para la Conservación de los Bosques Tropicales (FCA), the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Museo de Historia Natural (MUSHNAT). Support for the establishment of the Reserve was provided by: Amphibian Survival Alliance, Global Wildlife Conservation, Andrew Sabin and the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, Rainforest Trust, International Conservation Fund of Canada and the World Land Trust-UK. Special thanks to Paul Elias and Prince Hussain Aga Khan, who visited the Reserve in 2014.

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