Exploring with the Zoo: The Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner, President of Saint Louis Zoo
January 13, 2008

When you think about the Saint Louis Zoo, most of us think of a place: the ark in Forest Park that is home to about 22,000 animals, representing hundreds of species from around the world. But some of the Zoo's most important work goes on out of the public eye, in faraway places. Once a month in the Explore section of St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner will explore a part of the globe where the Zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.

Every fisherman I know exaggerates the size of the fish he catches. You will never see a group of women gathered around the fire swapping stories about the size and number of the fish they cooked. This is one of the enduring differences between men and women.

One of the Neanderthal cave paintings at Lascaux, France, depicts a bull 17 feet long. The only human figure is a tiny hunter, in danger of being gored. The artist had to be a man.

None of this seemed important to me until January 2000, when the Saint Louis Zoo began to work with two groups of Indians, the Mayangna and Miskito, in the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, Nicaragua's largest protected nature area and the most important tropical rainforest north of the Amazon basin.

We were asked to begin field work in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, whose goal was to help the tribal groups get clear legal title to the land they have lived on for centuries. Getting clear title was considered critically important to the survival of both tribes. For generations they had hunted the land, fished the rivers and tended small garden plots along the rivers that run through the Bosawas, all the while preserving its tremendous biodiversity.

But times had begun to change. Outsiders were making their way up the rivers, practicing slash-and-burn agriculture to plant field crops. Logging firms encroached and clear-cut trees on the reserve, which covers four times the area of St. Louis and St. Louis County. Because the tribal groups lacked legal status over the land, they could do nothing to prevent the practices. To get clear title, they had to show they could manage their natural resources.

The Nature Conservancy agreed to work on the political aspects of getting them legal ownership. But first, they needed information that would help determine how sustainable hunting would be practiced. The Conservancy asked Saint Louis Zoo scientists to inventory the animals the Indians were hunting, tally how many were being hunted and record their weight and size. The Zoo's scientists developed transects, long regular lines through the forest, and walked them periodically to identify and count the animals.

We trained Mayangna and Miskito men - among the best natural conservationists in the world - to help. On the other hand, men, being men, probably could not accurately report the size and number of the animals they hunted. Clearly, it would be necessary to enlist the aid of the women if we were going to get an honest count.

Working in the Rainforest

Doing research in Bosawas - with its blood-sucking insects, Niagara-like downpours, disease-ridden jungles crawling with venomous snakes and the risk of being kidnapped by armed bands of former guerrillas - is not easy. Ironically, one of the things that helped keep the Bosawas Reserve pristine was the war between the U.S.-supported Contras based in Honduras and the Sandinista army of Nicaragua in the 1970s and '80s. Because much of the reserve was a battleground, farmers and loggers steered clear of it until the war's end.

Religion also helped protect the reserve. Although the Mayangna and Miskito largely have been converted to Catholicism, they kept their traditional belief that the forest should be held sacred. That meant that hunting was forbidden in large swaths of land. In biological terms, part of their reserve was a "source," producing a surplus of animals, and part of it was a "sink," where animal numbers were depleted faster than they could be replaced. As long as the source areas are producing enough to overcome hunting in the sink areas, the hunting is sustainable. This delicate balance was upset only twice during two relatively short periods - Christmas and Easter - and only then for two species: tapirs and spider monkeys. Both are considered desirable treats for holiday feasts.

The intimate knowledge of wildlife among the Mayangna and Miskito was essential in all the Zoo's studies, especially in a jungle so thick it's hard to spot an individual animal. While the men did the field studies, the women did "cooking pot studies," faithfully recording what was cooked, how often and its size. You could ask them if they trusted the men to do this, but they wouldn't answer directly. They would, however, smile.

A Legal Victory

Five years after our work in Bosawas began, the Mayangna and Miskito gained clear title to their land and the legal means to halt loggers and others from exploiting the reserve.

They continue to monitor their hunting practices and meet as a group to make sure they don't overhunt any particular species.

Their future is more stable, even if it is not completely clear. The forest could become a huge natural laboratory for visiting scientists, offering a continuing source of employment for the Indians we have trained to do field work. Eco-tourism could provide hard currency for the newly titled land owners.

As far as the Zoo is concerned, we have accomplished our goal: collaborating with another conservation organization to preserve some of the most important habitat on the planet. The Zoo's $500,000 campaign was financed partly from a restricted gift to our endowment and from money generated by riders on the Mary Ann Lee Conservation Carousel.

I think it's nice that the small children who ride our carousel helped score a major victory for the environment. Much of the additional funding came from the U.S. Agency for International Development, demonstrating that our government sometimes understands that the most important development is sometimes no development!

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums funded Missouri Botanical Garden staff to walk the same transects that our field biologists used for animals to document the different plants of the forest. We worked closely with researchers from Idaho State University and Pennsylvania State University. The Wildlife Conservation Society is looking at the viability of taking over our program in Bosawas and using our newly trained indigenous biologists in a larger project designed to study and preserve the jaguar, one of the flagship species of all of the Americas.

Preserving the most important and diverse rainforest north of the Amazon means that a major piece of the Earth's biodiversity will remain intact. We all benefit from this in many ways. Rainforests convert huge amounts of carbon dioxide to oxygen; they are an important part of our planet's lungs. The forests also are home to the most diverse array of plants and animals per square mile of any ecosystem on earth.

Impact at Home

What does this mean to you? The tropical rainforest of Bosawas is directly linked to places like the Mark Twain National Forest and, for that matter, Kennedy Forest in Forest Park. Many of "our" most treasured songbirds - such as the warblers, thrushes and tanagers - are neo-tropical birds that migrate, spending their winters in Central and South America. If we lose too many places like Bosawas, the songbirds of Missouri will lose their winter homes. If they lose their winter homes, we will lose them. They are one small but beautiful sign of the inter-connectedness of our world and the responsibility we all share to save wild things and wild places.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com