Saving the Cusuco forests


Background and project

The Cusuco National Park (CNP) in north-western Honduras consists of 23,440ha of rare high altitude cloud forest within the Merendón Mountain range which forms part of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot (Conservation International, 2006). CNP is characterised by exceptional species richness and is ranked in the top 100 most irreplaceable sites, from over 173,000 protected areas, for the conservation of threatened amphibians, birds and mammals, including being the 25th most irreplaceable area for threatened amphibians (Le Saout et al. 2013). However, despite legal protection, CNP has recently suffered extensive deforestation particularly on the western side of the Park. During summer 2013, when this deforestation was discovered as part of the routine annual biodiversity monitoring program funded by Operation Wallacea, extensive lobbying was carried out with the Honduran government to ensure action was taken before this irreplaceable ecosystem was lost.  Shortly after these problems were identified the Honduran government managed to stop the deforestation by sending in the army to temporarily man two camps within the Park (one in the west and one in the east).

Temporary army camps can only be used as an emergency short-term measure and the next stage is to establish a small network of Park rangers to ensure regular patrols and prosecution of individuals involved in illegal activity. Historically, the management of the Park has been moved between a series of different organisations and departments, none of which have any funding to organise patrols or enforcement activities. This application is designed to be part of a series of measures working together with the Honduran Government to ensure this irreplaceable area is conserved. Responsibility of the park currently lies with ICF (Honduran forestry department) which has an office in San Pedro Sula and a Park manager; but there is no funding for patrols beyond the Park entry fees paid by the Operation Wallacea survey teams each year. A grant application has been submitted to provide the funding needed for the next 3 years for a wildlife ranger team to ensure there is no further loss of forests and raise awareness of the biodiversity value of the Park locally and within the wider San Pedro Sula valley. This funding is desperately needed to manage the Park in the short-term, allowing a more extensive, long-term, management plan to be designed and funded through the sale of Natural Capital Credits under the Natural Forest Standard (www.naturalforeststandard.com). The Opwall Trust is funding a postdoc at Queen’s University Belfast to complete this application, have the carbon and management plan verified and then organise sale of the verified carbon credits as carbon offsets. Initial calculations for the value of the carbon offsets, particularly given the outstanding importance of the Park, suggest that this approach should release enough income to fund the patrols long-term as well as providing financial incentives for communities to protect their own forests.

Why the Cusuco Park is so important

Operation Wallacea has been monitoring biodiversity in CNP annually since 2004 through collaboration with students and scientists from all over the world. The Park contains three previously undescribed woody plant species, one of which Hondurodendron urceolatum belongs to a new genus. One of the main reasons for the need for effective conservation of the CNP is the importance of this cloud forest for amphibians. The Park is recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) due to the overlapping ranges of several globally threatened amphibian species. Since 2006, 102 species of amphibians and reptiles have been recorded, 7 of which are only found in CNP, including three endemic salamander species (Bolitoglossa diaphora, Cryptotriton nasalis and Oedipina thomasi), three endemic frog species (Plectrohyla dasypus, Plectrohyla excuisita and Isthmohyla melacaena) and one endemic anole lizard (Norops cusuco). Ten species of amphibians are listed as critically endangered including three of the species endemic to the Park. Six other species are listed as endangered whilst another five are near-threatened and declining.

A total of 287 bird species have also been recorded since 2004, reflecting an extremely high avian diversity given the size of the Park. This diversity results from a combination of the natural richness of neotropical forest ecosystems and the altitudinal gradient of the Park, which gives rise to differential forest habitats at different altitudes, each of which in turn supports a unique avian assemblage. The Park is important to migratory species with 48 species overwintering or passage migrants. A total of 58 species are endemic to the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, and 33 species are highland forest endemics, restricted to neotropical montane forests at altitudes of >1000m; for example, the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno). 37% of the birds in CNP are declining globally (IUCN 2013).

To date, 102 mammal species have been recorded in the Park, including 23 species of large mammals, 19 species of small mammals and 60 species of bat. The most notable is Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) which is endangered with declining populations, whilst the margay (Leopardus wiedii) is a near-threatened and declining large cat. The conservation NGO Panthera considers the Park to be an important corridor facilitating the movements of both puma (Puma concolor) and jaguar (Panthera onca). Declines in tapir and margay have been driven principally by severe habitat loss and fragmentation. An added threat faced by Baird’s tapir in Cusuco is from hunting. 39 hunting platforms have been discovered within the boundaries of the Park since 2006, and several tapir have been confirmed killed every year since records began. CNP was estimated to be home to 50-60 tapir in 2006, equating to approximately 10% of the total number of tapir in Honduras. Population viability modeling within the Park suggested that under current population trends, non-intervention will result in the local extinction of the species within 5 years (McCann et al. 2012). The small mammal community of the Park is complex exhibiting strong clines in occurrence and abundance with altitude and differences between riparian and terrestrial communities. A watermouse (Rheomys sp.) caught recently is thought to be a new species. Many of the bat species are vital to the ecology of the Park including frugivorous megachiropteran fruit bats which disperse seeds promoting forest regeneration and insectivorous bats which are important for tree pollination. Two species of bat found in the Park, Bauerus dubiaquercus and Sturnira morda, are currently classified as near-threatened (IUCN 2013).

The diversity of invertebrates has been studied using genetic bar-coding and one study from just two flight intercept traps captured 2,000 species with only 5% overlap between the two traps which were only 3km apart with a 200m difference in altitude. A more traditional taxonomic approach has recorded over 142 species of arachnids (with more than 102 spiders) since 2010, many of which were not previously described in Cusuco and/or Honduras. In addition, several species are likely to be new to science. Due to these studies, Honduras can now be considered megadiverse for arachnids; with 10 of the 11 arachnid orders identified in the Park (only 6 megadiverse countries around the world have all 11 arachnid orders). Three species of Scarabaeinae dung beetles and at least two endemic species of jewel scarab beetles (Chrysina sp.) are also new to science.