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February 17, 2011

Wildlife Hotspots

Animal handling along the Guatemalan border

Humane Society International


  • Guatemalan border police learn from HSI's interactive animal handling CD. Mike Skuja/HSI

  • HSI Consultant Shirley Ramirez leads the class through snake handling. Mike Skuja/HSI

  • A student learns the proper way to handle a snake during the hands-on portion of the training. Mike Skuja/HSI

  • Animal handling workshop participants in Guatemala. Mike Skuja/HSI

by Mike Skuja

Guatemala’s Izabal region along the Caribbean coast is world-renowned for its biodiversity and striking landscapes, including rainforests, mangroves, and winding rivers. Here manatees, jaguars, macaws, and primates find homes.

Parrots and the law

While this biodiversity thrills visitors, try to imagine you are a Guatemalan law enforcement agent stationed in the region with no knowledge of—and perhaps not even a strong interest in—wildlife conservation. Also imagine yourself tasked with handling animals from parrots to crocodiles—Indeed, a nearly 7-foot-long crocodile was a recent guest in Puerto Barrios, Guatemala—as you enforce laws against illegal trade in wildlife. 

HSI looks at this difficult situation and sees a two-fold opportunity: to bring wildlife handling training to a new audience and to inspire pride and interest in the region’s unique natural resources from the ground up. Our strongest tool in this trade: participatory training with an interactive curriculum, which has participants learning first-hand how to safely handle wild animals.

A teachable moment

Wildlife biology and animal handling are educational themes that don't always reach the more remote frontier areas in Central America; yet this is just the sort of work HSI does in our International Trade and Development department. While it involves long, slow travel from capital cities to border areas, it also means the audience is often more receptive, as they haven’t had an opportunity for such education in the past.Such was the case in Puerto Barrios, a border city on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala near Belize—a center for trafficking wildlife. 

HSI staff and consultant Shirley Ramirez, a Costa Rican wildlife biologist, trained 32 participants in proper animal handling techniques, as well as eight trainers to further such teaching in the future. Police, INTERPOL, customs agents, and even firemen may seem unlikely targets for a wildlife education curriculum in Central America; yet it's these same people often charged with serving as liaisons within their own communities when human-wildlife conflicts arise and when illegal wildlife arrives in their ports of call.

Far-reaching results 

HSI is conducting a series of animal handling workshops in border areas throughout Central America and the Dominican Republic. The training in Guatemala was the fourth such workshop in this series. Wild animals today face a variety of challenges. Through our animal handling curriculum and other interactive tools, HSI hopes to confront at least one of those challenges.