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October 23, 2012

The Long Road to Freedom, Page 4: Roadside Desperation

Poverty drives the illicit sale of Nicaragua's wildlife

All Animals magazine, November/December 2012

  • Their mouths sewn shut, black spiny-tailed iguanas are sold for meat on Managua's outskirts. Kathy Milani/The HSUS.

by Karen E. Lange

Just before the capuchins, the chocoyos, and other animals at the rescue center are to be returned to the forest, the staff head out of the capital to answer another call for help. They drive past flat rich brown land cleared for cultivation and cattle in feedlots that supply the U.S. hamburger market, plus sugar cane plantations and coffee co-ops. Little clusters of modest houses hug the pavement. Compact cemeteries with off-kilter wooden crosses mark the edges of towns.

The owners of a resort in Sébaco, several hours north of the capital, have offered to give up the wildlife in their “zoo”: a grim warren of makeshift cages up a hill from an algae-filled pool and a restaurant that features a bar and discotheque (admission $1). It’s gotten to be too much to feed the animals or clean the cages. After a rain, the pumas, so skinny their ribs are sticking out, perch on concrete ledges because their enclosures are covered with water and feces. A white-faced capuchin tears into a piece of raw chicken brought from the rescue center—food he’d only be driven to eat by extreme hunger. A group of spider monkeys is dangerously habituated, no longer afraid of humans but far from friendly. They reach through the bars to grab at passersby. One nearly bit off the thumb of a caretaker. The air smells of disinfectant. Dogs in chain-link kennels bark and bark.

Randy Castillo Soza, co-owner and manager of La Perla (The Pearl), “an oasis of peace and healthy diversion for the whole family,” is relaxed and unapologetic while his animals are confiscated. He’s wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a suede jacket and has a toothpick perched in the corner of his mouth. Soza explains he took in the animals because they were for sale by the side of the road and he wanted to give them “a better life.” But he says he wouldn’t do it again. Anyway, he’s focused now on the resort’s new attractions:  go-karts and motocross.

A white-faced capuchin tears into a piece of raw chicken brought from the rescue center—food he'd only be driven to eat by extreme hunger.

On the way back from The Pearl, loaded with crates of animals stacked three high—crocodiles and capybaras and raccoon-like coatis and birds of prey called caracaras—the rescue center truck passes through Las Playitas, so named because it’s at the junction of a road to the beach. Tourists passing through support roadside animal sellers. Around every bend of the two-lane highway are men and boys with birds on sticks and bunches of iguanas. A woman displays a spider monkey secured with a cord around his neck. He dangles from her arm by one limb and his tail.

Here and at five other places around the country, the national government—having  given up arresting poor vendors only to have them reappear again selling more animals—is working with local municipalities to develop alternative means for people to earn a living. “We have to have the right social conditions; we have to have the right economic conditions,” says Carlos Mejia of MARENA, who has come along for the rescue. He bristles at the idea of people from wealthier countries passing judgment on Nicaragua’s efforts to protect its wildlife. Mejia places one hand on his stomach—people need to eat. “You can’t come in and confiscate animals and have that be the solution.”

So far the government hasn’t been able to launch any income-generating projects. Officials were hoping to get wildlife sellers to start raising captive-bred iguanas, Castellón explains, but the State Department refused to underwrite that project. From HSI’s point of view that’s just as well; the organization favors ecotourism as a way to spur economic development and give people other ways to earn a living. With money from the State Department, HSI has trained guides and bought education materials for two community cooperatives that host tourists visiting southwest Nicaragua’s Chacocente Wildlife Refuge, where sea turtles lay their eggs.

"It's for the babies. I have no other way of getting money. ... I need milk."

Las Playitas isn’t blessed with that kind of wildlife, so finding economic alternatives will be more challenging. Whole families there depend on selling animals. Maritza del Carmen Suarez sits in a plastic chair by the highway’s edge with her six children. One of her sons, 7, holds out a stick with a green parrot spray-painted to look yellow-naped. He’s asking $17. “It’s for the babies,” says Suarez—her own infant and a grandchild. “I have no other way of getting money. … I need milk.” Nearby stands the family’s small zinc-roofed cement house. Pigs root in the front yard.

Down the Pacific coast almost to the Costa Rica border, a non-profit called Paso Pacifico, using money from the Loro Parque Foundation and Parrots International, pays landowners to protect parrot nests from poachers, who are usually unemployed trespassers well-known in local communities for breaking the law. Lezama, the ornithologist, has recruited two former poachers to locate nests. Participants get $10 per nest protected and $40 for each fledgling who is hatched—about the same amount a baby yellow-naped parrot would bring in the wildlife trade. It’s important income for rural residents: One woman used it to pay off her tab at the local store and set up an emergency medical fund for a daughter who has epilepsy. Across the six sites where the program is being tried out, poaching rates have dropped to 30 percent from around 90 percent.

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