Guatemalans battle traffickers, superstition to protect endangered lizard

By Emiliano Castro Saenz

Cabañas, Guatemala, Apr 16 (EFE).- Conservations trying to preserve an endangered species of lizard in the dry forest of Guatemala’s Motagua Valley must contend with traffickers engaged in the illegal pet trade and area residents ready to kill the creatures based on myths about the dangers they pose.

Though the bite of heloderma, or Guatemala beaded lizard, is toxic, the poison is not lethal to humans and only rarely does the person on the receiving end require medical attention.

Zootropic, a private group, operates the Heloderma Natural Reserve in Cabañas, some 130 km (81 mi) east of Guatemala City, which is home to the 500 known remaining exemplars of the species.

A relative of the Gila monster, the typical heloderma grows to be roughly 400 mm (15.74 in) long.

Generations of people in the area of the heloderma’s habitat have been raised to believe that a person whose shadow comes into contact with the beaded lizard will become deathly ill.

Gilberto Salazar, who grew up hunting helodermas with his father, has since 2002 been part of Zootropic’s effort to sustain the species. He regularly brings beaded lizards on visits to schools to familiarize children with the creature.

“Many people here are afraid of them,” he tells Efe.

At the reserve, Salazar, a 2010 recipient of the Disney Conservation Hero award, cares for the helodermas until they are ready to be released back into the wild, at which point a chip is implanted in each lizard to track its movements.

“If Zootropic hadn’t come to this community, this species would have died out,” he says, recounting the pioneering role of students from the University of the Valley of Guatemala in promoting conservation of the dry forest and its flora and fauna.

Zootropic’s director, biologist Daniel Ariano, notes that some area residents are more frightened of the heloderma than of the genuinely dangerous pit viper, another species native to the region.

“The negative image of this species among the inhabitants has been changing little by little and it has become a matter of pride for the zones that now work for the conservation of this animal,” he tells Efe.

Besides its intrinsic value, the heloderma serves as “an indicator of the state of conservation of the dry forest,” Ariano tells Efe, emphasizing that the survival of the lizard depends on the health of its environment.

Guatemala is a world leader in terms of biodiversity, but experts warn that it could lose that distinction within a decade as more than 2,300 of the Central American nation’s plant and animal species are in danger of extinction. EFE ecs/dr

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