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Protecting endemic lizards from IWT in Guatemala

Current initiative


Guatemalan bearded lizard in its natural habitat

The very rare and endangered species the Guatemalan bearded lizard in its natural habitat in the dry forest of Zacapa, Guatemala, during the rainy season. Credit: Thomas (Guatemala)

FUNDESGUA and partners are working with communities to protect highly endangered Guatemalan reptiles. For species that occur in very low populations and are close to extinction, such as Campbell’s Alligator Lizard and Guatemalan Beaded Lizard, even what might be considered low levels of poaching poses a major threat. This initiative is taking a comprehensive approach to the protection of these species and includes targetted social programs and conservation education. These strategies are proving to be very effective and rates of poaching are decreasing. 


The Foundation for the Endangered Species of Guatemala (FUNDESGUA)

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Campbell’s Alligator Lizard Abronia campbelli , Guatemalan Beaded Lizard Heloderma horridum

Products in trade

Live animals for the pet trade.

Overview of the problem

Guatemalan endemic reptiles are one of the most endangered and unprotected species groups. They are naturally rare and with restricted distributions, subject to persecution by the local community (e.g. it is thought by the local inhabitants, that if your shadow crosses or touches a lizard you will begin to slowly waste away and eventually die, and are often killed on sight), and very popular as pets, and are thus exploited for the IWT.  In addition, continuing habitat destruction and complete absence of conservation action, has put these species, and many Guatemalan reptile species, in critical danger of extinction. 

Community members are predominantly involved in poaching - mainly for the international illegal pet trade, which pays local people to find and  get live animals, and although the level of poaching is low, proportionally to the population size it is high. Loss of any animals from such small populations can be devastating.

Local people are poor and lack alternative sources of income - and until recently they lacked knowledge that removing lizards from the wild was an illegal activity.

The anti-IWT initiative

The initiative combines field research with habitat protection and restoration, captive breeding, community development (including a school scholarships programme), and a comprehensive program of environmental education targetted at local communities located within the natural range of Campbell’s alligator lizard.

IWT is one of a number of threats being addresssed by this initiative - the most pressing threats are severe habitat loss and degradation.

Community engagement is part of a wider set of IWT activities, though more effort is made to involve men and community leaders due to social and cultural norms - targeting these groups is the most effective strategy in terms of engagement.

Community members were involved in the development of the initiative. Feedback from the consistent and regular communication between our program leaders and the communities near the initiative's sites was used to improve and expand the program.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Further detail

We have a very robust and wide-ranging conservation educational program, part of which concentrates on mitigation of wildlife trafficking and its negative effects both in terms of conservation and direct legal consequences.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Further detail

Employ local people in conservation activities.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Provision of community-level benefits
Further detail

School scholarships program: provide school materials and supplies, uniforms, transport, equipment and additional teachers so school is accessible to everyone. 

In 2015, when the initiative began, there were only 38 students attending high school in the area. In 2017, the school had 170 students finishing the school year! These students will translate into as many formal job positions that are available in nearby industrial towns, helping to alleviate poverty and greatly reduce the number of families that must resort to the degradation of the Guatemalan’s beaded lizard habitat to subsist. 

To date this program has already changed how these little villages look, where teens used to be seen doing nothing in the streets, we now see the rush to finish assignments and get ready for school. In a few years it will be very noticeable how additional income is brought to these villages through formal jobs.  


House for Every Home program: Each year since 2013 - FUNDESGUA builds and gifts a house to a family in need in the Huehuetenango region in the western part of the country.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Strong educational programs: 

  • School visits: pupils can see live reptiles.  
  • For each presentation, educators prepare a script specifically tailored to each school, taking into account how long the school has been in the program and the particular conservation challenges of each community → 48 schools were part of the program in 2017, educating about 2750 children.
  • New tools in 2017: A formal conservation course for high school children + involvement of school children in reforestation by creating school based tree nurseries and bringing children to reforestation areas. 

19 biodiversity and conservation topics and lectures have been developed and are delivered twice/week. Students learn about local biodiversity and participate in workshop style discussions to analyze conservation problems and propose solutions. In addition, they learn about reforestation processes and participate in the collection, germination and planting of seeds and seedlings for a study on seed germination and growth of local tree species. 

 “Conservation corners” have been deveoped at schools. This provides some schools with corner shelves that are used to display conservation decorations, natural history items collected locally, books on biodiversity and school assignments related to biodiversity and conservation. This program was found to be more effective in small schools.  

All of these educational programmes have been very successful, and with great results.

  • In the Guatemalan beaded lizard conservation area, the educational presentation included a little gift for each child: a Guatemalan beaded lizard backpack (1000 of these have been distributed).                                           

Has the initiative made a difference?

Poaching rates are low and decreasing.

Abronia: little to no poaching evidence inside project areas during the last two years, but we still see adults available in the market which we can not be certain are bred in captivity. 

Heloderma: no poaching evidence in project areas, it appears that there are no specimens in the market. 

We have attitudinal and behavioral outcomes, and we have been able to recover live animals from poachers with the help of local people. Because we work with secretive, low population species, we do not have specific indicators besides anecdotal data.                 

What works and why

Because these species exist in very low population numbers and are very close to extinction, even what could be considered low levels of poaching can be considered a dangerous threat. We have found that involvement of local communities through educational programs is proving to be very effective and poaching activity has decreased.

Factors for success

Supportive national policy/legislation for devolved governance of natural resources

Long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Further detail

Flexible Donor support through the support of international grants.

Building relationships is the backbone of our programmes.

What doesn’t work and why

Stronger partnerships with national wildlife authorities are lacking.

Organisers, donors and partners

For further information contact Brad Lock (