Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala

Maya Biosphere, Guatemala Photo

The Maya Biosphere Reserve is a rainforest stronghold for jaguars, pumas, scarlet macaws, and howler monkeys. During the Northern Hemisphere winter, millions of migratory birds also take shelter here. The reserve is situated at the heart of the Selva Maya, a forested area that spans neighboring portions of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. It serves as a critical watershed for the surrounding communities and as a major carbon sink for the entire planet. As the epicenter of the ancient Maya civilization from 350 B.C. to 900 A.D., the forest’s 200 archaeological sites draw tourists from around the world, bringing much needed revenue.

Fast Facts

  • The Maya Biosphere Reserve includes five national parks: Tikal, Laguna del Tigre, Mirador-Río Azul, Yaxha, and Sierra del Lacandon. It also includes four “Biotopes”: El Zotz, Dos Lagunas, Rio Escondido, and Cerro Cahui.
  • Covering 8,100 square miles, the reserve protects the largest block of broadleaf forest north of the Amazon Basin.


Guatemala is recovering from years of internal conflict, and the government has not strongly regulated the use of its natural resources. The reserve provides the country with 90 percent of its petroleum and timber. Roads built to facilitate timber and petroleum extraction allow access to the interior, and bring illegal human settlements, unsustainable land use policies, rampant hunting of wildlife, and annual burning of trees.

WCS Responds

WCS partners with local communities and governments to find innovative approaches to integrate development projects with the protection of natural and cultural resources, particularly sustainable forest management. in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, we are researching sources of human-wildlife conflicts in forest communities and on private ranches and evaluating and guiding sustainable ranch management practices. We also provide veterinary assistance for pigs and poultry in forest communities as well as for cattle ranchers in the reserve's buffer zone. In addition, we are intervening to exclude livestock from jaguar habitat and vice versa.

WCS is studying jaguars as part of a broader WCS effort to document and monitor the species’ populations across Mesoamerica. The WCS-Guatemala jaguar team has conducted surveys in several forestry concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Our conservationists have photographed individual jaguars and other at-risk species like white lipped peccary and Baird’s tapir in the La Gloria industrial forest concession, the Carmelita Community Forest Concession, and the El Burral site. These concessions include collection programs for certified timber as well as xate, palm fronds used in floral arrangements.

We are also fighting to save the Maya scarlet macaw population from extirpation caused by the pet trade. Our efforts to conserve scarlet macaws include nest protection, artificial nest construction, veterinary monitoring, and education initiatives.

From the Newsroom

World Food Day Honors Family, Small FarmingOctober 16, 2014

Ramon, or breadnut, is among the crops harvested by local communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The nutrient-rich seed was once a staple of the Mayas, whose civilization was centered here.

The Brooklyn Bridge ForestJanuary 29, 2014

Millions of people walk and bicycle across the Brooklyn Bridge every year, but few know that the wood planks of the promenade come from tropical rainforests. Together with various partners, WCS has created an initiative to replace the aging planks of the boardwalk with sustainably harvested wood from Guatemala’s Uaxactún community forest. If supported by city officials, the project will secure contributions from New Yorkers and city visitors for each of the bridge’s 11,000 new planks. The financial endowment raised through plank sponsorship would in turn provide Uaxactún community members with the resources needed to protect their forest; proceeds would also benefit conservation efforts within New York City. 

Efforts To Save Guatemala's Iconic BirdsAugust 7, 2013

At their last remaining stronghold in Guatemala, scarlet macaw chicks are getting a head start with the help of WCS conservationists. The researchers monitor the critically endangered birds’ nests and habitat in the forests of El Peru, and care for vulnerable chicks at a field station until they are old enough to be released back into the wild.

In the Land of the Maya, a Battle for a Vital ForestOctober 10, 2012

Threats loom within Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, a vast natural sanctuary that protects more than 5 million acres. Jaguars, pumas, monkeys, and tapirs are some of the species fighting to survive in a place jeopardized by drug cartels, illegal logging, and commercial hunting. 

The Fight for Guatemala’s Endangered MacawsMay 10, 2012

After last year’s successful scarlet macaw nesting season in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which produced a bumper crop of 29 new fledglings, WCS conservationists like Melvin Merida, a field veterinarian, are hoping to continue the upward trend for the critically endangered parrots.


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