Macaws Photo
WCS’s macaw project works to save these wild and colorful birds from the pet trade.
©WCS Guatemala
Macaws Photo
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Maya ruins in El Petén Photo
Maya ruins in El Petén, the northern region of Guatemala.
©WCS Guatemala

Guatemala is a land of extremes. Along with the highest mountains and some of the wildest landscapes in Mesoamerica, Guatemala is the most populated country in the region. The Petén, the northern part of the country, is home to vast lowland tropical forests, wetlands, and Maya ruins, as well as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The largest protected area in Mesoamerica, the reserve was established in 1990 to safeguard approximately 6,000 square miles of Guatemalan forest containing more than 95 species of mammals and 400 species of birds.

Guatemala features habitats such as broadleaf and flooded forests and wetlands. Associated wildlife species include jaguars, pumas, tapirs, peccaries, howler and spider monkeys, storks, and scarlet macaws. More than half of Guatemala’s human population descends from the Mayans. Impoverished areas exist in both rural communities and urban centers, that are experiencing rapid population growth. In the Petén, traditional communities are facing new challenges such as migration from Mexico and illegal agricultural encroachment by powerful ranching interests.

Fast Facts

  • The Central American isthmus stretches only 1,100 miles but is divided into seven sovereign states, each with unique cultural, economic, and political circumstance.
  • Though it only makes up one-tenth of 1 percent of the Earth’s surface, the isthmus supports 7 percent of the planet’s species.
  • The Maya Biosphere Reserve includes three national parks: Tikal, Laguna del Tigre, and Mirador-Río Azul.
  • BBC’s “Saving Planet Earth” series selected WCS’s scarlet macaw project as an example of excellence in conservation.


Forest fires, agricultural expansion, wildlife poaching, and poorly planned large-scale development projects severely threaten the Maya Biosphere Reserve. These forces are rapidly deforesting the region, possibly dooming its wildlife. Secondary threats include inadequate conservation policies and funding at local and regional levels.

Park management in Mesoamerica began in earnest in the 1970s, long after huge swaths of prime wildlife habitat had been overrun by farms and plantations. Mountain colonization has destroyed the water-collecting functions of highland forests, leaving lowlands and cities at risk of losing essential water resources. Fortunately, some large lowland forests survived early agricultural expansion, several of which straddle international boundaries. Together these lowland forests and the remaining woodlands of the interior mountains represent the hope and promise of contemporary conservation in Mesoamerica. Still, they are highly vulnerable to modern-day economic colonization.

WCS Responds

WCS has supported local efforts to achieve sustainable forest management and conservation and has trained residents in field research, firefighting, and vigilance skills. WCS assists the Guatemalan Park Service in managing the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and its researchers conduct wildlife surveys to quantify the impact of environmental threats such as habitat loss and poaching. Our jaguar studies are part of a broader WCS effort to document and monitor the species’ populations across Mesoamerica. WCS is also fighting to save the scarlet macaw population from extirpation caused by the pet trade. Our multi-pronged approach to conserve scarlet macaws includes nest protection, artificial nest construction, veterinary monitoring, and awareness-raising initiatives. As a result of WCS efforts, in 2004 the Guatemalan government authorized the military and police to restore law to Laguna del Tigre National Park (home to many of the remaining macaw nests). WCS plays a leading role in stopping poaching at Laguna del Tigre and elsewhere in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

WCS Projects

Controlling Forest Fires in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

The Maya Biosphere Reserve, spanning Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, is one of Latin America’s last remaining rainforest strongholds. But forest fires are growing rampant, and climate change research predicts that the problem will grow worse without concerted efforts to halt them.

From the Newsroom

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.

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.

Calvin Klein's Obsession for CatsJune 8, 2010

WCS conservationists in Guatemala are using a swanky scent to lure jaguars and other endangered wildlife toward motion-sensitive cameras that snap photos of the animals as they pass by. The photos help researchers estimate population numbers for these shy species.

WCS Is “Paving” the Way for JaguarsJune 12, 2006

A thoroughfare that’s healthy for wildlife? For a change, a conduit through the forests of Central America won’t trigger new development or increase greenhouse gases. Instead, WCS conservationists hope, the only thing it will pave the way for is more pawprints.

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