Stephany Hernandez, OKC Zoo herpetology caretaker, recently returned from a conservation journey to Guatemala. These are her notes from the field:
Hi, I’m Stephany Hernandez, an animal caretaker for the herpetology department at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. My typical day starts with a visual health check of our reptiles. Depending on the day, we then might distribute salads or clean habitats. In the afternoon, we conduct a variety of husbandry tasks from bedding changes, soaking animals, feeding snakes or providing enrichment. At the end of the day, we check all building locks and do one more visual heath check to ensure the animals are good for the night.
I recently returned from FUNDESGUA, the OKC Zoo-supported conservation organization in Guatemala focusing on saving two lizards species: the Guatemalan beaded lizard and Campbell’s abronia lizard and their habitats. The goal in Guatemala was to get a first-hand look at the conservation work being done by FUNDESGUA which gets funding from the Oklahoma Zoological Society (ZOOfriends). While there, I got the opportunity to see these lizards in their habitat. This will give us the opportunity to design a lizard habitat at the Zoo that closely resembles their natural habitat in Guatemala.
On the first day in Guatemala City, we explored the Abronia Home for gravid (pregnant) lizards. The center distributes this species in underrepresented areas of its range in Guatemala to help ensure genetic diversity among the isolated lizard populations. The Abronia Home was built on re-purposed land that was a former garbage dump!
In addition to protecting lizard species, FUNDESGUA also works closely with local communities to combat extreme poverty. This includes building homes for families. FUNDESGUA funds a new home every year to a family that is most in need.
We took an 8-hour drive from Guatemala City to Huehuetenango and met the person responsible for the housing initiative there. The housing component was established after seeing a great need for it in this area. Our contact, Hugo, developed a rapport with many of the surrounding communities and every year he identifies a family most in need and helps FUNDESGUA construct a proper home. These communities are so far out they do not get any assistance from the central government. One home a year might not sound like a lot, but it makes a world of difference for these families because they can finally stay dry when it rains and sleep without worrying if their home will survive the storm.
We again went out and met some of the families that have benefited from FUNDESGUA’s housing program. These homes are very simply made with concrete block walls and aluminum roofing sheets and cost around $6,000/home.
Today we visited Jalapa to explore the reforestation sites and talk to the families that had benefited from the program. The reforested oak trees planted only 5 or 6 years ago were already taller than we were! I had the opportunity to talk with some of the people and hear how grateful they are for this program. These trees are not only helping lizards, but they also help with erosion and provide shade.
We went to the new beaded lizard site at Rio Grande to visit two schools and observe presentations about beaded lizards designed to debunk myths that have long created fear among people about the species. The talks also focused on snakes and teaching the students that not all snakes are venomous and even if they are, it’s possible to coexist with these animals. While there, we conducted an extensive property survey hike, observing the natural trees and species, including a baby boa constrictor, lizards, bats, frogs and a rattlesnake!
On my last day in Guatemala, I helped local students with a forest restoration project in Zacapa, planting about 1,200 trees! This was not an easy task, requiring a long hike up a steep mountain. Everyone was responsible for planting at least eight trees. It was a great surprise to see so many children excited to participate and working hard to help accomplish a goal. The mountain in this area is bare due to deforestation. This is because people were hoping to grow corn, a stable in Guatemala, but the weather is not suitable for the crop. The deforestation and resulting erosion caused the river to swell beyond its traditional banks during the rainy season and resulting in the loss of many homes. With this reforestation effort, not only is the beaded lizard regaining habitat but the community is also benefiting by improved water management from the new trees.
It was surprising how thankful the communities were for these projects. FUNDESGUA has managed to find a balance with the community and its goals, so that people are more open to change. The rapport FUNDESGUA has built over time has opened minds to helping these lizards and in turn helping their own communities.
-Stephany Hernandez, herpetology caretaker