Living treasures: the native animals of Guatemala
The ancient history and stunning scenery draw millions of tourists every year but the animals of Guatemala are among the country’s most precious assets.
Wildlife of an astonishing variety makes Guatemala’s jungles, oceans and mountains a dream for nature lovers, conservationists and researchers.
Geography creates biodiversity
The amazing diversity of Guatemala’s wildlife is driven by geography, with a group of mountain chains carving the country into three distinct regions.
The mountains have created a cool area of highlands in the centre of the country and are home to most of the country’s human population, but are also an accommodating habitat for many of Guatemala’s animal species.
The hot, humid lowlands of the north are famous for the vast jungles which form a belt of primary forest stretching from Mexico to Belize. This area has escaped extensive deforestation in part because it was used as a base for anti-government forces during the Civil War.
The southern lowlands reach down to the Pacific coast and are just as humid as the north but less densely forested.
Jaguars are loved but endangered
One of the most iconic animals of Guatemala is the jaguar, which holds a special place in the hearts and minds of people across Central and Southern America.
Most of the jaguars in Guatemala live in the northern rainforests, which forms a corridor between similar habitats in Mexico and Belize. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which considers the jaguar a near-threatened species, has called for more research to establish how many of the animals still live in this region.
Jaguars are famously elusive, and their habitat is difficult to visit, so seeing them in the wild is unlikely. Researchers have to use camera traps to catch a glimpse of the animals.
You can see captive jaguars at Guatemala Zoo, while a non-governmental organisation called ARCAS is collaborating with the Jaguars Without Borders programme to conserve these beautiful animals.
Guatemala is home to some of the most spectacular birds on earth, and it is a popular destination for bird watchers from all over the world.
Perhaps the most beautiful and important is the Guatemalan quetzal, which is the country’s national bird and appears on the national flag. It has amazing green-blue feathers, which can appear to change colour in different light.
Many people will recognise the famous scarlet macaw, which is the world’s largest parrot and has bright red feathers over its whole body, wings and tail. You can see these birds in various parts of Guatemala, including Sierra Lacandon National Park in the Peten region.
The keel-billed toucan is another of Guatemala’s remarkable birds, with an oversized, bright yellow-green bill. Tikal National Park in Peten is a good place to spot these beautiful creatures.
The horned guan is considered endangered and lives mainly in the highlands, as does the bearded screech owl.
Reptiles are an important part of the native ecology of Guatemala, and inhabit just about every habitat from ocean to highlands.
Crocodiles and alligators occupy a unique place in the Guatemalan imagination and culture, and appear frequently in ancient Mayan art. Archaeologists even found the remains of a crocodile in a tomb at Tikal.
You can see examples of these fearsome creatures in a number of places around the country, with some tour operators in Flores even offering dedicated crocodile tours.
Less dangerous and much rarer reptiles include the sea turtles which nest along the Pacific coast near Monterrico. This is an important nesting site for several endangered species, including the leatherback, hawksbill and olive ridley.
Iguanas, like crocodiles, alligators and turtles, appear in Mayan art but some species are now in danger of extinction. The spiny-tailed iguana is rated as endangered, and lives only in Motagua Valley in eastern Guatemala.
Conserving the animals of Guatemala
In 2012, Guatemala celebrated a small victory in the efforts to conserve its unique population of amphibians, as it opened Sierra Caral Amphibian Reserve on the Caribbean coast.
You can visit the reserve and see some of the species it protects, which range from rare frogs and salamanders to the Merendon palm-pit viper, which was only discovered in 2000.
As well as amphibians, the park is home to rare birds, margays – a small, nocturnal wild cat – and even jaguars.
Other nature reserves are also working hard to help conserve the plants and animals of Guatemala, including Sierra del Lacandon, which is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Guatemala is blessed with some of the world’s most beautiful and the rare animals, from the mighty jaguar to glorious macaws and toucans. The hard work of conservation teams should mean the animals of Guatemala are a treasure the country can continue to share and enjoy.