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A Bid to Save Honduran Hummingbird

By From the Tierramérica Editor's Desk*

A legislative bill to declare the northwestern area of Aguán Valley in Honduras a protected area is feeding hopes for the survival of the brilliantly colored emerald hummingbird, a species unique to this Central American nation.

TEGUCIGALPA - The Honduran emerald, or Amazilia luciae, is a hummingbird native to this country and is the most endangered bird of Central America, but a new bill is to be presented in August in the Honduran Congress that could turn out to be this tiny flyer's passport to the future.

The Honduran emerald measures just 10 cm long, and in the past few years has been faced with its greatest threat: government plans to build a highway that would cross through a section of its unique habitat.

The legislative initiative for declaring the northwest portion of the Aguán Valley -- home to this minute bird -- a protected area bodes well for the future of the country's only tropical dry forest, Elda Maldonado, biodiversity director at the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Environment (SERNA), told Tierramérica.

Like the brilliant green emerald hummingbird, this ecosystem is also on the verge of disappearing. The tropical dry forest is a rarity throughout the Central American region, found only in western Guatemala's Motagua Valley and in the Aguán.

Interest in saving the hummingbird increases with the intention to preserve the forest, says Fausto Mejía, who works in the SERNA office for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a natural habitat restoration plan that involves the seven Central American countries and Mexico.

Of the more than 50,000 hectares of the plains of Aguán Valley, 30,000 were tropical dry forest in 1938. By 1977 the coverage of this unique forest had fallen to 16,000 hectares, and in 2000, there were just 8,495 hectares, according to the latest available research.

But of that area, only 3,900 hectares can be considered well preserved enough to sustain significant populations of the Honduran emerald, points out Mejía.

The proposed law, drafted by a committee including delegates from SERNA, the Secretariat of Public Works, Transport and Housing (SOPTRAVI) and the Honduran Forest Development Corporation, aims to halt deforestation, a practice that has turned the forest into patchwork, says biodiversity expert Maldonado.

The management plan for what would be the smallest protected area in Honduras at just over 1,000 hectares, establishes that over the years it would once again form a continuous forest mass, she adds.

When it was discovered in 1867, it was common to spot emerald hummingbirds throughout the country's western and Atlantic areas. Today it is categorized as the most endangered species in Central America, according to the "Red List" of the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The preservation of the forest and the protection of the hummingbird are the chief interests of the environmentalists and citizen groups that are opposed to the government's plans to build a stretch of highway through the bird's limited habitat.

Experts predict that the hummingbird species would survive just two years once the 57-km highway is opened through the middle of the valley, which also is home to intensive farming and livestock activity.

SOPTRAVI processed the highway project in 1998, requesting some 12 million dollars from the World Bank to finance construction.

The World Bank set a loan requirement. Honduras would have to pass a law that would include a management plan for the area that is home to the hummingbird and establish a protected area, Maldonado explained.

The construction of the highway would initially have adverse effects on the forest itself. But the noise, dust and exhaust produced by the heavy machinery would alter the behavior of the hummingbird, pushing it away from its food sources and away from its traditional resting and grooming sites.

The highway project has not been abandoned, "but was only suspended until the law is approved," said Maldonado, who is nevertheless optimistic about the effects the bill will have on the preserving the emerald hummingbird population.

Another important effort, she says, is to properly inform the residents of the valley about the benefits of protecting the bird and its ecosystem. Most local inhabitants support the construction of the highway.

"When they say that the project shouldn't be halted for the sake of a bird, the residents show the lack of adequate information," said the expert.

Honduras holds seven percent of the world's biodiversity and its environment is home to 701 bird species. However, 59 of them live in threatened habitats and five are in danger of extinction. The country loses 80,000 hectares of forest each year.

* With contributions from Thelma Mejía (Honduras).

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

External Links

Red List: Amzilia luciae (emerald hummingbird)

Mesoamerican Biological Corridor

Birdlife International

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