Interview by Nuria Bolaños, Rainforest Alliance
“If there were no rescue center, the laws protecting wildlife would not be so rigorously enforced, and this would have a direct effect on wild populations. — C. R. Hasbún”
The Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, a project of the Zoological Foundation of El Salvador (FUNZEL), was founded in 1994 to support the National Park and Wildlife Service (PANAVIS), which was, at that moment, in charge of enforcing the Wildlife Conservation Law. When the responsibilities of PANAVIS were transferred to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources in July 2001, the Rescue Center was officially put in charge of the management and disposition of confiscated wildlife. Currently, the center operates with a veterinary medical advisor who specializes in wildlife, a project chief who is a biologist, a site veterinarian and an assistant for feeding and managing wild animals from the three main groups of terrestrial vertebrates: reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Question: How does the rescue center function? Is it part of the zoo?
Ramos: It is completely independent from the zoo, although yes, we do have a relationship: we are acquaintances, friends and allies. FUNZEL has supported the zoo in wildlife rescue in different ways. In 1990, Carlos Roberto Hasbún, as director of the zoo at that moment, looked for a group of people that might help him and this resulted in the creation of FUNZEL and later, the Rescue Center, which evolved into support for the wildlife of El Salvador.
The zoo had sufficient problems and difficulties of its own in terms of resources needed to feed its own animals. The idea for the rescue center came up for two reasons: on the one hand, to reduce pressure from the large number of animals that were being left in the zoo from confiscations or because their owners simply gotten bored with them; and secondly, because it happened parallel to other political processes. The Wildlife Conservation Law and greater activity by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) in controlling wildlife trade and export, required the existence of a center that would professionally receive confiscated or voluntarily delivered fauna. This was how the Rescue Center began, more as support to the CITES and wildlife conservation authorities than as support to the zoo, but we have always collaborated with the zoo.
Q: How do the animals come to you? What happens at the Rescue Center?
Ramos: We receive the animals, mainly a variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles, and many of them in precarious states of health — dehydrated and stressed by the trip from where they were extracted until their arrival at FUNZEL. We also receive a large number of animals with a variety of injuries. In the case of iguanas and ctenosaurs, their feet are usually tied together, often to the point of becoming necrotic and the feet literally fall off. But luckily many arrive in time to be treated and they are able to recover.
Many wounded animals are also admitted, especially birds of prey that have been stoned or shot. Some mammals arrive with symptoms of poor handling that has caused lesions. One extreme example was when we received an adult raccoon with a rope around its neck as a collar that they never dared remove. The animal grew until the rope was encrusted a few centimeters into the skin. This is something I have seen only once, but similar things have happened with other animals.
Q: When they arrive in these conditions, what do you do?
Ramos: We have a rather strict protocol; medical on the one hand and biological on the other. We have a bureaucratic but essential process for maintaining transparency in the management of national heritage. First, a reception card is filled out on which data are noted, such as who provided the animal, its condition, the species (if it is identifiable or what we assume it to be at least to the level of genus), and we make an initial medical evaluation to determine what the next step will be: if a more intensive medical process is needed, if the animal is healthy and requires nothing more than quarantine for having been away from the wild for a long time; if it can be released immediately, or, if it must be euthanized — put to death painlessly.
Hasbún: In the beginning — as Luis mentioned — there is a physical rehabilitation process using veterinary medicine protocols. Afterwards we begin a behavioral rehabilitation process in which the specimens are put into larger, more appropriate enclosures that resemble natural conditions and they are fed natural products so that they will adapt more easily to the natural environments where they will be released.
Q: Where do you release the animals?
Ramos: The protocol requires that we release them in their place of origin. I must admit that we were not doing this at the beginning, largely because we were learning about, conducting, and studying the process. Now we are stricter about releasing animals in their place of origin, when we know where that is. We do not know the origins of most of the animals, and if we dare release some in zones that we choose — based on technical consults with the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, the corresponding authorities and the staff of FUNZEL — it is because we are not going to cause a significant impact on wild populations. We try, if our resources allow, to follow a laboratory protocol before releasing the animals to ensure that they leave in the best health.
Ricord: Felines are almost never reintroduced. These species are very delicate and very vulnerable to human manipulation and medication. IUCN specialists recommend they not be reintroduced and, as they are endangered with extinction — in El Salvador only very reduced populations remain — we pass them on to a regional research program of the National Zoo of El Salvador with the Mesoamerican Association of Zoos and Aquariums. As for iguanas, reptiles that are confiscated in large numbers, they were released and, we presume they caused a series of modifications in the natural populations over time. Currently, if they are in good health, it is preferable to give them to some benefic association for food, such as soups and broths.
Q: How frequently do you receive animals? Is there a time of year when you receive more than other times?
Ricord: The months of March, April, May, and June are those in which admissions appear to increase, because these months coincide with the reproductive cycle of most animals, which coincides with the dry season and the onset of the rainy season. This is when greater cross-border traffic has been detected and also sales in the local markets increase.
Q: Are the animals brought to you or do you confiscate them?
Ricord: FUNZEL neither confiscates nor enforces laws. We provide a support service to the State. This support is to the local Wildlife Conservation Law that the Ministry of the Environment manages under CITES.
Hasbún: The National Civil Police is the agency that carries out the confiscations. The idea is that the foundation foster national initiatives through which management regulations for species ex situ can be enacted and to build enclosures in different places nationwide to assist animal rescue from the day of confiscation.
Q: Is there follow-up — or monitoring — of released animals?
Hasbún: Various protocols exist that can be followed to monitor released animals. When the animals are released, they must be tagged, with plastic bands, metal bands for birds, or rings on different parts of the body if they are mammals or reptiles. With this tag, the animals can be monitored for follow-up.
One of the initiatives that we were trying to encourage, with support from biology students, was the monitoring of the rehabilitated species in human-impacted zones. We attempted to monitor the incorporation of these animals into the ecosystem, using radio-tracking, where the students could follow the animals’ movements to see if they adapted and managed to reproduce. This is because monitoring should take into account the stages of integration into the surroundings as well as the reproduction of the animals. When an animal manages to reproduce, good work has been done. We had a very good example with the release of a falcon that we had for more than a year in the aviaries of the foundation from when it was very young. It was released as a juvenile and adapted to the environment. Later we were able to observe it making its nest and breeding.
Q: Are there other examples of successfully released animals?
Hasbún: Caimans have been released in the mangrove system of Barra de Santiago. Fifteen years ago, in this zone, the wild population was very reduced to the point where fishermen were no longer seeing caimans or their nests. Now, after having released a significant quantity, more are seen, including nests and some young. This may indicate that the release was successful in the sense that the caimans have been able to reproduce themselves.
Q: What did you do with the animals during last year’s earthquake?
Ramos: Thanks to international donations, we had support to make some provisional clinic and animal reception installations. Other donors gave us additional funds with which we were able to rent a house that we adapted as a veterinary clinic in San Salvador. We spread out what we previously had at only one location: We have the reception clinic in San Salvador; the large supermarket chain “Despensa de Don Juan” built enclosures for housing the psittacids — the parrots and parakeets — that we received; and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which is dedicated to wildlife rescue during natural disasters, sent us personnel who built some emergency enclosures and the clinic. With their help we have been able to continue working while reestablishing ourselves.
We have concentrated on the release of animals whose exact origin we know. There are people who find them in the field and believe them to be abandoned. This is very common with deer fawns. In these cases, we have stayed one or two nights at the release points for the fawns and we have been able to verify that adult deer come to retrieve them. In April and May we had a lot of animals, and we had to close the reception facility temporarily because we exceeded available capacity. Far from providing professional services as we wanted, the animals were crowded and dying because of this and the difficulty of giving them adequate management. After that, all the authorities were in crisis because they had to stop enforcing the law, or they had to find other places to take the animals.
Ricord: We have 50 active contributing members who pay dues of $10 to $200 per year. They provide a lot of support for the center’s operations. We also have five sponsors that provide larger quantities of money: the Banco de Comercio; the Banco Agrícola; the Almacenes Vidrí; the Sigma Foundation; and other members who provide $150 per year, who, together with our regular contributing members, enabled us to get out and confront the earthquake. Thanks to them and to some volunteers, we are operating at present.
Q: What happens to animals that are not taken to the center?
Ramos: Some are taken directly to the zoo and received according to the zoo’s capacity. The national zoo has also been increasing its capacity, especially in financial terms, and has allowed the admission of some animals that can be incorporated into its collections. Also, whenever possible, the authorities follow a policy of immediate release and try to bring animals to FUNZEL only when necessary. We have tried to teach the authorities to recognize when they can make releases without affecting the animals unduly. A large number of confiscated animals die. Our mortality reports, year after year, have always run around 40 percent.
Q: In Central American countries, where so much financial support is needed just to adequately maintain parks and protected areas, how can we justify funds for the rescue of a small population of wildlife when protection of the entire population is needed?
Ramos: At present, animal rescue is questioned in scientific and academic circles: How does the rescue of these individuals and the implied resources affect wild populations that are the ultimate objective of conservation? I do not have an answer for this, but I can say that the management of confiscated wildlife has an enormous educational role. The general public does not have much contact with wild animals. What they mostly see are confiscated animals and not the wild populations. It is much easier to raise awareness using these animals than through conservation programs — but I am not saying that the latter should not be done. Effective education means that you try to change patterns of behavior in how people treat wild animals. The problem is that wildlife is used inappropriately and this “causes” the confiscations.
Hasbún: Practically speaking, if there are no rescues, there are no confiscations. In other words, the Wildlife Conservation Law — for which FUNZEL actively lobbied for approval and enactment — was the first national law. This law never would have been enacted if there were no place to receive the animals. For the implementation or enforcement of wildlife conservation legislation in El Salvador, there had to be a suitable place for the rescue and deposition of these animals, in order to place them somewhere. Knowledge that an appropriate place exists for the placement of the animals also gives incentive to the National Civil Police. If there were no rescue center, the laws protecting wildlife would not be so rigorously enforced, and this would have a direct effect on wild populations. I agree that national priorities should focus on ecosystem, natural area, and wild habitat protection efforts where the animals live. But the operation of a rescue center supports the enforcement of the Wildlife Conservation Law in the nation in a direct and practical way.
Ricord: It’s not that we are emphasizing action and forgetting about natural areas. There are two parallel ideas in our consciousness-raising program that we emphasize a great deal, at policy as well as at private enterprise levels and with society in general. The Rescue Center is an immediate response to a given situation, but our efforts are also directed to the establishment of protected natural areas and greater action from different population sectors for this. In fact, we three are working in other initiatives: Luis Ramos in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor; Carlos Roberto Hasbún and myself in Biodiversity Support Activities that complement all the efforts we are carrying out in FUNZEL as volunteers. One of the main characteristics of the foundation is that it has been able to discuss these subjects at the highest political levels. We do not see the Rescue Center as being isolated from regional policy on protected areas.
Q: You are all volunteers at FUNZEL?
Ricord: We have all been volunteers since ten years ago when Carlos Roberto Hasbún created FUNZEL. We do not earn a salary, unless there is a project that we coordinate, but this has occurred on very few occasions, and the salaries have been symbolic. Our participation is completely ad honorem, and we make time outside of our work schedules. We have an administrative assistant and a nursing assistant who have been trained. Our work is apostolic — we believe in what we are doing and struggle against the current.
Q: So FUNZEL gives you a kind of satisfaction? What does this mean to each one of you?
Ricord: There have been just a few times that I have seen political decision-makers respond to our work, but I have noted that our work has had great technical impact. I’m referring to the National Civil Police, the customs agents, and many persons that know absolutely nothing about the subject. We have raised their awareness and with financial support from PROARCA/CAPAS [a regional conservation project supported by the US Agency for International Development; read the project’s goals and conclusions], we prepared and edited a guide of commercial species for them. This is very satisfying. There are many people who have nothing to do with the environment or with FUNZEL and who now say that wild animals should not be sold in the street. Why not? Because FUNZEL mounted a massive consciousness-raising action on attitudes toward fauna.
Hasbún: I have always felt I had a mission in life and working for life itself is the most logical. The work in itself is very motivating when one sees the cascading or multiplier effect of knowledge, and when speaking with other persons and seeing that the message of the Zoo Foundation has gotten to the people in general and is being accepted by various persons. For me this is very gratifying.
Ramos: All different kinds and species of animals have their own ways of transmitting their energies, or “feelings” if you will. This gives me satisfaction. When I can work with them, there is a communication beyond the human or the imaginable. It is very rewarding to be in direct contact with the animals. One accumulates anecdotes about animals that should be fierce but suddenly become docile. One cannot help but think that perhaps there is some recognition on their part.