How does it feel to be able to repatriate a species?
While some of you may already be aware of this and some of you not, I recently spent a couple of days down in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Why was I there? Aside from the fact that I absolutely love going to Guatemala and have some wonderful friends there, I was there on some incredibly cool Zoo Atlanta business.
That business was helping to transfer a group of 11 Guatemalan beaded lizards (Heloderma charlesbogerti) back to their homeland of Guatemala from the United States. This is the first time we have been able to repatriate members of this species, and it is definitely a pretty amazing feeling. The facility that received the lizards, Parque Zoológico Nacional La Aurora (aka La Aurora Zoo), has been working on a breeding program for the species since 2019. They have not had many animals to work with and have avoided collecting additional specimens from the wild as this species is endangered. This is where Zoo Atlanta was able to step in. Luckily, Zoo Atlanta has been very successful in the care and breeding of Guatemalan beaded lizards, producing over 40 offspring in the last 12 years. This allowed us to help them increase the breeding population at La Aurora Zoo, which will greatly expand their opportunities for breeding of multiple different bloodlines AND help to continue their ability to avoid removing any animals from the wild for the project.
The lizards that went down will not be released into the wild themselves, however. The plan is that these animals would reproduce in their beaded lizard-specific facilities, and that following a quarantine period, the offspring would then be transferred from La Aurora Zoo to protected areas within the known wild range of the species in the dry forests of the Motagua Valley.
Zoo Atlanta’s population of Guatemalan beaded lizards started with a group of animals that had been brought to the U.S. as part of an academic collection at the University of Texas, Arlington in the late 1980s. These animals came to Zoo Atlanta in the year 2000, and since then, through a lot of trial, error, and research, we were able to reproduce the species many times here. In other words, we had a richness of beaded lizards and La Auora had a need, so we were able to fill it!
While zoos transfer animals around all the time, including venomous animals, moving animals from the USA to another country can be a lot more complicated. There are a lot of permits, documentation, and often unthought of varieties of things that can go into transporting animals across borders. In this case, we had a crack team of experts on both the Zoo Atlanta and La Aurora Zoo side to make sure things ran as smoothly as possible right up until the very last possible minute. Aside from our institutional experts, there are lots of people at the various U.S. and Guatemalan wildlife governing bodies that also were critical to getting the animals from here to there. The efforts of these “behind the scenes” folks simply cannot be understated, and we are immensely grateful to all of their efforts throughout this long process (discussions to transfer these animals began nearly five years ago)!
So the next time you visit Scaly Slimy Spectacuar, stop by the Guatemalan beaded lizard habitat and think about how the family members of those animals are contributing to the next generation of Guatemalan beaded lizards, not just here, but in Guatemala!
Robert L. Hill
Curator of Herpetology