Mombacho Volcano’s oldest residents talk of the days when the scarlet macaw used to soar above the cloud forest’s verdant canopy.
After residents stopped seeing the colorful birds several decades ago, the spider monkey was next to go. It’s been more than 10 years since a spider monkey has been spotted swinging through the thick vegetation that grows from this volcano’s rich soil.
Now, other species might also be at risk of disappearing from this unique habitat, says Enock Pineda, director of the 600-hectare Mombacho Nature Reserve. He says it’s not clear whether vulnerable species such as the Mombacho salamander – found nowhere else in the world – will be able to survive the climate change that hangs over this forested sanctuary like one of the misty clouds.
“This is not just about whether Granada residents will have nearby hiking trails to enjoy. This is the source of the region’s water.
And it’s more than that. Sixty species of migratory birds will disappear if this place is lost,” Pineda told The Nica Times on a recent morning at the ecolodge near the peak.
Average temperatures on the volcano – which is pinched between rampant urban development to the north and unmonitored agricultural development to the south – have increased by four degrees over the past decade, and less rainfall has been recorded, according to Pineda.
One of only two cloud forests in Nicaragua’s widely deforested lower Pacific basin, the Mombacho Reserve houses more than 700 plant species. The government turned over management of the reserve – which starts at 850 meters and climbs to 1,344 meters at its peak – to the nonprofit Cocibolca Foundation a decade ago.
Run by leading Nicaraguan environmentalist Jaime Incer, the foundation has used foreign donations and income generated by a successful ecotourism program atop the volcano to contract 40 employees to protect a forest area that was once monitored by a single government park guard. The foundation has had some success in reversing deforestation, getting farmers in the 6,600-hectare buffer zone that surrounds the reserve to use more ecofriendly practices, and curbing poaching and trafficking of exotic animals and orchid species.
But what keeps Pineda awake at night are subtle changes that together threaten the habitats of the reserve’s endangered species.
All 48 mammal species – among them four highly endangered felines, including the puma – are in danger of extinction. And the reserve’s amphibians are even more precarious; disappearing amphibian species in neighboring Costa Rica have already sounded alarm bells for what some say are the effects of climate change.
Mombacho isn’t high enough to allow species to survive for very long by seeking higher elevations, which some animals are already doing because of increasing temperatures.
Species like the urraca, a type of magpie – which has moved its habitat 300 meters up to 800 meters in the past decade – are running out of room the farther up they go.
“Once they get to the top, they’re done for,” Pineda said.
It wasn’t long after Incer’s term as Environment Minister ended in 1994 that he set up the nonprofit Cocibolca Foundation to protect Mombacho. The organization, which signed an agreement with The Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) to co-manage the reserve, became a pioneer for the co-management model in an underdeveloped country that lacks funds for environmental protection.
Today, there a dozen nongovernmental organizations co-managing eight of Nicaragua’s 84 protected areas that receive aid from the USAID program.
Incer describes Mombacho as a vital sponge that absorbs the humidity from LakeCocibolca and pumps it back into the volcano’s five ecosystems and the lowlands, feeding potable water sources being tapped for urban development.
“The lake’s humidity concentrates there,” he said of Mombacho, “If we destroy that cloud forest, we’ll have serious problems.”
A sign on one of the hiking trails calls Mombacho an “ecological island in an otherwise deforested sea,” referring to the nearly 60 percent of Nicaragua that is without forest cover – a percentage that has been increasing steadily for the past two decades.
The 30,000 annual visitors who hike along the volcano’s three guided trails get a taste of Mombacho’s biological riches.
“That tree alone has as many species of plants living on it as exist in all of England or Switzerland,” guide Januar López told a group of hikers.
The inactive volcano has been designing the region’s landscape for centuries. A landslide, perhaps caused by an eruption, is thought to have created the isletas that dot Lake Nicaragua south of Granada. Another one in the late 16th century, according to various reports by Spanish colonial authorities, was said to have buried an indigenous community that once lived near the top of the crater.
In the past 25 years, coffee and other agricultural production surged on the skirts of Mombacho, resulting in widespread deforestation, according to Pineda. But over the past decade, the Cocibolca Foundation has slowed and even reversed deforestation that had once crept as high as 1,000 meters. The foundation has had some success getting producers to maintain tree cover with shadegrown coffee and reducing pesticides and fertilizers by promoting organic agriculture on the volcano.
In 1996, MARENA put a moratorium on the construction of radio towers on the volcano, which had 18 at the time. There are now only 12, with plans to propose legislation that would write the moratorium into law.
The side of Mombacho that faces the lake was once covered with 90 species of orchids, many of which were trafficked in the 1980s and sold illegally in nearby markets in Managua, according to Pineda. The foundation has since been slowly restoring orchid populations.
Poachers, too, continue to be a threat, Pineda said, noting that officials recently confiscated a rifle from an armed man roving the cloud forest. Animal traffickers continue to steal exotic animals – particularly tropical birds like toucans.
“It’s generally (poor) people who are contracted by someone for 500 córdobas, and they’re given a photo of the flower or bird they’re supposed to get,” Pineda said.
But Pineda’s bigger concern is that the average temperatures on the volcano have increased by four degrees over a decade, and it didn’t rain on Mombacho in January or February this year, as it usually does.
“Temperature is vital,” he said, “and we basically have two months less rain than a decade ago.
Pineda was alarmed by reports last year of the disappearance of as many as 17 amphibian species in Costa Rica, reportedly linked to global warming. But very little research has been done on the effects of global warming in Nicaragua, Incer says.
The foundation is in the process of registering all Mombacho species and has plans in the works to combat dwindling mammal, bird and amphibian populations. For instance, falling puma populations may be assuaged with a reintroduction program.
“Their populations are very reduced and they’re beginning to inbreed. In 10 or 20 years, the way things are going, they’ll disappear,” Pineda said.
To counter that possibility, the reserve is working on a plan to introduce pumas from the Rivas isthmus into the Mombacho Reserve within the next two years.
But the amphibians will be the biggest challenge, Pineda says. Birds and mammals are quicker to adapt to changes in their ecosystems and can migrate with less problems.
The endemic Mombacho salamander, however, usually doesn’t venture beyond a five meter radius on a given week.
Another example is the rare and tiny Fitzgery frog, which is found throughout Central America at high elevations and is known for giving live birth instead of laying eggs. Pineda laments that the tiny frog can’t be found anywhere below 1,200 meters on the 1,344-meter volcano. The frog used to be found at half that elevation a decade ago.