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RELIGIOUS BULLETIN-COLOMBIA: Endangered Species Threatened by Holy Week

Yadira Ferrer

BOGOTA, Mar 15 1998 (IPS) - The Colombian government launched a massive public awareness campaign this week in an effort to counteract the threat posed by Lent and Holy Week traditions to several endangered species of flora and fauna.

Environment Minister Eduardo Verano said several species suffer their own “Way of the Cross” at this time of year, providing the ingredients of traditional dishes or ornamental elements of Easter rituals.

Iguanas — whose eggs are extracted from the abdomens of live lizards — the black caiman, the “Icotea” tortoise and wax palms — the national tree — are all threatened by depredation.

With three weeks to go to the start of Holy Week, environmental enforcement officers have already confiscated 100,000 iguana eggs and 5,000 turtles along the northern coast, Verano reported.

The minister calculated that the confiscated iguana eggs represented a mere 10 percent of an estimated total of one million eggs sold this year, extracted from some 50,000 lizards. Last year 35,000 eggs were seized from poachers.

Peasant farmers obtain the eggs by slittingopen the bellies of live iguanas, most of which are released with the wound still open, to die of infection. Even those which are stitched up are unable to breed again, because the reproductive apparatus is usually destroyed.

Videos aired on TV explain that the iguana — whose meat is also consumed — is one of the most heavily poached animals on the north coast. Hunting begins in January, when the lizards start to lay their eggs.

The government campaign also explains the essential role played by iguanas in tropical rainforests, by consuming grasshoppers and other pests that damage crops. The videos add that other species of lizards would not be able to take the iguana’s place in the ecological chain.

The “Icotea’ turtle, a fresh water species only found in Colombia is also threatened by hunters seeking their meat, who often destroy their wetland habitat. Every year in Lent and Holy Week, hunters burn swamps and wetlands to force the turtles out of their nests.

In the Amazon region, the meat of the black caiman is also sold during Lent as if it were fish, and its skin is sold on the international market.

Over the past few years, the Environment Ministry has supported the creation of breeding grounds, where the black caiman ad other endangered species are bred in captivity.

Verano said certain species would soon be bred in captivity for their meat, as are chicken or fish. With the support of other institutions, the government plans to set up five micro- enterprises that will turn an illegal activity into a sustainable productive project.

The wax palm, an Andean species of tree which grows at 1,500 metres above sea level, is another victim of Holy Week traditions. Thousands of wax palm branches are cut every year to reenact the ritual of Palm Sunday, when according to Christian tradition Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem with palm branches and flowers.

The Environment Ministry estimates that the wax palm will disappear from Colombia within 10 years if something is not done. Verano suggests the use of wheat stalks, corn husks, rushes, grass or simply white handkerchiefs.

Biologist Gloria Galeano at the National University’s Institute of Natural Sciences says wax palms are especially vulnerable, because the leaves are cut before reaching maturity, which not only stunts growth, but reduces the capacity to synthesise nutrients and reproduce.

No other Andean country boasts as many varieties of wax palm, seven of the existing 11 sub-species.

Along with the TV spots, the government will distribute leaflets and magazines underlining the importance of the endangered species, with pointers on how to prevent their depredation.

The government has set up an inter-institutional committee comprised of representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, the police, the Administrative Department of Security, the Attorney-General’s Office, the Customs service and the Special Prosecutor’s Office to combat trafficking in endangered species.

The committee’s main objective is to design strategies and concrete action for airports and land and water terminals, which will boost current enforcement efforts along roads and highways.

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