Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

1. Introduction

1.1 Objectives and scope
1.2 Sources of information and methodology
1.3 General description of the area

There have been relatively few studies on Latin American wildlife, which, though abundant, is strongly under pressure due to widespread rural poverty and the lack of appropriate development policies.

Numerous scientific and technical events held in the last 20 years1 testify to the deep concern over the fate of the indigenous wildlife of Latin America. Despite this, wildlife as a renewable natural resource continues to be overlooked (269, 573), underestimated (202, 489), and under attack from short-term economic interest (452). Seemingly, the warning admonitions of scientists and other citizens worried by the progressive decline of wildlife are taking a long time to translate into effective policy for the rehabilitation and development of the sector. Perhaps this is partly due to the lack of decisive documentation on the importance of wildlife.

1 1° Convención Nacional de Caza, Mexico, 1964; Simposio sobre la Biota Amazonica, Belem, 1967; 1° Foro sobre Protección y Fomento de la Fauna Silvestre, Caracas, 1970; Simposio Internacional sobre Fauna Silvestre y Pesca Fluvial y Lacustre Amazonico, Manaus, 1973; Simposio sobre Flora y Fauna Silvestre y su Medio Ambiente en el Continente Americano, Monterrey, 1973; Encuentro Nacional sobre Conservaçao da Fauna e Recursos Faunísticos, Brasilia, 1977; Reunión Regional Centroamericana sobre Vida Silvestre, Matagalpa, 1978; Seminario sobre Caça Amadorista, Brasilia, 1978; Simposio sobre Manejo de Vida Silvestre, Valdivia, 1979, 1° Congreso Nacional sobre Conservación de Fauna Silvestre, San José, 1980; Simposio Conservación y Manejo de la Fauna Silvestre en Latinoamérica, Arequipa, 1983, etc.

As the end product of a long evolution, each individual species is intrinsically valuable for its own unique features. Together, they are part of the natural heritage of nations and of the world, performing a number of functions within the dynamics of the ecosystem that are still not fully understood. Some species are directly utilized by people, thus acquiring additional socio-economic value as a resource.

The usefulness of wildlife becomes singularly relevant in the developing countries, forced as they are to marshal every available resource to sustain their economic and demographic growth. Two facets of resource species are relevant to our discussion here: 1) they provide goods for trade and use, particularly for the rural population, making wildlife conservation socially valuable, and, 2) their very "exploitability" brings additional pressure to bear, compared to animal species of no direct use to people. The implication is more careful management. This and the dearth of information on the subject justify and indeed demand a review of the current and potential utilization of wildlife resources in Latin America as a base for future management.

1.1 Objectives and scope

The general objective of this study is to elucidate and describe wildlife utilization patterns in Latin America, emphasizing their economic and nutritional contribution to neotropical rural communities, so that wildlife management can be retargeted to benefit both the resource and resource users. The following four specific objectives emerge from this general approach:

1) To review and summarize the usual patterns of wildlife utilization in the area.

2) To review and analyse the relevant biological characteristics of the most widely utilized species or groups, as well as how they are used, their potential and their limitations.

3) To review and briefly summarize the legal, administrative, environmental and socio-economic backdrop to wildlife utilization.

4) To come up with conclusions and guidelines for sustained wildlife use for the benefit of rural communities.

The term wildlife is used here to mean the indigenous terrestrial vertebrates, including freshwater reptiles and mammals, but excluding marine wildlife. Some of the wild species introduced figure in the general patterns of utilization but not among the key species which are described in detail in section 3.

Because the biological attributes of the most highly valued species and their management prospects are so closely linked, separate presentations of a small number of representative species would seem to be the best approach. The criteria for the selection of the key groups or species were: 1) their widespread use by rural people and key contribution, 2) broad distribution throughout Latin America, 3) indigenous origin, and, 4) tropical distribution (or mainly so).

Such broad criteria automatically meant a much longer list of species than those covered in the recent FAO workshop (191): the species included are not only relevant in terms of their immediate utilization, they are now critically scarce but potentially very important, and economically very valuable.

Lastly, Honacki et al. (285) were followed for mammal classification and nomenclature, Blake for birds (59) and Pritchard and Trebbau for turtles (484).

1.2 Sources of information and methodology

This paper is based on exhaustive bibliographical research, information from wildlife experts gleaned from questionnaires and interviews, and the personal experience of 25 years of work on neotropical wildlife, including travel throughout various countries of the region (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay) in 1982.

The review of the literature included not only publications (books, scientific and technical reviews), but also the proceedings of symposia and congresses, brochures and reports, laws and regulations, unpublished works such as theses and papers from various universities, reports and statistics from State agencies, works in press, etc. Much of this information was obtained during the above-mentioned tour. All published and unpublished documentation cited is listed in the 637 entries of the bibliography.

Travel in Central and South America provided the opportunity to interview 55 people working in wildlife research and management (Appendix 1). We also prepared a four-part, 43-question survey on national wildlife, modifications, habitat and wildlife protection and administration as a means of consulting experts who could not be interviewed. About 100 questionnaires were sent out, mainly through the mail, for which 45 fall or partial replies were received from 17 countries (Appendix 2).

All this information from various sources was then classified in accordance with the specific objectives, broken down, analysed, assessed and summarized, and presented in table form (where the nature of the data permitted). It was then interpreted in terms of the possible connection between the socio-economic and the biotic factors, within an ecological context applied to wildlife management, as objectively as possible. Lastly, conclusions and recommendations have been put forth as current knowledge permitted, although admittedly, in many cases, this meant that only the most tentative proposals could be advanced, due to the lack of a solid and reliable database.

1.3 General description of the area

1.3.1 Vegetation
1.3.2 Wildlife

This work covers the continental territory ranging from the northern border of Mexico (32° 30' north) to Tierra del Fuego (55° south), and some islands of the Caribbean (but not Jamaica or Puerto Rico). It thus includes the 22 Latin American countries and a series of eight countries and territories belonging to this geographical block: Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Belize, Suriname, the Dutch Antilles and French Guiana.

The term "tropical America" is applicable to the entire vast area excepting the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, in accordance with Lanly's definition (332) whereby, of the 20.55 million km2 making up the total area, 16.79 million km2 lie in the tropics.

The extremely heterogeneous relief and the sheer latitudinal size of the area give rise to a wealth of landscapes, climates and biomes. The Pacific slope, particularly, is characterized by high ranges of mountains running southward from Mexico, and by the Andes which divide the South American continent, generating contrasting gradients of climate.

1.3.1 Vegetation

Soil, climatic and geographical diversity are mirrored by the great variety of primary vegetation in Latin America, a mosaic classified in various ways (41, 43, 360, 586, 596, 617) and well-mapped (288, 586).

Woodland is the commonest neotropical vegetation, covering some 8.36 million km2 or 52 percent of the total area. The most extensive forest area, the Amazon rainforest, covers some 4.21 million km2 or 29 percent of the total area (332). The remaining woodland is divided between various types of riparian or montane natural forest, deciduous forest with transition to savannah or semi-desert formations, and mosaics of degraded forest and secondary vegetation. Forest cover is very thin in the Southern Cone countries except for southern Chile. Forests constitute the most extensive and complex wildlife habitat in Latin America, but their size, primary characteristics and the extent to which they have undergone modification do vary greatly from one place or country to another. This has a profound impact on wildlife resources.

Some 2.5 million km2, 18 percent of the neotropics, are covered by tropical savannah (332, 518). These range from vast regional formations such as the Cerrados in Brazil (some 1 800 000 km2), the Colombian and Venezuelan Llanos (400 000 km2), the flooded Bolivian Llanos (180 000 km2), and the savannah land of Río Branco-Rupinumi to patches of savannah scattered from southern Mexico to Amazonia (518). Savannah quality in terms of wildlife habitat varies greatly with relief, soils, rainfall, the extent of tree cover and human intervention. The greatest wealth of wildlife tends to be in the flood savannah. The Argentine and Uruguayan Pampas (some 650 000 km2) constitute the major grasslands biome of non-tropical Latin America.

The 8 000 km of Andean cordillera, 800 km wide at most, are the characteristic feature of western South America. The highest areas feature high-altitude montane herb or shrub formations, including the Andean paramo in Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina and Chile. This is the physical and vegetative context of a fauna specially adapted to its inhospitable, high-altitude mountain habitat (282, 517, 581).

Arid and semi-arid herb or shrub steppe formations, brushwood and thickets cover much of central and northwestern Mexico, coastal areas of the Caribbean, parts of northeastern Brazil, vast stretches of central Argentina and Patagonia, and the coastal strip of central Chile, etc. They make up a heterogeneous habitat complex sharing a common denominator of semi-permanent water scarcity and frequent temperature extremes. Lastly, the Pacific coast of Peru and northern Chile presents a bare strip of desert devoid of vegetation except in the cordillera river valleys.

The above refers to the natural vegetation of Latin America, but almost all vegetation types have suffered some degree of modification due to human activity (see Chapter 4.3). At least 9 percent of the area is under cultivation (481) plus the sum total of mosaics of degraded areas. Thus, a total of 1.14 million km2, or 8.12 percent of the neotropics (332), come under this category.

1.3.2 Wildlife

Geographically speaking, Latin America and the neotropics roughly overlap (93, 209, 275). Biogeographically, this region is characteristically very rich in species and endemic groups.

There are an estimated 800 mammal species in South America (361) and a further 270 species found only in Central America (253), making a total of some 1 100 mammal species for Latin America: more than one-fourth of all known mammals. Neotropical bird fauna surpass other biogeographical regions in diversity and the number of endemic species. There are some 3 000 species making up one-third of the world total: of these, 2 930 are specific to South America (59). Duellman (162) lists 1 115 reptile species in South America (19 percent of the world total), including 45 chelonian (484) and seven crocodilian species (plus two more in Latin America and the Caribbean (77)). Snakes at 556 and lizards at 471 offer even greater species diversity. There are 1 865 amphibian species (leaving out those of the Caribbean islands); 46 percent of the world total, as listed by Paolillo (personal communication) based on Frost (219).

Brazil, for its vast tropical land mass, boasts the greatest diversity of terrestrial vertebrates (Table 1). Colombia, Mexico and probably Peru are first for the variety of habitats and topographical diversity. Species diversity falls off strikingly in the Southern Cone, particularly in Uruguay and Chile.

Wildlife diversity in tropical America is partly attributable to the so-called Pleistocene refuges which arose as a result of alternating paleoclimatic dry and wet periods (113, 251, 415, 483). The peculiarities and endemic character of neotropical fauna are also due to the nearly 60 million years of South American isolation from other continents during the Tertiary and up to the upper Pliocene. Mammals, the best documented of the fossils, fall into three chronological blocks:

1) Ancient endemic orders and families present on the continent at the time of continental division: marsupials, edentates and various groups of extinct ungulates.

2) Groups of intermediate age which arrived during the island-continent phase giving rise to the higher endemic families and taxa of the hystricognath rodents and New World primates.

3) North American families and orders which invaded South America during the Pliocene and/or Pleistocene over the land bridge via Central America include: modern carnivores, mastodons and equids (the last two now extinct), tapirs, peccaries, camelids, deer species and Leporidae, inter alia (463, 538, 616).

Present day neotropical wildlife thus comprises a blend of groups that evolved in and are confined to South America, and the "new arrivals" - many still shared with North America. This fact is of more than merely academic interest, and has profound implications for wildlife management and ecology in Latin America.

The massive extinction of neotropical megafauna at the close of the Pleistocene (365, 616) is another past event mirrored in today's wildlife, and accounts for the scarcity of large mammals. The largest terrestrial mammal, the tapir, does not top 250-300 kg. Barely ten neotropical species exceed weights of 100 kg and only 81 (7.4 percent of the total) achieve adult weights of 5 kg, considered the conventional lower limit for large mammals (69, 444). The low number of large mammal species is partially offset by the broad distribution of most, which range from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.

Table 1. Terrestrial vertebrate diversity in selected Latin American countries, roughly north to south







Source of information







B. Villa (survey),

El Salvador






M. Benítez A. (survey)






1 004

IRENA (survey)

Costa Rica





1 407

Y. Matamoros y E. López P. (survey)






1 465




1 700



2 736

J. Hernández (survey),



1 311




J. Ojasti, A. Paolillo (personal communication)






1 063

(231, 586)



1 750




J.C. Melo de Carvalho (survey)



1 690







1 188

G. Bejarano (survey)






1 501

(451), E. Bucher (survey)







A. Mones (survey)







R. Schlatter (survey)

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page