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Closer look: Ometepe as a Biosphere Reserve – connecting people and nature

Written by: Alison Gunn
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Great gains for conservation have been made since Fauna & Flora International (FFI) first began working on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

An island of dazzling diversity

Formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, linked by a low strip of wetland, Ometepe is one of the largest freshwater islands in the world.

Within its 276km2 there is a dramatic range of altitude, topography and climate, creating a mosaic of habitats representing the majority of the country’s ecosystems.

Ometepe’s humid and cloud forests, which are largely intact, are the largest remaining in Nicaragua’s Pacific region. However the island’s gallery and dry forests and wetland ecosystems are threatened.

Because of the diversity of habitats found in a comparatively small area, the island supports a dazzling array of life.

The island is teeming with birds, monkeys and other wildlife. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

The island is teeming with birds, monkeys and other wildlife. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

Its relative isolation has allowed the evolution of unique animals and plants that occur nowhere else on earth, such as Bolitoglossa insularis, a new species of salamander recently discovered and described, and the tree, Ardisia ometepensis, found in cloud forest on the inactive Maderas volcano.

Ometepe is also an important site for birds migrating from the United States and Canada to Central and South America.

The island’s natural beauty coupled with the rich archaeological remains and a charming, laid-back lifestyle draws roughly 40,000 visitors each year.  Traces of the island’s pre-Columbian past can be seen in the Petroglyphs and stone idols on the volcanoes’ slopes.

Transformation from ‘paper park’ to true protection

The dual protected areas, Maderas and Concepción volcanoes which define the unique silhouette of Ometepe Island, were established in 1983.

In 1995, the Nicaraguan government established the whole island as a Natural Reserve and National Cultural Heritage Site. Yet it was not until 2006 that the first park rangers in the history of the island were employed.

Fauna & Flora International has been working on the island since 2005.   Initially our priority was to build local capacity for conservation and management of the Maderas Volcano Natural Reserve.

We helped to build the island’s first protected area headquarters, hire and equip its park rangers, mentor the local municipal authorities in managing the reserve, and provide vital conservation training to a wide range of groups.

One of the volcanoes that forms the island of Ometepe. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

One of the volcanoes that forms the island of Ometepe. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

Biosphere Reserve hat trick for Nicaragua

In 2009, with the support of FFI, the Nicaraguan government nominated the island of Ometepe as a biosphere reserve under the UNESCO Man and Biosphere programme.

Operating across large landscapes – in this case, the whole island and fringing waters – Biosphere Reserves are more than just protected areas for wildlife, they are designated to promote a balanced relationship between people and the natural world.

As a result, in 2010, the volcanic island of Ometepe became Nicaragua’s third UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

This major international tribute to Ometepe’s cultural and biological wealth also recognises the commitment of local communities, municipal government and civil society to the island’s natural heritage.

Connecting people and nature

FFI is committed to continue working with all stakeholders on the island to realise their vision and shape the future of Ometepe, combining conservation of biodiversity and other natural values with compatible economic and human development.

Significant threats to Ometepe’s ecosystems remain in the form of agricultural expansion, habitat fragmentation and degradation, water pollution, ineffective law enforcement to prevent poaching of wildlife and timber, uncontrolled tourism and the development of coastal properties.

The establishment of a Biosphere Reserve provides an excellent framework for FFI and partners to address these threats and to achieve both biodiversity conservation and sustainable local development goals. Together with local partners, we are working to support improved environmental governance and landscape level planning, alongside the promotion of sustainable forest-friendly livelihoods.

We are supporting biodiversity-friendly farming and tourism initiatives, and are trialling innovative approaches to build the resilience of Ometepe’s people and ecosystems in the face of a changing – and less predictable – climate.

The island is attracting an increasing number of kayakers and hikers. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

The island is attracting an increasing number of kayakers and hikers. Credit: Nicky Jenner/FFI.

Written by
Alison Gunn

Alison is Fauna & Flora International’s Programme Manager for the Americas and Caribbean region. Having begun her conservation career studying social behaviour in primates, she has since gained over 15 years’ experience in wildlife research, biodiversity conservation and protected areas management in Latin America and East Africa. As Programme Manager, she is responsible for supporting the development and management of a portfolio of projects across FFI’s Americas & Caribbean programme, with her main geographic focus being Nicaragua. Alison provides technical support to field teams and partner organisations on integrated landscape management, climate adaptation planning, ecosystem service valuation, biodiversity monitoring and financial sustainability, as well as species conservation (with a particular focus on marine turtles). She is also responsible for communicating our conservation work to a wide range of audiences.

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“FFI’s long-term approach, which builds local understanding and ownership of conservation actions, alongside sustainable livelihoods, is generating conservation gains on Ometepe. It is wonderful to see the gradual changes in the attitudes, perspectives and status of the people with whom we work. We have come a long way, but there is still a lot of work to do to help the people of Ometepe bring their Biosphere Reserve vision to reality.”

Angélica Valdivia

Ometepe Programme Manager, Fauna & Flora International

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