TED Case Studies

The Resplendent Quetzal

  • IDENTIFICATION
  • LEGAL CLUSTERS
  • GEOGRAPHIC CLUSTERS
  • TRADE CLUSTERS
  • ENVIRONMENT CLUSTERS
  • OTHER FACTORS

    I. Identification

    1. The Issue

    Quetzal PaintingThe Resplendent Quetzal, the brilliant bird found in the cloud forests of Central America, was sacred to the Mayans and figures prominently in their artwork and legends. Today the Quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and name to the Guatemalan currency. Despite its legendary history, the Quetzal (also spelled Quetzel and Quesal) is in danger of extinction, partly due to hunting of the bird for food and trade, but mainly due to destruction of its elevated habitat to clear land for subsistence agriculture. Some countries, such as Costa Rica, have managed to preserve the Quetzal's (as well as other species') habitat by setting aside land for national parks to promote eco-tourism. War-torn Guatemala, however, has not been so fortunate, nor as conservation-minded. The result is that the Quetzal, the national symbol of freedom in Guatemala, is predicted to go extinct in Guatemala by the year 2000, or shortly thereafter.

    2. Description

    The Quetzal, reputed to be the most beautiful bird that exists in the American continents, belongs to the Trogan family. The iridescent color of its plumage appears green or blue, according to the changes of daytime light. In [Guatemala], it lives in the mountainous, subtropical, humid regions of the departments of Quiche, the Verapazes, Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Suchitepequez. The vegetation of the territory it inhabits is quite dense and rich in humus. In this habitat, the Quetzal searches for an old tree trunk situated in a tiny forest clearing to make its nest. There, in February through April, the hen lays one or two eggs. Both the hen and cock take turns during the 18-day period of incubation. The male Quetzal enters the nest, always leaving his beautiful tail plumes outside so as not to injure them. The female doesn't have this problem, for her tail feathers are very short. After the birth of the nestlings, their parents feed them with worms, insects, and larvae. The adults will eat forest fruits. The young can fly 20 days after birth, and abandon the nest to cut freely through the skies of [Guatemala]. If the Quetzal is confined to a cage, it dies. The Quetzal cannot live in captivity. For this reason, it is the emblem of our liberty. (Published by the Guatemalan Banco Industrial, Maslow, p. 22-23).

    In the 1940s, Dr. Alexander Skutch wrote a life history of the Quetzal, based on long years of careful observation. He describes the Quetzal as follows:

    The male is a supremely lovely bird; the most beautiful, all things considered, that I have ever seen. He owes his beauty to the intensity and arresting contrast of his coloration, the resplendent sheen and glitter of his plumage, the elegance of his ornamentation; the symmetry of his form, and the noble dignity of his carriage. His whole head and upper plumage, foreneck. and chest are an intense glittering green. His lower breast,belly, and under tail coverts are of the richest crimson...The dark, central feathers of the tail are entirely concealed by the greatly elongated upper tail coverts, which are golden green with blue or violent iridescence, and have loose, soft barbs. The two median and longest of these coverts are longer than the entire body of the bird, and extend far beyond the tip of the tail, which is of normal length. Loose and slender, they cross each other above the end of the tail, and thence diverging gradually, form a long, gracefully curving train which hangs below the bird while he perches upright on a branch and ripple gaily behind him as he flies. The outer tail feathers are pure white and contrast with the crimson belly as he flies overhead. To complete the splendor of his attire, reflections of blue and violent play over the glittering metallic plumage of back and head, when viewed in favorable light (Maslow p. 49-50).
    Quetzal Drawing

    Early History

    This famous bird has a long history, as it was the spiritual protector of the Mayan chiefs. It is said that the Quetzal would accompany them everywhere, aiding them in battle, and dying when they died. Legend has it that when Spanish Conquistado Pedro de Alvarado and his Spaniards attacked the Mayans in 1524, the Quetzal appeared crying out and pecking at Alvarado. Mayan King

    At the exact moment when Alvarado pierced Tecum Uman [the chief], the sacred Quetzal fell silent and plummeted to earth, covering the body of the regal [Mayan] with its long and soft green plumes. After keeping a deathwatch through the night, the bird that rose from the cacique's [chieftan's] lifeless body was transformed. It was no longer the pure green of jade. Its breast had soaked up the blood of the fallen warrior, and so, too, became crimson, the shade of Mayan blood, as it has remained to this day (Maslow, p.19).

    The Mayans proved just as unlucky as their chief; 30,000 of them succumbed to the superior firepower of the Spaniards. The Spanish had horses whereas the Mayans were on foot. Therefore, the Spaniards could easily chase down the Mayans, and without any guns the Mayans did not stand a chance. Their population was decimated. Alvaredo would become known as the founder of Guatemala. But the legend of the defeat of Tecum Uman and the sacrifice of the Quetzal at Quetzaltenango (place of the Quetzal) would not be forgotten.

    Modern Quetzal

    Central America Map Today, the Quetzal's range actually extends from southern Mexico through Western Panama in mountain regions with an elevation of 4,000 to 10,000 feet. At some point in time the species of Pharomachrus Mocinno were separated into a Northern and Southern species by the stretch of lowlands that covers parts of southern Guatemala, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. The southern species is Pharomachrus Mocinno Costaricensus and differs from the northern species by its shorter, narrower tail plumes on the male. Costa Rica's Quetzals are more fortunate, since Costa Rica marshalled funds by abolishing its army in 1948 to establish an extensive system of national parks and wildlife reserves to protect the habitat of the Quetzal. This has resulted in a highly successful eco-tourism business, in which the habitat of many other species are protected as well so that tourists can come to see the more famous Quetzal or Macaw.

    Guatemalan Flag

    Pharomachrus Mocinno Mocinno, predominantly found in Guatemala, has not fared as well as its southern cousin. It was currently listed as endangered since June 14, 1976 in Appendix I of CITES. The northern Quetzal is a victim of a loss of habitat as a result of deforestation by the slash and burn method of the Guatemalan peasant for subsistance agriculture. Out of Guatemala's total area of 108,899 square kilometers, the Quetzal had originally ranged over 25,000-30,000 square kilometers. By 1974, that range had been reduced a tenth to 3500 square kilometers. By 1981, the Quetzal's zone had been further reduced to 2500 square kilometers. It is for this reason that scientists believe the northern, more resplendent Quetzal will be extinct in a few short years.

    The Problem

    The Quetzal has always been a species that attracted a great deal of attention and was much sought after. In Mayan times it was foridden to kill the Quetzal. As Fray Bartalome de Las Casas wrote:
    In the province of Vera Paz they punish with death him who killed the bird with the rich plumes because it is not found in other places, and these feathers were things of great value because they used them as money (Maslow, p. 159)

    The Quetzal plumes were used as items of trade and were traded as far north as New Mexico and as far south as the Andes. Because of their value as money and for trading purposes it was forbidden by the Mayans to kill a Quetzal. Once the conquistadors were in power the ban was not enforced. Killing of the birds became such a problem that hunting of the Quetzal was outlawed in 1895 by presidential decree:

    Considering that the hunting of the Quetzal in distinct parts of the nation where this beautiful bird reproduces...threatens to completely destroy the species, which would be extremely regrettable not only for their peculiar beauty of the aforementioned bird, but also because it symbolizes the liberty of the fatherland, the President of the Republic absolutely prohibits the hunting of the Quetzal under penalty of six pesos, of six months in prison (Maslow, p. 224).

    This decree did not prove successful, however, and in 1895, a second decree was issued. This was due in part, to the exploitatin of the Mayans. As part of a Liberal revolution, the Mayans were violently pulled off of their traditional milpa plots, where they grew maize, and turned into virtual slaves on the large coffee plantations. Raising maize on one's milpa was a sacred Mayan duty, for labor was a form of worship and growing maize on a milpa, the Mayans believed, was what kept the sun up. Therefore, to be separated from the milpa, was to be separated from the self, and outside of Mayan culture. Many Mayans fled this exploitive system to live "under the trees, under the vines." They resisted being pulled off of their traditional milpas and fled to nearly inaccessable elevated rain forests, known as cloud forests. The refugees began burning the cloud forests to clear land to raise their own milpas. This was very detrimental to the Quetzals. They were suddenly threatened with habitat loss in an area that had rarely seen humans before and now their very lives were in jeopardy because Quetzals skins brought good money to European traders and many Mayans began to hunt Quetzals to sell them out of greed or desperation. The overall effects have been disasterous. Recent experiments have shown that as the rain forests are cut down, the mean temperature of Guatemala has risen. This change in temperature has an adverse effect on the fruits of the Lauraciae family, such as avocados, which the Quetzals eat. These fruits require high elevation, cool temperatures, and lots of moisture, which is why they flourished in the cloud forests. Now that the cloud forests are shrinking and more and more humans are moving into a once uninhabited area, the Quetzal is rapidly losing its ephereal habitat. Without protected habitat, the Guatemalan Resplendent Quetzal is doomed to extinction.

    3. Related Cases


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    BELIZE Case
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    4. Draft Author: Tammy Barnhouse

    May 7, 1998

    II. Legal Clusters

    5. Discourse and Status: Allege and In Progress

    6. Forum: CITES (Guatemala) and Scope: Uni-lateral

    Although the Quetzal ranges throughout Central America, each country enacts and enforces laws pertaining to its conservation individually. Thus, the bird is nearly extinct in Guatemala, which does not enforce the few laws it has, while at the same time the promotion of national parks in Costs Rica has contributed to the protection of Quetzals there.

    7. Decision Breadth: Six

    (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama)

    8. Legal Standing: Law

    III. Geographic Clusters

    9. Geographic Locations

    a. Geographic Domain: North America

    b. Geographic Site: Southern North America

    c. Geographic Impact: Guatemala

    10. Sub-National Factors: No

    11. Type of Habitat: Tropical Rain Forest

    IV. Trade Clusters

    12. Type of Measure: Export Ban

    13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Indirect

    In the case of the Costa Rican Quetzals, creating national parks had indirectly lead to protection of the Quetzels' habitat, thereby slowing their rate of extinction. Direct laws, such as fines for hunting Quetzels (which do exist in Guatemala) have not been successful.

    14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

    a. Directly Related to Product: Yes (Food)

    b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

    c. Not Related to Product: No

    d. Related to Process: Yes (Species Loss Air)

    15. Trade Product Identification: Feathers

    16. Economic Data

    Eco-tourism in Costa Rica has been so successful that it has replaced banana exports as the largest source of hard cash for the Costa Ricans. Revenue from tourism is estimated to climb to $1 billion in the next year. Much of that money comes from visitors to the 28 parks and reserves in Costa Rica such as Monteverde, who come specifically to see endangered and exotic species like the Quetzal. Approximately one million people per year visit the reserves in the hopes of spying Quetzals, and they pay as much as $21.00 per person in entrance fees. That amounts to $21 million dollars spent in search of the elusive Quetzal. Although it is difficult to determine how many Quetzals are actually left due to the inaccessiblity of their habitats (most bird books list the populations as undetermined or unknown), a bird expert at the National Zoo estimates that the population is in the "thousands." Therefore, if there are 1000 Quetzals left in Costa Rica, that amounts to $21,000 per Quetzal. Due to their endangered status, it is presumed that few Quetzal's exist in Guatemala so the Guatemalan quetzals would be worth even more than their protected Costa Rican cousins.

    Costa Rican Flag

    17. Impact of Trade Restriction:

    18. Industry Sector: tourism (Costa Rica)

    19. Exporters and Importers: Guatemala and Many

    There is a great demand for the exotic feathers of the Quetzal among collectors. Many of the birds lost their feathers and their life at the hands of desperate Mayan peasants who sell the feathers to wealthy North American and European collectors.

    V. Environment Clusters

    20. Environmental Problem Type: Deforestation [defor] air [spla]

    21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

    Name: Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno(Northern Quetzal)

    Type: Bird

    22. Resource Impact and Effect: High and Product

    23. Urgency and Lifetime:

    Urgency (Years to Extinction): 2+ years

    Lifetime of species (years): 3-10 years

    24. Substitutes: Conservation

    VI. Other Factors

    25. Culture: Yes


    One would think that the Quetzel, being the national bird of Guatamala, would receive high status and protection. That is not the case. In fact, the main destroyers of this bird are the Guatemalan peasants, who kill it for food or trade, but mainly slash and burn the cloud forests to make tiny subsistance plots to grow maize. The right to your own milpa is a cultural and historical fact among the peasants, dating back to Mayan times. The Guatemalan government has been unwilling or unable to reconcile the needs and culture of the peasants with conservation methods, which are desperately needed in Guatemala if the Quetzal has any chance of survivial. Instead, efforts by the government to organize the peasants into more efficient land use have failed, due in part to extreme violence and coercion on the part of the government towards the peasants.

    26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No

    27. Rights: Yes

    It was precisely the violent and oppressive manipulation of the peasants in Guatemala that drove them from their traditional plots to tend to the state-sponsored coffee plantations. The state wanted to consolidate the peasants into large plantations that grew coffee as a cash crop. The peasants, violently driven from their homes, were beaten, tortured, and killed if they resisted and became virtual slaves to the plantation owners. Many peasants escaped to higher ground, slashing and burning the cloud forests and formerly fallow land on the sides of the mountains to farm their milpas. The sudden explosion in population exacerbated the deforestation that was already occurring, thereby severely threatening the habitat and food source of the Quetzal. The Guatemalan government has not recognized that the rights of the peasants are directly related to the survival of the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala.

    28. Relevant Literature

    Americas (English Edition) "Paying the Price of Ecotourism; Two Pioneer Biological Reserves Face the Challenges Brought by a Recent Boom in Tourism; Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica's Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve," November,1994. No. 6, Vol. 46, Pg. 40

    Fogden, Patricia. "Quest for the Quetzal." National Wildlife Federation." m/j 1988, pp. 36-39.

    King, Darren B. "The World's Rarest Birds. National Wildlife Federation. s/o 1981, pp. 12-19.

    LaBastille, Anne. "How the King of Birds Was Chosen." International Wildlife. m/a 1997, pp. 30-35.

    Maslow, Jonathan Evan. Bird of Life, Bird of Death. New York: Simon and Schuster,1986.

    Wallace, David Rains. The Quetzal and the Macaw: The Story of Costa Rica's National Parks. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992.

    World Birdwatch. "Prospect of a Sierra Madre Reserve." Sept. 96, p. 3.


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