A proposed canal project in Nicaragua connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean has conservationists worried about the impact on the habitats of animals in the region, many of which are endangered.

In an effort to mitigate the damage, scientists have developed a plan that, if implemented, could retain the habitat that is crucial for the animals’ survival.

As it stands now, the project calls for the building of an introceanic canal that will connect the two bodies of water, bisecting the Central American nation and possibly threatening populations of jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, and the globally endangered Baird’s tapir.

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The research used occupancy models to determine which part of the canal’s proposed path provides crucial habitat to the country’s rare large mammals.

“The proposed canal would divide the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and limit the movement of terrestrial wildlife,” says Gerald Urquhart, assistant professor in the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. “In particular, wide-ranging species like jaguars and tapirs could be heavily impacted.”

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is a multi-country effort to protect continuity of habitat from Mexico to Panama. It runs along the eastern side of Nicaragua.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, shows one of the key remaining area of suitable habitat for large mammals in the path of the proposed canal is a relatively thin strip of forest from the eastern edge of what will be known as Lake Atlanta, a manmade body of water near the Caribbean coast.

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Without this strip of land, the animals would be cut off from the larger habitat south of the canal and would struggle to find others for breeding.

The new paper offers five recommended adjustments to the canal design that would make it easier for large mammals to move through the area. Among them are to move the location or adjust the size of Lake Atlanta to minimize flooding of those habitat areas, and to build small, forested islands that species could use as refuges. Nonetheless, the impact of the canal could be even greater if it leads to further deforestation of the remaining protected areas.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies jaguars as near threatened globally, but they are rare in Nicaragua with a population of fewer than 500. Baird’s tapirs are close to critically endangered in Central America and many biologists believe that range-wide hunting has made the white-lipped peccary the most threatened mammal in Central America.

Source: Michigan State University

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