Tikal National Park, Guatemala

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August 26, 2008, 2:49 pm
November 8, 2011, 2:12 pm

IntroductionTikal National Park (17° 23'N, 89° 34'W) is a World Heritage Site located within the Department of Petén, north-eastern Guatemala (Tikal National Park, Guatemala) .

Geographical Location

Within the Department of Petén, north-eastern Guatemala. The nearest major town is Santa Elena in the municipality of Flores. Contained within the Maya Biosphere Reserve which encompasses over 10% of Guatemalas land area. The park forms a block to the south east of the Biosphere Reserve, adjacent to the San Miguel La Palotada Biotope to the west, and bounded in the south by a 10-15 kilometers (km) wide Biosphere Reserve Buffer Zone to the south. The northern and eastern boundaries are surrounded by a multiple-use area which adjoins the protected areas within the Biosphere Reserve. 17° 23'N, 89° 34'W.

Date and History of Establishment

  • Originally declared as a national monument in 1931.
  • Gazetted as a national park on 26 May 1955,
  • Tikal National Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979.
  • Contained by Maya Biosphere Reserve, which was established under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme in 1990.


199px-Tikalunep.jpg Tikal Ruins of Guatemala. Source: Yale University)

Tikal National Park is 57,600 hectares (ha), San Miguel La Palotada Biotope, 49,500 ha, and Maya Biosphere Reserve,1,000,000 ha.

Land Tenure

State ownership primarily, research institution secondarily.


600 meters (m).

Physical Features

The soils of El Petén-Caribbean form a sedimentary basin with deposits from the Mesozoic and the Tertiary periods. They contain limestone and dolomites showing Cretacic characteristics of karst formations with a broken relief. Soils are clayey and slightly permeable, with internal drainage, and easily compactible. Two types are found in the reserve: the Yucatan shelf to the north, formed by small hills, and the Lacandon mountain chain in the center, consisting of rounded hills of calcareous origin, mountain chains, lagoons and alluvial plains. In the Lacandon area, soils are poor and there are abrupt cliffs. In the Tikal, Uaxactun and Dos Lagunas areas, the topography is undulating and soils are well drained. Laguna del Tigre and Laguna de Yaxha are the main lagoons found in the wetland area, where there are a large number of 'aguadas' or superficial swamps. The various rivers in the reserve are part of the drainage basin of the Usumacinta River in the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of the most extensive wetland systems in Central America. The underwater potential has not been evaluated, but it is believed that geological faults canalize water in a disorganized fashion in limestone subsoils such as this.


Conditions in the region are warm and humid, with mean annual precipitation of 2,000 millimeters (mm). The rainy season lasts from May to December and it usually rains for approximately 150 days of the year. During the rainy season the winds are from the north, north-east, south and south-east, and blow in a north to south direction during the dry season. The mean annual temperature is 24° c.


Tikal protects some 22,100 ha of rain forest. The rich vegetation includes; species of savanna such as nance Byrsonima crassifolia; high altitude forest with chicle Manilkara zapota, 'ramon' or bread-nut tree Brosimum alicastrum, West Indian mahogany Swietenia macrophylla (E), cedar Cedrela odorata, palma de botan (palm) Sabal morrisiana and palma de escobo Chrysophyllum argentearum, 'tinto' lowland forest with Hematoxylum campechianum; wetlands with tule Typha sp. around water bodies. Other common tree species include cedar Cedrela angustifolia, Vitex guameri, Aspidosperma megalocarpon, Guarea exelsa, Calophyllum brasiliense, the palm Sabal mayarum, Bursera simaruba, Protium copal and Acacia farnesiana. The botanist L. Lundell identified over 2,000 plant species in the park area. According to Lehnhoff Temme (1990), local people use forests species such as chicle Marilkara achrag, pepper Pimenta dioica, cedar, mahogany Swietenia humilis and 'ramon' Brosimum alicastrum and the use of leaves and flowers from Chamaedorea and Araceae spp. are used for ornamental purposes.


250px-Myrmecophaga tridactyla.jpg Myrmecophaga tridactyla, Guatemala. (Source: Museum Victoria)

Fifty-four species of mammal occur, including mantled howler monkey Alouatta palliata nigra, spider monkey Ateles geoffroy, giant anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla (VU), lesser anteater Tamandua tetradactyla, dwarf anteater Cyclopes didactylus, three-toed sloth Bradypus tridactylus, nine-banded armadillo Dasypus novemcinctus, squirrel Sciurus yucatanensis, pocket gopher Heterogeomys hispidus, raccoon Procyon sp., brown coati Nasua narica, kinkajou Potos flavus, tayra Eira barbara, paca Agouti paca, long-tailed weasel Mustela frenata, hooded skunk Mephitis macroura, otter Lutra annectens, puma Felis concolor, margay F. wiedii, ocelot F. pardalis, jaguarundi F. yaguarundi, jaguar Panthera onca, Baird's tapir Tapirus bairdii (VU) which is limited by water availability, collared and white-lipped peccaries Tayassu tajacu and T. albirostris, white-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus and red brocket deer Mazama americana sarterii.

The avifauna comprises 333 species, representing 63 of the 74 families in Guatemala, and includes ocellated turkey Agriocharis ocellata (LR), Sarcorhamphus papa, Crax rubra, Penelope purpurascens, red macaw Ara macao, jaribu stork Jaribu mycteria and many others, including crested eagle Spizaetus ornatus.

Reptiles and amphibians include Morelet's crocodile Crocodylus moreletii (DD), the central American river turtle Dermatemys mawii (EN), Claudius angustatus, nine families of amphibian and six genera of turtles, as well as 38 species of non-poisonous and poisonous snakes including coral snake Micrurus diastema sapperi, four species of Bothrops and two sub-species of rattlesnake Crotalus. Fishes include Petenia splendida, the cichlids Cichlasoma melanorum, C. bifasciatum, C. heterospilum, C. lentiginosum, C. margaritiferum, C. champotonis, C. affine, C. hyorhynchum and C. pasionis. A rich invertebrate fauna, especially arthropods, also occurs.

Cultural Heritage

The main attraction of the park is the ruined city of the Maya Indians reflecting the cultural evolution of Mayan society from hunter-gathering to farming, with an elaborate religious, artistic and scientific culture which finally collapsed in the late 9th century. At its height from 700 AD to 800 AD the city supported a population of 90,000 Mayan Indians. There are over 3,000 separate buildings dating from the period 600 BC to 900 AD, including temples, residences, religious monuments decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions and tombs. Excavations have yielded remains of cotton, tobacco, beans, pumpkins, peppers and many fruits of Precolumbian origin. Large areas are still to be excavated.

Local Human Population

The Petén department had a population of 65,000 in 1973 which rose to 300,000 by 1992, increasing at an annual rate of 5.5% (Compared to 2.9% for the rest of the country). Population growth is high due to in-migration of ladino colonists from areas of land-exhaustion, refugees from El Salvador, and Kekchí Amerindians from Alta Verapaz region. Small scale agriculture, artisanal fishing, forest dwelling, gathering and hunting are the main activities in the Multiple Use Zone of the reserve, and villages and farmland surround the park. Crops grown include maize, beans, sweet potato and citrics 'malangu' and 'guicoy'. There are annual burnings of grazing areas, either before or at the beginning of the rainy season, for the regeneration of pasture lands. Large scale commercial cattle production in the region is hindered by inadequate transportation links, but there is some cattle raising near Tikal.

Visitors and Visitor Facilities

There are three hotels in Tikal. It is estimated that the parks is the main attraction for 15% of Guatemala's visitors.

Scientific Research and Facilities

An integrated program of basic and applied research supports site management objectives and sustainable conservation in the region. Information is available on past aerial photography, bibliography, history of scientific studies, hydrology, biological inventories, geology, socioeconomic and cultural ethnobiology, land/water use and use of the fauna. Information exists on geographic information systems, satellite imagery, hydrological and limnological surveys, climate, biological inventories and ethnobiology.

Research has centered on the evolution of the Mayan culture. Other studies have been conducted on the protection of the endangered (IUCN Red List Criteria for Endangered) ocellated turkey, sedimentation, and social sciences. The Instituto de Antropologia e Historia is leading archaeological research in the reserve. Studies are ongoing on aquaculture, limnology and hydrology, pests and diseases, and soils. Other current research includes forestry, impacts of recreation and tourism, resource mapping, traditional land-use systems and wildlife population dynamics. CATIE and IUCN are cooperating in demonstration projects in the multiple use zone east of Tikal.

There is a climatological monitoring (Environmental monitoring and assessment) station, conference, laboratory and library facilities and a museum containing over 10,000 religious and domestic artifacts. Three hotels in Tikal provide accommodation for visiting scientists. Access to the reserve is through CONAP in Guatemala City or San Benito City (63 km south of Tikal). Tikal is one of five key areas for pilot work carried out by Paseo Pantera, a consortium of US and Central American governmental and non-governmental agencies concerned with protecting biodiversity by means of a biological corridor extending from Guatemala through Panama.

Conservation Value

Together with Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, Maya is the most important reserve in the country, because of its archaeological and bio/ecological interest. As well as the magnificent ruins of the Maya culture, rivers, |lakes, swamps and flooding savannas are important for biodiversity and for migratory birds. The reserve contains the largest area of tropical rain forest in Guatemala and Central America, with a wide range of unspoilt natural habitats. A large area of the reserve still comprises dense broad-leaved [[forest]s] with more than 300 species of trees useful to man, such as cedar, mahogany, 'ramon', Araceae (osier for furniture), chicle, pepper and others. Palms, epiphytes, orchids and bromeliads are abundant. In addition, a considerable number of threatened and CITES listed species are found within the reserve.

Conservation Management

The biosphere reserve is administered by CONAP, through its executive secretariat, with the participation of various institutions. Tikal National Park is administered by the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia. The biosphere reserve consists of a core area, cultural areas, areas of multiple use, a recovery area and a buffer zone.

The Comite Coordinador de la Reserva Maya (Maya Reserve Coordinating Committee) was created to ensure coordination between the administrative entities within the reserve and other authorities. It consists of members of CONAP, who preside over it, the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia, the Centro de Estudios Conservacionistas de la Universidad de San Carlos and the National Army, through the Commandant of military zone No. 23 and the Commandant of the Air Base of Santa Elena, who jointly coordinate a special system of patrolling the borders of the reserve. There is a high degree of cooperation between the site and the MAB authorities, as well as between regional planning and development authorities, local communities around the reserve, and the coordinating body for integrating scientific activities at the site. The core area of the Biosphere Reserve consists of the existing Tikal National Park and the protected biotopes, the new areas include the national parks. The buffer zone consists of a 15 km-wide border surrounding the reserve and within Guatemalan territory. The remaining areas will be defined in the reserve's master plan. The main objectives of the reserve are to conserve the natural environment, to provide the legal basis for resource protection and management, to conserve specific genetic resources in situ, to promote local participation in land-use and management, to promote regional planning and integrated rural development, to disseminate knowledge about conservation and management of the reserve, to conduct scientific research and to promote environmental education and training. Activities taking place in the core area are biological inventories, long-term environmental monitoring, environmental education and professional training. In the buffer zone forestry, agriculture, biological inventories and collections, fishing and environmental education are undertaken. In the multiple use area main activities include conservation management, environmental education, forestry, fishing, gathering, long-term monitoring, agriculture, professional training, restoration of wetlands and terrestrial habitats, biological collections, tourist development and crafts. Ongoing education and training activities include extension services for local people, demonstration projects in conservation and rational resource use, graduate and postgraduate studies, professional training and workshops and staff training in protected area management. Eighty park guards have been trained. Environmental education for school children and interpretive programs for tourists are planned.Since 1993, an IUCN-World Conservation Union project has been working with 26 villages in the buffer zone surrounding Tikal to help develop alternative sustainable livelihoods which will the dependence of indigenous peoples on the forest resources of the World Heritage Site.

Management Constraints

The annual burning of pasture land affects some nesting birds in the area, particularly the endangered ocellated turkey. Poaching takes place within the core area. In the buffer zone, the destruction of natural terrestrial habitats, hunting and trapping and residential development have been reported. In the multiple use area activities include grazing, human settlements, hunting and residential and industrial development. The theft of archaeological remains has been reported.


Total staff of 344. Seventeen are engaged in administration and resource management (eleven are university trained), seven in education-related activities, two in research (university trained) and eight in research support.


Support is forthcoming for the national park and for the biosphere reserve from a variety of sources including CATIE (conservation and sustainable use of resources within the core area 'El Zotz' Biotope); IUCN Yaxha (sustainable use of resource in the buffer zone and multiple use area); AID-The Nature Conservancy (support to CONAP for basic protection and field personnel, Programme Parks in Danger, Manual for the Guards and their training); wildlife Conservation International (ecology of species in El Peten and their use and possible management alternatives); The Peregrine Fund (monitoring (Environmental monitoring and assessment) raptors in Tikal National Park); WWF (support for the management of biotopes administered by CECON); Conservation International (ethnobotany); UNSECO (Tikal World Heritage site). In previous years the budget was as follows: US$ 185,000 in 1978 from the government of Guatemala; US$ 500,000 in 1979 from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration to finance an archeology program.

IUCN Management Category

  • Ia (Strict Nature Reserve)
  • Biosphere Reserve
  • Natural/Cultural World Heritage Site - Natural Criteria ii, iv/Cultural Criteria i, iii, iv

Further Reading

  • Anon. (1973). Tikal National Park, Guatemala. A master plan for protection and use. United States National Parks Service, AID. (Secretaria de Planificacion Economica, Apendice: factibilidad economica 1973).
  • Curley, M.A., Dary, M. and Morales, P.A.H. (1973). Inventario Preliminar de los Recursos Naturales Renovables de Guatemala. 343 pp.
  • Government of Guatemala (1990). Congressional Decree 5-90. El Congreso de la Republica de Guatemala. Guatemala, Consejo Nacional de Planificacion Economica (1973).
  • Lehnhoff Temme, A. (1990). Biosphere Reserve Nomination Form. National MAB Committee of Guatemala.
  • Lehnhoff, A. and Perez A.N. (1990). Reserva de la Biosfera Maya. 8 pp. Powell, D.R. (1970). A report on the development and management of the Tikal National Park. National Park service, US Department of the Interior, Division of International Affairs. Mission to Guatemala. 218 pp.
  • Tennesen, M. (1997) Tikal is for the Birds. Wildlife Conservation. 100 (3):58.
  • UNESCO (1993) Report of the rapporteur. Report prepared for the Bureau of the World Heritage Committee, 17th session, UNESCO, Paris, 21-26 June.
  • WWF and IUCN (1997) Centres of plant diversity. A guide and strategy for their conservation. Volume three: the Americas. IUCN publications Unit, Cambridge, UK. ISBN: 2831701996.

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC). Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.


M, U. (2011). Tikal National Park, Guatemala. Retrieved from http://editors.eol.org/eoearth/wiki/Tikal_National_Park,_Guatemala