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Photo of Antonio
Telesca Antonio Telesca
Rat Soup

One of the keys to safeguarding the Panama Canal's watershed is the paca, a popular rodent. Antonio Telesca from the conservation organization ANCON answered questions about efforts to domesticate the paca and other innovative conservation projects in the region. Following the Frontiers special Expedition Panama: Rat Soup, Antonio answered viewers' questions in an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' answers and his answers:

q Can you please give us an update on the paca project since this show was filmed. Are you having success with getting local people to raise these animals for food.

A As background information ANCON began this project in 1990 with 10 adult animals. The objective is to protect the paca from extinction by offering it as alternative source of protein to the communities of the canal watershed -- which are used to hunting the paca instead of raising it . The results to date are the following:
  1. ANCON agroforestry model has now a total of 60 individuals -- 35 females and 25 males.
  2. In addition, nine local communities are breeding pacas with an average of one breeding male and three females in each community. The farmers raise, feed, eat and/or sell the paca.
  3. ANCON has begun the first national association of breeders of wildlife, with more than 60 persons as members. Half of these individuals are raising paca around the country, including the above mentioned nine community projects.

q On the show you told Alan that you've eaten paca. What does it taste like? Is it really a popular food with people in Panama? A. The paca is one of the most delicate and delicious meats that I have tasted in my life -- let it be known that I have tasted many types of meats. The taste resembles pork but the taste is softer, and has less fat As for its popularity, let me tell you that it is one of the animals more pursued by the hunters. Its meat is the main reason for which it is on the endangered species list.

q There is a scene in the video where you talk to Alan Alda about how fast the grass can grow. You said "5 inches a day", but it looked like you were holding your fingers 5 centimeters apart (about 2 inches). Adding to the confusion, Alan Alda later asked you how high the grass could grow in an eight month period, and you said "2 or 3 meters", to which Alan said, "6 to 9 feet?", and you replied yes. So the question I have is this: Does the grass truly grow 5 inches a day (about 12.5 centimeters), or only 5 *centimeters* (about 2 inches)?

A I'm sorry for the confusion, but let me clarify. This grass better known as "white grass" grows approximately 5 inches per day during its first two weeks. Then the speed of its growth diminishes. However it can grow in a year up to 10 meters (30 feet aprox.) including the spike (flower). During the rainy season alone-- three months -- it can grow up to 3 meters (9.9 feet). As a caveat let me say that this species, as non-native to Panama, has not been researched to its full extent in regards to its behavior in my country.

q Are there opportunities to volunteer with ANCON or other groups to help you in your quest to save the rain forest?

A Of course just send a letter to: ANCON Asociacion Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. Volunteer Program. Apartado 1387, Panama 1, Republica de Panama Tel. (507) 264-8100. Fax (507) 264-183 Or send an e-mail: Dimas Manuel Botello Alba

And, if you want to know more about ANCON, please take a look at our web page:

q How did you make the discovery that those bean trees were adequate and fast enough growing to replace the aggressive grass and correct the rain forest?

A We believe that credit for the discovery belongs to the Panamanian farmers or "campesinos". They have been growing these bean trees for the last 50 years. These bean trees are really important in the diet of the campesinos. Furthermore the bean trees are very important for the ecology: they fix nitrogen into the soil, and animals can eat the leaves. If you want to know more about ANCON, please take a look at our web page:

q Can you tell us more about the paca. Is it omnivorous? What are its close relatives in the animal kingdom?

A Sure, a brief class of zoology: Class Mammal; Order Rodentia; Family Dasyproctidae; Scientific Name Agouti paca. Relatives: Rats, rodents and affinit species. Frugivorous (specific: vegetable, leaves, roots, seeds and fruits).

q Is the Paca used for anything else other than as a food source?

A Until now, just as a food source.

q How did you get started doing this kind of work in Panama?

A Me? Because I love the rain forest, but I think that it is more interesting if I tell you how ANCON got started. In ANCON we believe in this fact: If we want protect the national parks and the plants and animals of our rain forest, we must work with the people that live and depend of the natural resources ("the campesinos"). We have the obligation to work together and learn from each other. If you want to know more about ANCON, please take a look at our web page:

q Do you think we are making good progress in saving the rain forest regions in Central America?

A I really believe in my work, and I think we are the difference between losing all the rain forest, and conserving it. But this work is impossible without your help and the help of the people that believe in ANCON. If you want to know more about ANCON, please take a look at our web page:

q What kind of food do pacas eat in the wild? In captivity?

A In the wild and in captivity the paca eats almost the same type of food. It is Frugivorous (specific it eats vegetable, leaves, roots, seeds and fruits).

q How is the "war against the grass" going?

A You found the right word "WAR". And we cannot lose this war. Every day It is easier to work with the farmers and convince them to change some of their practices, to help us fight against the grass. But we know it is still a long way. In the mean time we began to teach agroforestry practices to the farmers (reforestation with different species (beans, fruits trees, woods trees, and medicinal plants).

q Does your organization have any plans for new projects to help conserve the rain forest?

A We already have different projects all around the country. We basically work in:
  • Environmental Education (rural and urban)
  • Agroforestal Farms
  • Ecotourism and Natural Interpretation
  • Rural Credit Program
  • Protection of National Parks (12)
  • Volunteer Program
  • Animal Rescue (The Green Line)
  • Community Extension for the Sustainable Development
If you want to know more about ANCON, please take a look at our web page: or: send a letter to: ANCON Asociacion Nacional para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza. Volunteer Program. Apartado 1387, Panama 1, Republica de Panama


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.