Mexico—Amazing Biodiversity. Protection? Not So Much.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 2.00.31 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

Mexico, with its 761,600 square miles, extremely varied climate conditions, and complex topography that provides varied habitats, is in the top dozen of the world’s most “megadiverse” countries, with one count putting it sixth and another third.   Mexico is first for herpetofauna (717 reptiles and 290 amphibians); second, third, or fourth for mammal species (502), depending on who’s counting; 15th for bird species (290, 1,150 subspecies), and it has just oodles of fresh- and salt-water fish species, never mind the insects and invertebrates. In all, Mexico is home to about 12% of all animal species on earth.

Sadly, Mexico also has a high world ranking—fifth—for the number of species threatened with extinction to greater or lesser degree (Oaxaca ranks first among the 31 Mexican states). About half of these species exist only in Mexico—if a species endemic to Mexico cannot be “saved” in Mexico, it is forever erased from the face of the earth. There will never be another Mexican grizzly bear—ranchers killed them off to preserve their livestock; there were 30 known alive in 1960, but none has been seen since 1964.

Among Mexico’s threatened wildlife are some really fascinating, beautiful, fierce, and/or endearing creatures: the vaquita, the smallest dolphin we know of; the axolotl, or Mexican walking fish (totally weird, utterly cute); the jaguar, essential to pre-Hispanic myth and culture; the volcano rabbit, with its stubby little ears; the black howler monkeys that lend the ruins at Yachilan a measure of shock and awe.

Six Species in Search of Habitat

The comprehensive cause of species loss is destruction of habitat, which almost always occurs because the habitat stands in the way of human needs or desires. Wildlife habitat in Mexico gets destroyed through human practices in agriculture, logging, fishing, whether it’s for human survival or commercial purposes. Habitat is also destroyed as a perhaps unintended consequence of development—pollution, water diversion, construction, introduction of invasive species—tourism is a frequent villain here. Pronatura, a 35-year-old nonprofit dedicated to conservation of biodiversity, has nominated six species that represent the ways in which environmental destruction throughout Mexico has endangered wildlife.

  1. The Vaquita. The “little cow” is the only marine mammal endemic to Mexico, where it lives in the upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) and the Colorado River delta. The latest estimate is that only 60 vaquitas remain. The little cows are dying off because they become “by-catch,” the collateral damage caused by gill-net fishing used to harvest the totoaba, a large and commercially valuable food fish that by now is endangered itself. (The totoaba has a large swim bladder that’s all the rage in Asia, worth around $10,000 US apiece, and guess what, it makes a great cocaine carrier while en route.)

Although Mexico created a Biosphere Reserve in the Upper Gulf of California in 1983, the Reserve has had little impact on preventing the gill-net fishing that’s killing both the totoabas and the vaquitas. Enough attention has been focused on the loss of the vaquita that several conservation organizations, as well as an official U.S./Mexican partnership, have begun working on banning gill-net fishing in the Sea of Cortez, halting the trade in totoaba swim bladders, and getting rid of abandoned fishing gear in vaquita habitat.

  1. The Monarch Butterfly. The monarch has been dear to my heart for a long, long time.   When color television was in its infancy, you could build yourself a Heathkit color TV in the late 1960s. I arrived at a friend’s house for the big test of her just-assembled kit—she turned the dial, we heard a “thunk-click,” and across the screen burst a panoply of flapping, fluttering orange and brown-black monarch butterfly wings. Maybe a little greenish, but still excitingly orange and never forgotten.

So much so, I’ve been to Point Pelee in Ontario, Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, and Pacific Grove south of San Francisco, searching for monarchs in migration with only so-so success. Soon, that may even be the case in their famous winter breeding destination, the pine and oyamel forests of Michoacan. In the last couple of decades, these forests have been reduced by perhaps 40% through an intractable complex of causes. There is illegal logging to meet the demand for high-quality lumber. There has been an increase in forest fires due to “unnatural causes.” And there is tremendous poverty in the area, which turns the forest into an economic resource for survival. Pronatura estimates that without ameliorating these pressures, the Michoacan forests could be wiped out in another two decades. Pronatura and the Monarch Butterfly Fund, a U.S./Mexican nonprofit, have begun reforestation efforts, and have started to work with at least one local community on sustainable economic development that does not exploit the forest.

  1. The Gray Whale. Pronatura has identified the gray whale, a fifty-foot, 36-ton leviathan that turns aggressive when hunted (think Moby Dick), as a relative success story. The gray whales are usually found in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, in the cold waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska, but they breed 25,000 miles south in the lagoons of Baja California.

It was the 19th century whalers of New England who nearly extinguished the gray whale, leaving a mere handful by the 20th century. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission man-dated protection for the species; in 1972, Mexico chose the San Ignacio Lagoon as a gray whale refuge.

  1. The Jaguar. The “American leopard,” the largest big cat of the Western Hemisphere, ranges beyond Mexico, from the southern United States to northern Argentina, but few are the casual sightings anywhere in its territory. In Mexico, you might have a chance to see one in the jungle that covers the uplands of Chiapas and the base of the Yucatan.Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 2.00.45 PM

The jaguar is a frequent motif in the carvings on ruins throughout Mexico—Ek Balam in the Yucatan is called the City of the Jaguar; the animal plays a critical role as a predator in maintaining the ecological balance of localized environments, keeping populations of everything from coatis to deer down to manageable levels.

But its own localized environment, its habitat, has been disappearing. The forest cover in the Rio Lagartos Biosphere in the Yucatan has been nearly eliminated, by perhaps 80%, as farmers clear land to graze cattle. Yucatan tourism, centered on Cancun, has put additional pressures on habitat. Pronatura asserts that if nothing changes in agricultural or tourism practice, the jaguar may be extinct in the Yucatan by 2050. The same pressures are threatening/endangering other Mexican big cats—the smaller jaguarundi, the ocelot, the tigrillo, the cougar (mountain lion, puma), and Mexican bobcat.


  1. Mexican Prairie Dog. If you’re in Huatulco around Christmas time, you can treat yourself to the holiday film Alvin y las Ardillas (Alvin and the Chipmunks). One species of ardilla, the Mexican prairie dog, is down to 2% of its habitat as agriculture plows up land conducive to digging burrows, and farmers hunt or poison the prairie dog to eliminate the burrows. Now located in less than 500 square miles straddling the border between the states of San Luis Potosí and Coahuila, the prairie dog has little room to build its “towns”—networked burrows that house families of up to 50 prairie dogs ruled by a male “alpha dog.”

Pronatura is working on establishing a grassland area of 42,000 hectares (about 104,000 acres) in San Luis Potosí, Coahuila, and Nuevo Leon. It has negotiated conservation agreements with private land owners and farming collectives (ejidos), and sometime soon, Los Llanos de Tokio (the Plains of Tokyo), may be the location for the next Xmas spectacular with talking (actually, barking and yipping) rodents!

  1. Golden Eagle. When you look at the seal of Estados Unidas Mexicanos, you see an águila, the country’s national symbol, eating a snake. The Aztecs of the time were nomads, and legend has it that they received a message saying that when they saw an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake, that was the place to stop and settle. That place was Tenochititlán.

The third largest raptor in North America, after the bald and California greater eagles, the golden eagle may soon be a thing of the past. (Those that are left, however, prey on the prairie dog among other small mammals; they can also do in wild pigs, smaller cranes, and a whole lot of reptiles.) Again, its decline is due mainly to habitat destruction, including the habitat of its prey, but hunting and capture for the exotic animal trade have played a role. Pronatura is working on habitat conservation in the national park at Cumbres de Monterrey (in the mountains just south of Monterrey) and the Cuatro Ciénegas Biosphere Reserve in Coahuila, and on lobbying for legal protection of the species.

The Pronatura list is limited to species endangered primarily by habitat loss—according to the IUCN, compiler of that Red List, agriculture, logging, and land development are the prime offenders.   With over 2500 species at risk in Mexico, the country is also losing its black howler monkeys, its Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, the San Quintin kangaroo rat, river otters, harpy eagles, American antelopes, river crocodiles, sea cows, black bears and volcano rabbits.   And those cutie-pie Mexican walking fish? Axolotls are actually amphibians, salamanders that grow up but never undergo the metamorphosis that gives most salamanders lungs so they can take to the land. Axolotls are a favorite with medical researchers because of their unique ability to regenerate their limbs. They live—or used to live—in lakes, particularly in Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City; there were only 100 per square kilometer in Xochimilco in 2008, and by 2013, a four-month-long search found none, with urbanization and water pollution cited as the causes.

Barriers to Protection

Mexican law explicitly protects thousands of species; Mexico has set up national parks, natural monuments, biospheres, sanctuaries, and other areas where species are protected. But the resources to protect these areas are limited—well-trained, authoritative game wardens are in short supply.

More critically, the will to protect these areas, threatened species of animals and plants, and specific ecosystems, pales in the face of poverty and pressures for development. When people in remote areas depend on agriculture to survive, and the resources to create an alternative sustainable economy are not there, it is nearly impossible to stop deforestation. As for development, the national tourism development agency, FONATUR, has slated a three-beach area in Huatulco (Maguey, currently lined with palapa restaurants; and the unspoiled Playas Organo and Maguey) for development: “The area has excellent views and great beachfront space which will be sold as mega lots with services in order to attract large hotel chains and real estate companies that may be interested in developing villas, condos, a golf course, a club house, boutique hotels, 5-star hotels, beach clubs and shops.” Playa Cacaluta is part of a river course and micro-delta that comprises eight delicately integrated ecosystems.

According to university researchers, a third reason Mexico has difficulty implementing its wildlife protection aspirations is that protection responsibilities are centralized in the federal government, with minimal local authority over environmental issues. The federal government has shifted wildlife management around through different agencies, has failed to provide adequate funding, and has not provided for any mechanisms to work with landowners, prioritize wildlife protection in its handling of land tenure and local politics, or incorporate wildlife protection into poverty alleviation programs.

Federal prioritization of wildlife protection has been given a boost here and there under President Peña Nieto, particularly in the area of binational cooperation. With any luck, maybe some of these issues will be streamlined, and the jaguar will still roam the jungles of the Yucatan.

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