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A jaguar refuge in Mexico is an ecological island in the midst of threats

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  • The Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve is home to one of the most studied dry tropical forests in Mexico, with work being carried out at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s biological station.
  • The natural protected area was founded in the 1970s after a French-British billionaire purchased land along the Jalisco coast for conservation projects.
  • The reserve is a refuge for jaguars, pumas and other species of wildlife.
  • However, they’re under constant pressure from deforestation and the expansion of tourist projects.

Chamela-Cuixmala sits in the western corner of Mexico, where one of the best-studied dry tropical forests continues to serve as a refuge for at-risk species like the jaguar.

The story of the area’s conservation begins at the end of the 1970s, when a Franco-British billionaire named James Goldsmith bought up around 9,700 hectares (24,000 acres) of forest and wetland.

In 1988, Goldsmith founded the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation, which joined forces with the National Autonomous Universidad of Mexico (UNAM) that, since 1971, has operated the Chamela Biological Station in the area to promote scientific research.

The partnership led to the creation of the 13,142-hectare (32,474-acre) Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, officially recognized by the national government in 1993.

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Following national government recognition of the reserve, private and public forces came together to help with the conservation of the area’s many species, including the jaguar (Panthera onca) as well as other threatened species like the puma (Puma concolor), lilac-crowned amazon (Amazona finschi), military macaw (Ara militaris), American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and four varieties of marine turtle.

In Mexico, in addition to the 182 natural protected areas in the country, there are 366 “voluntary conservation areas,” extensions of community or private lands, with owners who want to protect and conserve local ecosystems.

The Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve is one of the only voluntary conservation areas made up of just over 70% privately owned land (it belongs to a single owner) and that has a foundation financing a large part of scientific research happening there.

The American crocodile is one of the species that the reserve protects. Image courtesy of the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation/Álvaro Miranda.

Álvaro Miranda, the scientific coordinator for the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation, defends the private model that has allowed for the conservation of local forests. Without support from the private sector, he said, it would be difficult to contain the prevailing environmental devastation that surrounds the refuge.

In 2006, UNESCO included the area on its list of World Biosphere Reserves, a part of its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. It also added the nearby Chamela Bay to its protection network as a sanctuary in 2002.

Reserva de la Biosfera Chamela
The Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, spread across 13,142 hectares (32,474 acres), was officially recognized by the Mexican government in 1993. Image courtesy of the UNAM Biological Institute.

A half-century of research

UNAM’s Chamela Biological Station recently celebrated an anniversary. 2021 marked a half-century since its founding. The institution was born out of a donation of 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) and doubled its total area with new donations in 1993. Over time, it improved as a space for university students and researchers, who have amassed an important body of work on botany, zoology and the ecology of dry tropical forests.

This work has helped record 72 species of mammals, 270 birds, 20 amphibians, 46 reptiles, and countless other vertebrates and invertebrates.

It has also helped document evolutionary processes in tropical deciduous forest ecosystems, which, mainly due to the scarcity of water, have created the necessary conditions for endemic species: a third of mammals, 12% of birds and half of reptiles and amphibians found in the area aren’t found outside Mexico.

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“It’s a unique region, with four months of rain a year and eight months in which the vegetation looks dead because the trees shed their leaves,” said biologist Alicia Castillo, from UNAM’s Institute of Ecosystems and Sustainability, which conducts research at the biological station. “People think the area is dead but it’s very much alive.”

Miranda, of the Cuximala Ecological Foundation, said they’ve identified 1,200 plant species in the reserve, many of them also endemic to the area. They include trees like Sciadodendron excelsum, Jatropha chamelensis and Celanodendron mexicanum, as well as cactus like Peniocereus cuixmalensis and Opuntia excelsa. There is also agave.

One of the reserve’s flagship projects is jaguar and puma monitoring. Its importance goes beyond the borders of the protected area, radiating out to the entire western region of Mexico. Today, monitoring is also carried out in the coastal mountains of Jalisco and Nayarit.

The coastal strip of the reserve features beaches and estuaries. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

Rodrigo Núñez Pérez, responsible for the reserve’s monitoring, said that although the reserve’s area is small, it serves as a refuge for jaguars and pumas. Additionally, it has allowed for repopulation outside of the protected area.

“The big cats, when they leave the reserve, face complicated circumstances: they’re killed because they’re considered a threat to livestock. In that sense, we have made progress in communicating with neighboring communities so that they’re aware of the importance of conserving these predators,” Núñez said.

UNAM’s Castillo said that, when it comes to the conservation of big cats, the reserve “is too small an island: 13,142 hectares isn’t much for an animal like a jaguar or puma.” Therefore, the researchers say, it’s necessary and urgent to create biological corridors connecting Chamela-Cuixmala to other conservation areas.

“We would need, at the least, some 100,000 hectares [247,000 acres] to maintain the genetic variety that allows [species like the jaguar] to adapt to changes and avoid extinction,” Núñez said.

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The risks of being an island

As a protected area, Chamela has a peculiar history, according to Castillo. “Biosphere reserves were designed to maintain connections with local populations, and no one lives here. Almost 10,000 hectares [24,700 acres] are private, and interactions with the communities have been almost nonexistent. Scientific research was more predominant than socioecological research, but we’re clear that it’s something that needs to change.”

Castillo said she advocates for establishing protected areas near neighboring communities like Chamela, Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Juan Gil Preciado and Punta Pérula, each home to fewer than 3,000 people. The objective, she said, is to help these communities establish a regional land management model.

Miranda, the Cuximala Ecological Foundation coordinator, said they’ve tried to gradually establish relationships with communities through projects that help improve agricultural and cattle ranching practices while lowering their environmental footprint.

There are numerous ejidos, or communally managed lands, surrounding the reserve. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

Nevertheless, in many communities, residents say they’re suspicious of the reserve, considering it a kind of large-scale estate in disguise with privileged owners.

Emma Michel, a representative of the municipality of La Huerta and a resident of Emiliano Zapata, south of the reserve, tried to paint a picture of the weak relationship between the communities and the protected area: “For a while, they brought schoolkids to learn about UNAM’s work, but some years ago they stopped doing it. People in town know very little about what conservation is and why it’s important to their lives. That makes them see it as unimportant, unfortunately.”

Miranda said he recognizes they haven’t been able to effectively demonstrate the importance of the reserve and the species that live there.

The puma is another big cat that lives in the reserve. Image courtesy of the Cuixmala Ecolgical Foundation/Álvaro Miranda.

Francisco de Asís Silva Bátiz, a researcher with Guadalajara University’s Center for Coastal Zones, said: “They don’t want to be an island, but they need to get closer with neighboring communities, and that missing piece has been aggravated by a lack of state and national policies.” This also involves incorporating the daily concerns of local coastal residents into conservation projects.

“If they can’t convince locals, ranchers, fishermen, that conservation helps them improve their income, that they should be an ally, that their lives are going to change with better projects, then it is going to be difficult to overcome their mistrust,” Silva said.

Miranda said the reserve’s conservation strategy has been successful; however, he also said he recognizes it’s a “reduced space.” Additionally, he said the reserve has played a role in the training of “many ecologists who are now involved in protection and research.”

One of the roads found inside the reserve. Image courtesy of Marco Vargas.

One of those biologists is Marciano Valtierra Azotla, the current director of La Primavera, a forest located on the outskirts of Guadalajara. For nine years, he was the field coordinator of the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation.

Valtierra said that since James Goldsmith’s death in 1997, the foundation “has lost financial support, which reflects the weakness of some projects … I think that the biological station and the reserve have produced a lot of information but few concrete management programs and actions.”

He added it’s necessary to provide alternative forms of livelihood to neighboring communities so that they can have income and participate in the conservation of the forest, “because the region is a vein of exploitation for fauna, such as the lilac-crowned amazon. Their nests are often looted because there is a market for them; also there’s a lot of logging for valuable wood in the area surrounding the reserve.”

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Deforestation lurks

Near the edges of the Chamela Cuixmala, the dry forest of the Jalisco coast is one of the most deforested in the country. Environmental deterioration has steadily progressed since the 1970s, when Federal Highway 200 was built running north-south along the coastline. Additionally, the Cajón de Peña dam on the Tomatlán River cleared 33,855 hectares (83,657 acres) of forest — almost triple the size of the biological reserve.

Since 2007, according to its reports, the National Forest Commission (Conafor) has said the region — along with the Yucatán Peninsula and forests of Chiapas state — has the highest rates of forest destruction in the country.

Deforestation in the area has been spurred on by the development of tourism, but also by rural residents and small landowners who have transformed part of the dry forest into pasture, often for livestock, and fruit plantations.

Cattle ranching on the outskirts of the reserve. Image courtesy of Marco Vargas.

Some of the communities and ejidos, or communally manage lands, on the outskirts of the reserve were founded in the ’60s and ’70s; many of them received government subsidies to clear land and “produce.” “There’s a logic here that you have to understand,” Miranda said. “What they asked of people was to come and destroy, to fight against the environment, more than to integrate into it. No one told them that there were other ways, and now we are fighting that … The water, the soil and the forests are limited resources and we have used them badly.”

Castillo said the tropical forests weren’t so easy to convert for agriculture. The soil, after clearing, was gone after a few years of farming. “That’s why locals opt for cattle ranching and clear the forest to make pasture … but also, it rains very little. The locals complain, and they complain that it rains less and less.”

In 1997, Miranda conducted a study saying that 53% of dry coastal forests in Jalisco would be lost between 1953 and 2000. Today, Miranda said his predictions were pessimistic. Nevertheless, the degradation continues, with poorly managed tourism being a large contributor.

One of the properties that has been built outside the reserve. Image by Agustín del Castillo.

“The touristic potential in this region is undeniable,” Miranda said. “We’ve never denied it. But under what model? That’s the key.”

High-end tourism projects have been developed in coastal areas neighboring the reserve. And just as some millionaires have purchased land for conservation, others have bought it up with the intention of transforming the rugged coastline into private beaches and tourist sites for Hollywood stars, businesspeople and politicians, among others. Even one of Goldsmith’s daughters has a small, exclusive hotel in the area.

“They have taken over through concessions, through beaches they have made exclusive,” Castillo said. “The economic elite have contact with the political elite who approve their projects, and conflicts arise. My view of it is that those developers are indeed a threat. Historically, they have hoarded [natural] resources.”

An area adjacent to the reserve. Image courtesy of the Cuixmala Ecological Foundation/Álvaro Miranda.

The region is supposed to be protected, but that hasn’t been a strong enough legal tool to help regulate the use of the area or its natural resources. “Where are the federal and state agencies that are obligated to apply this order?” Álvaro Miranda asked. “We can’t leave the responsibility to the municipalities. It completely overwhelms them.”

In the meantime, the reserve has already become a laboratory for climate change. Its historical records go back to 1959, the year that a devastating hurricane caused serious damage to the forest. In 2011, with Hurricane Jova, and in 2015 with Hurricane Patricia (the most intense recorded in the Western Hemisphere, according to the National Water Commission), the forest underwent unprecedented damage, with miles of trees uprooted and other destruction. Then came the collateral damage: the fires, which historically never occurred in this forest.

A secluded area of the reserve. Image courtesy of Roberto Vázquez/Conanp.

Banner image of the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve, officially recognized in 1993. Image courtesy of the UNAM Biological Institute.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Nov. 9, 2021.

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