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In Mexico, a divine bird inspires a community’s sustainable forestry efforts

  • The communally managed forest of Nuevo Bécal in Mexico’s Campeche state has shown that forest management can improve both quality of life and the conservation of wild animals and their habitats.
  • The community has dedicated 427 hectares (1,055 acres) of its land as a sanctuary for one of the most impressive birds of prey in the Americas: the king vulture.
  • They’ve also set aside more than 99% of their territory as a voluntarily conserved area, the largest of its kind in Mexico.

For the ancient Mayans, the king vulture was an intermediary that crossed the skies, communicating with humans and the gods. Seeing it soar through the air today, with its wingspan of nearly 2 meters (6.5 feet), it’s easy to understand why the Mayans saw it as a special bird. But there’s more to it than its flight that makes the king vulture such a magnificent creature.

The razor-sharp power of its deep white eyes work together with its sense of smell to locate prey from high altitudes and long distances. Its head, a palette of reddish tones, has no feathers; this ensures there’s nothing to cling on for the bacteria inside the carrion that it feeds on. Standing 80 centimeters (31 inches) tall and weighing up to 14 kilograms (30 pounds), the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) it prevails over other scavenging birds without even having to start a fight. This is one of the many reasons why locals and scientists call it the “king.”

The best-conserved population of king vultures is in Calakmul, in the Mexican state of Campeche. Image courtesy of FSC GD.

The gray plumage around the bird’s neck forms such a compact circle that the Aztecs called it cozcacuauhtli, or “collared eagle.” Its elegant white feathers with black trim, reminiscent of a bishop’s vestments, led the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus to give it the species name papa, Latin for bishop.

Despite the many ways to refer to it, the king vulture today represents something even more important to the community of Nuevo Bécal in the southeastern state of Campeche: the knowledge that forest management improves both quality of life for communities and the conservation of wild animals and their habitats.

“For us … the king vulture is an emblematic species which we are proud of having and we are committed to conserving through the economic activities that we promote,” says Lucio López, a forest engineer who leads the surveillance committee in Nuevo Bécal.

Lucio López, an ejidatario and forest engineer in charge of the surveillance committee in the ejido. Image by Juan Mayorga.

Nuevo Bécal is an ejido, a communally managed tract of land spanning 51,163 hectares (126,427 acres) of mountainous forest in the municipality of Calakmul. For more than a decade, the community here has been conserving 427 hectares (1,055 acres) as a sanctuary for the king vulture, a space where extractive activities like logging and hunting are banned. Even visits to the area are done with extreme care.

In 2007, when they began discussing the feasibility of a program to use timber from its forested land, the ejido members, or ejidatarios, perceived the conservation area as an obstacle to their plans. The experiment involving the king vulture sanctuary served as a breakthrough, though, transforming the way in which landscape management is understood: today, more than 99% of the ejido’s total area, or 50,689 hectares (125,255 acres), forms Mexico’s largest area voluntarily destined for conservation, or ADVC by its Spanish acronym.

A total of 50,689 hectares (125,255 acres) of the Nuevo Bécal ejido is certified as a voluntarily conserved area, or ADVC. Image courtesy of FSC GD.

Nuevo Bécal, a perching area

Although the king vulture has been a bird of interest to humans since before the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas — as evidenced by pre-Columbian engravings and ceramics that show representations of the bird — there’s still limited knowledge of its life cycle, says biologist Sophie Calmé. A researcher from the College of the Southern Border (ECOSUR), Calmé studies S. papa populations in Nuevo Bécal.

“The king vulture is very sensitive to human presence. In fact, I had to stop the research for that reason,” says Calmé, who specializes in global changes that have impacts on vertebrates in rainforest environments.

Some of the oldest records in the scientific literature about the king vultures of Calakmul date back to the 1990s. At the time, researchers were studying the bird’s preferred perching and nesting sites.

The king vulture sanctuary was created in 2012. Image by Juan Mayorga.

This and other research, including by Calmé and her team, suggest that the king vulture is very particular in terms of the habitat it chooses. It prefers to live in well-preserved, humid forests at a high altitude, far from the presence of humans, and close to bodies of water. Although the king vulture spends a large portion of the day high up in the sky scanning the ground for food, it prefers to stop to rest on native trees species. These include the sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), false tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum), machiche(Lonchocarpus castilloi), and black olive (Bucida buceras). Scientists refer to the areas where the king vulture rests as “perching areas.” These can accommodate up to about 30 individual vultures, although the king vulture prefers to be alone during the day.

Research also shows the king vulture exclusively eats carrion. In this way, it makes an important contribution to the important task of keeping the environment clean, helping to prevent the proliferation of parasites and illnesses that could potentially be dangerous to the ecosystem and to humans.

However, the most important finding from the research has been that the king vulture population in Calakmul is the best-conserved in Mexico.

An adult king vulture in the rainforest canopy. Image courtesy of the Nuevo Bécal ejido.

In Mexico, the king vulture’s historical range stretched from Veracruz, in the country’s east, near the Gulf of Mexico, to Sinaloa, in western Mexico, near the Pacific). Although it still inhabits important reserves like Los Tuxtlas, the Lacandon Jungle, and Los Chimalapas, its populations in these areas have recently dwindled due to deforestation, according to the king vulture action program published by the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) of Mexico.

Beyond Mexico, the species is found in countries all the way south to Uruguay, including in the rainforests of Central America, the Yasuní equatorial forest, and the Amazon.

“In Mexico, the Calakmul region is the one that is supposedly home to the largest population of the species, due to the amount of forest and relatively low [amount of] fragmentation,” Calmé says.

Within Calakmul, one of the king vultures’ perching areas was identified in the territory of the Nuevo Bécal ejido. It was this discovery that kicked off the ejidatarios’ conservation efforts.

“The integrity of these very special sites, like the perching area at the king vulture sanctuary, is key if the plan is to continue conserving the species,” Calmé says. “Because of [the birds’] sensitivity to human presence and their dependence on water, it is more than necessary to create these types of sanctuaries [as part of] our strategy.”

One of the natural wells in the Nuevo Bécal territory. Image courtesy of FSC GD.

The king vulture sanctuary sits in the heart of Nuevo Bécal, almost a two-hour drive from its urban center. To get there, we have to traverse a dirt road to a pedestrian pathway, then walk for almost an hour. Along the way, Lucio López points out every tree that serves as a perching spot for king vultures. In other parts of the ejido, these trees can be cut down for timber, but in this patch of forest, they are untouchable.

On the final part of the journey, a clearing in the forest leads to an aguada, a depression in the earth into which water runs off during the rainy season and then remains as a natural pond during the dry season. The sound of creaking wood alerts us to a family of spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi), who watch over the area and shook the tree branches to scare away what they likely see as intruders.

A population of spider monkeys can be found in Nuevo Bécal. Image courtesy of FSC GD.

Black feathers on the ground and the sound of wings flapping overhead tell us we’re in the presence of the king. About 20 meters (66 feet) up in the sky, we only just manage to spot a shadow concealed within the tree canopy. The king vulture, made uncomfortable by our presence, walks across the treetops. Its large size, reddish coloring, and orange features give away its presence from a distance. This is a rare opportunity to see a living member of the last surviving species in the Sarcoramphus genus, the largest bird of prey in the Americas after the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).

The king vulture’s conservation status on the IUCN Red List is least concern, although there is a note that the population is declining. In Mexico, the species is considered endangered.

This king vulture has a wingspan of nearly 2 meters (6.5 feet). Image courtesy of the Nuevo Bécal ejido.

The consolidation of a sanctuary

In Nuevo Bécal, the discovery that one of the king vulture’s preferred perching sites was right in their forest spurred interest among the community about the area’s conservation value for this iconic species. Several civil society groups, including Uyoolché A.C., arranged for the ejido to be included in an IUCN program that uses funding from the Netherlands to purchase or lease land that is then dedicated to ecosystem conservation around the world. Between 2012 and 2014, the program paid rent to the ejido for the 427-hectare forest patch in which the king vulture sanctuary was created.

At the same time, other organizations, working with researchers from several disciplines, aided the Nuevo Becal ejido during its search for conservation options. In 2012, a program for the conservation of the king vulture was developed, which included plans for habitat management, environmental education, research, monitoring, and surveillance.

In 2012, the Rainforest Alliance audited the ejido as part of the latter’s bid to obtain certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. FSC certification is widely recognized as the gold standard for that forests are sustainably managed. At its first attempt, the ejido failed to get FSC certification. This spurred a revaluation of the land by the ejidatarios, according to María Luisa Villarreal, a researcher and technical consultant for the Nuevo Bécal ejido. The ejidatarios then focused their efforts on making sure the ejido was compatible with the FSC’s Principle 9: forests with a high level of conservation.

False tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum) shoots growing in an area where thinning was done. Image by Juan Mayorga.

“That is where the search began for a better practice for timber-yielding and non-timber-yielding forest activity, land management, and the initiative to have a reserve for the king vulture,” Villarreal says.

In 2014, encouraged by the positive results of the king vulture sanctuary, the ejidatarios decided to dedicate 2,284 hectares (5,643 acres) of their territory to conservation. This would allow them to access the payments for environmental services program offered by CONANP. Over the next five years, they received financial compensation for maintaining the health of the ecosystem.

The largest voluntary conservation area in Mexico

Four years after its failed forest audit, Nuevo Bécal had already done the necessary work and met all the requirements to apply again for certification. In June 2016, the ejido received its first Forest Stewardship Council certification for its chain of custody in timber extraction. The tree species in this chain include black olive, sapodilla, breadnut (Brosimum alicastrum) and gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba).

The certification has had a positive impact, allowing Nuevo Bécal to command a premium for the timber that it sells and exports.

“The ejido can live solely on its forest activities. This diversification toward conservation activities has helped us to support ourselves — even during the pandemic, when some exports collapsed,” López says. “These certifications help us see that we are doing things well and that we can prove it.”

Beekeeping and charcoal production are two of the activities done in the Nuevo Bécal ejido. Image by Juan Mayorga.

Since then, the community in Nuevo Bécal has expanded its range of activities. In 2017, the ejido decided to certify 50,689 hectares as an ADVC, or voluntarily conserved area. The Mexican government created this official category of conservation area in 1998 to allow Indigenous communities, social organizations, and public or private companies to dedicate part of their land to conservation. Since 2008, the government has recognized these areas as federally protected natural areas, the same as national parks.

By dedicating 99% of their territory to conservation, and keeping just 1% as an urban area, Nuevo Bécal became the ejido with the biggest ADVC in the country. Its conserved area is one-third the size of Mexico City, or eight times bigger than Manhattan.

The fact that the ejido has an ADVC designation doesn’t mean that all activities are restricted, including the use of the forest. “The uses and customs of the people were respected,” says Villarreal, who notes that this isn’t always the case with other protected natural areas.

Forestry activity in the Nuevo Bécal ejido. Image by Juan Mayorga.

In Nuevo Bécal’s current configuration as an ejido devoted entirely to voluntary conservation, the king vulture sanctuary and a strictly protected patch of forest dedicated to ecosystem services form the core areas of the ADVC. The ejidatarios have committed to conserving the sanctuary for 25 years and the protected forest for 15 years.

They created an initial comprehensive management plan for the land that included diversifying and zoning for activities. These plans were made based on environmental impact studies and important economic activities, including the extraction of timber and chewing gum base and the production of charcoal. All of these are carried out in a sustainable way.

“We want to prove that good forest management [helps to] achieve conservation and timber use, and thus avoid illegal logging, which eventually destroys entire species,” says Juan Manuel Herrera, an ejidatario, forest engineer, and technical forestry director from Nuevo Bécal.

Juan Manuel Herrera, an ejidatario, forest engineer and technical forestry director in Nuevo Bécal, shows a breadnut tree that’s about three years old. Image by Juan Mayorga.

A milestone in forest certification

According to Villarreal, the creation of the king vulture sanctuary in Nuevo Bécal sparked a paradigm shift in the community, with people now appreciating that it’s possible to conserve a habitat and its species while also receiving benefits as a society. “People lost their fear of having a protected natural area. Many communities still have this fear,” Villarreal says.

In April 2020, Nuevo Bécal obtained FSC certification for ecosystems services for its work in conserving biodiversity, complementing the chain of custody certification that it obtained in 2016.

This should allow the ejido to seek public and private funding, with the guarantee of a third party, to continue its forest management, according to Tania Caro, a biologist and business development coordinator for the FSC in Mexico.

One of the aguadas in the ejido, where water pools during the rainy season and is available during the dry season. Image courtesy of FSC GD.

“It is always vital to find one or several species with which the community can identify, create a new identity that moves them to speak the same language, to have the same vision, and in this case, to drive strategies that allow them to visualize the benefits in a tangible way,” Caro says. She adds the king vulture sanctuary was the starting point for the other conservation activities in Nuevo Bécal.

As he contemplates the rainforest canopy where king vultures nest, ejido member Lucio López foresees new benefits for the community based on their current conservation work. “Now, we are searching for ways to put this into the carbon credit market because it helps to conserve the king vulture, and it also helps to mitigate climate change,” he says. “It is difficult, but now we are prepared.”

Banner image of a young king vulture, courtesy of FSC GD.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on March 14, 2022.