Jul 112016
 

One year on from when we last reported on the desperate plight of Mexico’s “little sea cow”, the endangered vaquita marina, where are we now?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, “The vaquita is at the edge of extinction”. The latest population estimate suggests that the number of vaquita in the wild has fallen from about 100 in 2014 to just 60 today, despite a much-publicized ban on fishing in the main area where the little sea cows are found.

As we reported in Mexico’s “little sea cow” on the verge of extinction two years ago, the sea cow’s fate is inextricably tied to fishing for the (also endangered) totoaba, a fish in demand in China for its swim bladder, which is believed to have medicinal properties. Fishermen in Mexico’s Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés) are reported to have been offered more than $4,000 for a single totoaba bladder, which weighs only 500 grams. The price in China is reported to be between $10,000 and $20,000 each.

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

In April 2015, federal authorities imposed a two-year ban on gillnets and expanded the vaquita protection area to cover 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) of the upper Gulf of California . Some 600 gill nets (each of which can be up to # meters long) were seized by the Mexican Navy in 2015 (and 77 individuals detained), and navy personnel claim they are still confiscating nets every day.

The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) is trying to make a difference. Among the options being considered by Mexico’s Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) is assisted breeding, though a vaquita expert, Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is quoted in The Guardian as claiming that “We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce. The uncertainties are large.” The World Wildlife Fund Mexico is currently opposed to such a strategy, given the very low number remaining.

Mexico has had conservation successes in the past, allowing the populations of other marine animals, including the Guadalupe fur seal and the northern elephant seal, to recover.

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Jun 062016
 

On Mexico’s Pacific coast, the endemic Green Turtle or tortuga verde (Chelonia mydas) has been taken off the “endangered” list and had its status reclassified as “threatened”. Despite the success of conservation efforts in Mexico, green turtle remains on the worldwide endangered list, to which it was first added in 1978.

For details of Mexico’s conservation efforts with respect to sea turtles, see Protecting Mexico’s endangered marine turtles.

The global population of green turtles, which can wiegh up to 200 kg and live as long as 80 years, has now been divided by wildlife experts into 11 distinct sub-populations, allowing some flexibility in approaches to their management.

Selected marine turtle nesting beaches in Mexico.

Selected marine turtle nesting beaches in Mexico.

Meanwhile, in Mexico’s arid northern interior in the Chihuahuan desert, biologists have reported a marked upsurge in the numbers of the very much smaller Bolson tortoise. The Bolson tortoise (Gopherus flavomarginatus), native to this part of Mexico, is often referred to as the Mexican giant tortoise, but grows only to about 50 cm in length, with a weight of around 18 kg. It had been under threat due to local people hunting it for food, and due to shifting weather patterns. The tortoise is one of the various endangered species inhabiting the Bolsón de Mapimi, the desert basin that straddles the borders of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua.

Conservation efforts in the area have focused on ensuring that local people have an alternative source of meat (cattle in this case) and appreciate the value of preserving their native tortoises. Local communities have been given grants to help with reforestation projects, environmental monitoring and maintaining a small museum for visitors.

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Apr 252016
 

Cuatro Ciénegas (“Four Marshes”) is a city and municipality in the northern border state of Coahuila. Founded in 1800, it has some historical significance, since it was the birthplace of Venustiano Carranza, Mexico’s president from 1915 to 1920.

The natural nearby “marshes” are highly unusual. Situated in an arid region (part of the Chihuahuan desert), they include several natural springs that feed more than 200 small ponds and wetlands. Some of the water supporting these unique wetlands, which cover an area of 84,400 hectares, is believed to be more than 200 million years old. The wetlands are an integral part of the UNESCO-designated Cuatro Ciénegas biosphere reserve. The reserve is home to several endemic organisms, including microorganisms such as cyanobacteria that historically helped produce oxygen for the Earth’s atmosphere. The area is considered “a living laboratory of evolution and the origin of life”.

Cuatro Ciénegas. Credit: Nancy T. Wilson (MexConnect)

Cuatro Ciénegas. Credit: Nancy T. Wilson (MexConnect.com)

Human activities in the surrounding area have led to severe water stress on the Cuatro Ciénegas marshes. The basin’s average natural recharge rate (replenishment rate) is about  25 million cubic meters a year, but the average yearly extraction rate, almost all for agricultural use, is close to 49 million cubic meters.

Water stress may be exacerbated in coming years by climate change, which may reduce rainfall while simultaneously increasing evapotranspiration.

Scientists have also identified five particular exotic (introduced) species that pose a significant risk to the long-term quality of the Cuatro Ciénegas wetlands. Whether naturally or deliberately introduced, these five species – African jewelfish, blue tilapia, giant cane (giant reed), Guatemalan fir and tamarisk (salt cedar) – threaten to displace endemic species and change natural nutrient flows and food chains. Guatemalan fir and tamarisk soak up water as they grow, further drying out the marshes (though, eventually, when little water is left, they will die off). The blue tilapia carries parasites that can jump to local species that have no resistance to them. The African jewelfish occupies the same ecological niche as the endemic mojarra and gradually replaces it.

Mexico’s Comision Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONAMP), is now working with the Mexican Fund for Nature Conservation (FNCN) and the Canadian government agency Parks Canada to develop and implement a control and eradication program to tackle these five invasive species. The long-term survival of this highly unusual ecosystem may well depend on this program’s success.

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Jan 272016
 

Mexico has a long history of honey (miel) production. Honey was important in Maya culture, a fact reflected in some place names found in the Yucatán Peninsula, such as Cobá (“place of the bees”).

Faced by the arrival of Africanized bees – The diffusion of the Africanized honey bee in North America – Mexico’s modern commercial beekeepers initially feared the worst. With time, they became less antagonistic to Africanized bees, since, whatever their faults, they proved to be good honey producers.

Honey production in Mexico

Main honey producing states in Mexico

Honey production has been on the rise in the past decade. Over the past five years, Mexican hives have yielded about 57,000 tons of honey a year, making Mexico the world’s sixth largest honey producing country. Preliminary figures for 2015 show that Mexico produced 61,881 tons of honey.

Mexico is also the world’s third leading exporter of honey with total exports (both conventional and organic honey) of 45,000 tons in 2015, a new record, worth over US$150 million. Mexico’s principal export markets for honey are Germany, the USA, the U.K. Saudia Arabia and Belgium.

Postage stamp depicting honey exports

Postage stamp depicting honey exports

Other major exporters of honey include China, Argentina, New Zealand and Germany.

There are 42,000 beekeepers nationwide, operating 1.9 million hives; the main producing area remains the southeast, especially the states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Jalisco, Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla and Michoacán are also important for honey production.

The domestic consumption of honey in Mexico has risen from under 200 grams per person in the 1990s to more than 300 grams in 2010. This is mainly due to the use of honey in processed foods such as cereals, yogurts and pastries.

Graph of honey production in MexicoThe major value of bees in an ecosystem is not for their honey production, but on account of their vital role in the pollination of trees and food crops, a contribution valued in the US alone at more than 10 billion dollars.

Views about the pollinating ability of Africanized bees, compared to European or native bees, are mixed. Some farmers dislike having to cope with potentially aggressive bees. Others claim that Africanized bees are far more efficient pollinators than European bees since they forage more often and at greater distances than their European counterparts. The available evidence does not appear to suggest that the arrival of Africanized bees had any impact on crop yields in Mexico.
Which Mexican honey should you buy? For a cautionary tale about choosing the best Mexican honey in overseas stores, see Honey, what’s on that label?

Sources:

  • (a) La producción apícola en México by Carlos Angeles Toriz and Ana María Román de Carlos. (date unknown)
  • (b) “Mexico ranks sixth in honey production” (reprinted from El Economista on mexicanbusinessweek.com), 2011.

This post was first written in October 2011, with updates in October 2015 and January 2016.

Jan 182016
 

The El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve covers 119,177 hectares in the southern state of Chiapas, in the municipalities of Acacoyagua, Angel Albino Corzo, La Concordia, Mapastepec, Villa Corzo, Pijijiapan and Siltepec. The reserve ranges in elevation from 450 meters above sea level to 2550 meters (8370 ft).

El Triunfo is part of the mountain range known as Sierra Madre de Chiapas in the southern part of the state. It straddles the continental drainage divide. Short rivers on one side flow to the Pacific Ocean. The rivers on the other side of the divide are the start of one branch of the mighty Grijalva-Usumacinta River (Mexico’s largest river in terms of discharge) which flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

el-triunfo

The El Triunfo reserve was first established in 1990. In 1993, it was officially designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the MAB-UNESCO program.

El Triunfo has numerous plants and animals. Its vegetation, representative of several distinct ecosystems, includes evergreen tropical humid forest; mountain rainforest; tropical deciduous rainforest; pine-oak forest; and evergreen cloud forest. On Cerro Ovando alone, about 800 different species of plants have been recorded.

mapchiapas

Map of Chiapas. Click here for interactive map of Chiapas on Mexconnect.com; all rights reserved

Threatened mammalian species found in the reserve include Geoffroy’s spider monkey, margay, the tapir (Tapirus bairdii), jaguar (Panthera onca) and puma. Unfortunately, this means that this is a favored area for wildlife hunters, poachers and traffickers.

The bird fauna is especially distinctive. The reserve is one of the relatively few places in Mexico where ornithologists have the chance to find the horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus), resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), cabanis’ tanager (Tangara cabanisi), azure-ramped tanager and great curassau. The resplendent quetzal is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas, and its feathers were highly prized in pre-Columbian times.

This BBC video is an outstanding visual introduction to the Reserve:

As is the case for other Biosphere Reserves, local people are allowed to live and work in the El Triunfo Reserve. The core area (25,719 hectares) is restricted to conservation and research only, but the buffer/transition areas (93,458 ha) are home to about 12,000 people. El Triunfo is also on the migration route of Guatemalan Indians entering Chiapas either to work (seasonally) on coffee plantations or as the first stage of their journey further north. This floating population is trickier to quantify.

The area was important historically for the production and trade of items such as cacao, quetzal feathers, jade and copal resin. In the 17th century, the population grew rapidly in this region with the establishment of plantations, and later cattle ranches. Coffee was introduced at the end of the 19th century and quickly became the dominant cash crop for most small landowners. Environmental damage, mainly from clearance and cattle ranching, became a major problem, but it was not until the 1970s and pioneering work of Dr. Miguel Alvarez del Toro that any restrictions were placed on land use.

Today, the main economic activities within the buffer areas of the reserve are agriculture (coffee, corn), the collection of Chamaedorea palms, trade, construction and cattle raising.

Several NGOs are working with farmers in the buffer zone to improve their livelihoods and ensure that farming can be carried out sustainably and still support the existing population. For a lively introduction to this topic, try (Co-operative) Value Added on the blog Small Farmers. Big Change. As they say, “a green and more just food system starts with small farmers”.

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Jan 112016
 

On 9 January 2016, the Google search pages in some countries (including the USA and Mexico but, curiously, not Canada) featured a Google Doodle about the amazing Monarch Butterflies. That day was exactly 41 years from when Ken Brugger and his partner Cathy Trail finally located the exact site of a major overwintering group of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.

Their effort was part of the research led by Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart to try to determine what happened to Canadian Monarch Butterflies during the winter. Urquhart knew they fluttered south, but just where did they all go? Urquhart and his team of helpers tagged thousands of butterflies, and gradually homed in on an area of western Mexico straddling the border between the state of México and the state of Michoacán.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

Based on original map design created by Paul Mirocha (paulmirocha.com) for Monarch Watch.

It eventually emerged that there were several overwintering sites of Monarch Butterflies in that general area, and much of the zone is now formally protected, with strict conditions for visitors and restrictions on tree cutting and forest thinning.

The Monarch Butterfly overwintering sites are a fitting topic of a Google Doodle. Sadly, the paragraph explaining the Monarch Butterfly Google Doodle repeats a common error about Mexico’s geography, and one we have featured previously on this blog.

It places the Monarch Butterfly overwintering sites in “Mexico’s easternmost Sierra Madre Mountains”. Unfortunately, this phrase, even if oft-repeated on ill-informed websites, is far from true.

Location of Volcanic Axis and Monarch Butterfly reserves

Location of Volcanic Axis and Monarch Butterfly reserves. Basemap: Figure 3.1 of Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Mexico has three major Sierra Madre ranges: The Western Sierra Madre, Eastern Sierra Madre and Southern Sierra Madre (see map). Mexico’s “easternmost Sierra Madre Mountains” would actually be the Southern Sierra Madre! The Monarch Butterfly reserves are not located in any of these three Sierra Madres; they are happily ensconced in the Volcanic Axis.

Given that Google is reported to be introducing some form of reliability factor into its search algorithms, lending more credence to sites that are “factually accurate” and supported by other sites, this begs the question as to whether the majority is necessarily always right. In this case, while there are numerous web references to the Monarch Butterflies hanging out in “Mexico’s Sierra Madre” mountains, they are all guilty of misrepresenting Mexico’s physical geography.

Geo-Mexico congratulates Google for choosing to feature the Monarch Butterfly and loves the title “Mountain of the Butterflies” but does hope that Google Doodle writers will check their information more carefully next time.

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Latest additions to Mexico’s Protected Natural Areas

 Mexico's geography in the Press, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Latest additions to Mexico’s Protected Natural Areas
Jul 202015
 

Alejandro del Mazo Maza, head of Mexico’s Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Áreas Naturales Protegidas), says that the formal decrees for seven additional PNAs (Protected Natural Areas) will be published shortly. In some cases, the decrees apply to areas whose status as protected areas was first announced months or even years ago.

The seven new additions are in the north and northwest regions of the country:

Mexico currently has 177 PNAs (in various categories), and the new additions bring that total to 184.

In addition, preparatory studies are underway to establish two additional biosphere reserves, for the Mexican Caribbean and the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortés).

Mexico's Protected Areas (Gallina, 2012)

Mexico’s Protected Areas (Gallina, 2012)

The Commission of PNAs is working hard to complete formal management plans for every PNA – environmental, social and economic issues. At present, only 97 of the 177 PNAs have such plans in place, with the latest plans published only weeks ago for:

For example, the management program for the whale shark reserve authorizes a maximum of 160 whale-watching boats in an effort to ensure sustainability.

Source of Map:

Sonia Gallina, 2012. “Is Sustainablity Possible in Protected Areas in Mexico? Deer as an Example of a Renewable Resource.” Sustainability 2012, 4 (10), 2366-2376

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Jun 152015
 

Visitors to the De Young Museum in San Francisco can admire a wonderful mural showing the fauna and flora of the Pacific, painted by Mexican artist José Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957) for the city’s 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.

Covarrubias Mural of the Pacific

Covarrubias Mural of the Pacific (Click image to enlarge)

Following conservation work performed by experts in Mexico, the mural is currently on loan to the De Young Museum from its owners, San Francisco’s Treasure Island Development Authority.

While the De Young Museum website continues to describe this mural as “one of a six-part series of fanciful, larger-than-life-size maps created by noted Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias”, we sincerely doubt that these murals were ever really “larger-than-life-size”!

The mural is one of the five remaining murals painted by José Miguel Covarrubias for the exposition. The whereabouts of a sixth mural, which completed the series known as “Pageant of the Pacific”, are unknown.

The details are exquisitely painted, and the mural is as beautiful as it is educational.

covarrubias-flora-fauna-north-america-sm

Covarrubias: Mural of the Pacific (detail)

As ever-erudite Jon Haeber writes in his blog post about this mural, painted “at a critical juncture in America’s history”, its artist “was a confidante of Mexican greats Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. As a caricaturist for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, it could easily be assumed that Covarrubias is largely ignored by fine art historians, but he was an anthropologist and geographer as much as he was an artist, which gave him a unique respect among art aficionados… Not only are they an informative lesson in Geography, but they are also a great piece of history – to say nothing about their creator.”

Covarrubias was indeed a geographer and ethnologist. Among other works, he authored Island of Bali (1937); Mexico South (1946); The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent – Indian Art of the Americas; North America: Alaska, Canada, the United States (1954); and Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (1957).

The temporary structures on Treasure Island were subsequently demolished and Covarrubias’ six murals sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. When they were brought back to California in the late 1950s, the series was missing the mural entitled “Art Forms of the Pacific Area”. The titles of the five surviving murals are The Fauna and Flora of the Pacific, Peoples, Economy, Native Dwellings, and Native Means of Transportation.

Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change: Angangueo, Mexico

 Books and resources  Comments Off on Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change: Angangueo, Mexico
Jun 042015
 

In 2015, the USGS published a series of satellite images of environmental change [no longer online] of the area around the town of Angangueo in the eastern part of the state of Michoacán (very close to the border with the State of México) and the mountainous hillsides covered in pine-fir forest where the migrating Monarch butterflies spend their winters.

The pine-fir forests are found at an elevation of around 3000 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. The butterflies congregate in a small number of locations, forming massive clumps on the trees. Any major disturbance, such as a windstorm or excessive snow, can cause the loss of (literally) millions of Monarchs. The overwintering Monarchs need just the right range of temperatures. On the one hand, they must not be so cold that they freeze or are not warm enough to flutter in search of food and water. On the other hand, if it is too warm, they may burn through their energy reserves or need to replenish too much moisture. The canopy of the pine-fir forest provides some protection, but even a partial thinning of this canopy will change the microclimate beneath.

In this post, we will will take a quick look at the images of Chincua reserve. This reserve includes the location where overwintering congregations of Monarch butterflies were reported for the first time in the mid-1970s. This is one of the areas where conservationists fear that the pine-fir forest (appearing vibrant red in the images) may have suffered too much clearing and thinning, which may have altered the area’s microclimate and made it unsuitable for successful overwintering.

When looking at the images, bear in mind that:

    • Red signifies healthy vegetation.
    • Landsat images are always taken in mid-morning, so shaded northwest slopes look darker. Shadows can vary slightly from one month to the next.
    • The images show forest clearance, but do not reveal forest thinning. The consequences of forest thinning (the removal of individual trees) may be just as significant in the context of the annual Monarch butterfly migration.
Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011.

Satellite images of Chincua reserve, 1986, 2000 and 2011. Click to enlarge.

In the 2000 image, the Chincua reserve shows some rashy gray areas just above and to the right of the center of the image. These gray areas are not visible on the 1986 image. This may be evidence of a fire, or some other kind of clearing. The 2011 image seems to indicate that the vegetation in that area has recovered, at least to some extent.

A truly detailed examination of these images is beyond the scope of this short post, but high-resolution images (which can be downloaded from the USGS site) will repay a closer study. See, for example, the satellite images of Pelon.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the Monarch as a species is not endangered. There is, indeed, a year-round population of Monarchs in central and western Mexico that is non-migratory owing to the ready availability of milkweed, the only plant on which female Monarchs lay their eggs, throughout the year. It is only the butterfly migration that is considered an “endangered phenomenon”, and all three countries involved (Canada, USA and Mexico) have now instituted programs to try to ensure its long-term success.

Satellite monitoring of the areas of importance to the Monarch butterfly should help identify the key areas on which conservation efforts need to be focused.

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Good news for Mexico’s little sea cow, the vaquita marina

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Good news for Mexico’s little sea cow, the vaquita marina
Mar 232015
 

Good news for Mexico’s “little sea cow”, the world’s smallest porpoise, known in Spanish as the vaquita marina, currently the most endangered cetacean in the world.

The federal government has approved a compensation plan designed to protect the vaquita marina, with a budget of 69 million dollars, spread over two years. Most of the funds will be used to pay 1,300 fishermen in San Felipe and Santa Clara in the upper Sea of Cortés (Gulf of California) not to fish.

There are thought to be fewer than 100 vaquitas remaining in the wild. Banning fishing in the main area where the little sea cows are found will eliminate the loss of further vaquitas as bycatch.

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Map of sightings and acoustic detection spots. Adapted from North American Conservation Action Plan for the vaquita

Besides paying compensation to fishermen in return for not fishing, some funds will be allocated to finance annual inspections and introduce surveillance drones to ensure compliance with the conservation plan and detect any illegal fishing. The unmanned drones will be managed by Mexico’s Environmental Protection Agency (Profepa).

Some funds will also go to research, with an emphasis on trying to develop a vaquita-safe shrimp net that can safely be used in the area.

Banning fishing for the 860 holders of fishing licenses in Santa Clara and the 494 licensed fishermen in San Felipe, may help the vaquita marina, but will bring some adverse consequences to the local economy since there no compensation is on offer for those workers, including many women, who are involved in fish processing and other parts of the production chain.

Not long enough

As Luis Fueyo, the head of Mexico’s National Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) has said in recent press interviews, the vaquita marina cannot possibly recover in two years because they only reproduce every two years and only 25 of those remaining are of reproducing age. Fueyo says that the plan needs to look ahead 20 to 30 years in order to create a viable population of 5,000 vaquita.

So, while a two year ban is nowhere near long enough to achieve any measurable increase in the vaquita marina population, it is a good first step in the right direction. Hopefully, the federal government will allocate additional funding in future years to ensure that the world does not lose this critically endangered porpoise.

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