Pop quiz: In terms of land mass, which country takes up a mere one percent of the globe’s surface area, while managing to host more than 10 percent of the world’s biological diversity, coming in fifth on the world stage when viewed through that lens? The answer? Mexico.
If you thought Mexico was entirely or even primarily made up of arid land, think again. The truth is that the country’s two distinct climate zones make it perfect for diverse ecosystems to flourish. In Mexico’s north country, coastal temperatures are mild, while even the arid inland gets wet during the rainy season from January to March. The south of Mexico is tropical with hot, wet summers from June to October.
It’s no surprise that the Mexican states with the greatest biodiversity—Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guerro and Michoacán—are located in the southernmost portion of the country, just before it curves up to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Another statistic may surprise you: Mexico currently ranks 12th in the world for global forest area, where some 50 to 60 percent of plant species found worldwide are also found. It’s also one of only 18 countries whose flora and fauna are considered “mega-diverse.” Keep those figures in mind.
While Mexico has taken steps to preserve and protect many of its most vital and bio-diverse ecosystems, the ugly fact is that the destruction of native habitats caused by human activity, pollution and yes, climate change, have threatened some of Mexico’s native species and driven many of them almost to the point of extinction. In certain parts of the country, an increase in temperatures since the 1960s has produced drought and the urgent need to source water from other areas. The situation is an increasingly dire one not only for Mexico’s animal populations but for its thriving farming industry, the driver of its economic engine.
Although Mexico’s main economic sectors are highly dependent on agriculture and natural resources, unchecked, unsustainable tourism has become an unfortunate contributing factor in their degradation. With Mexico holding such a large chunk of the world’s biodiversity, it’s feeling the effects of the world’s current “biodiversity crisis”— estimating that 150 to 200 species become extinct every 24 hours. Let me repeat: 150 to 200 species are estimated to become extinct every 24 hours! There are 2,606 species within Mexico that are in danger of extinction, currently threatened, or subject to special protections. In addition, over the past 20 years, environmental overexploitation has resulted in the loss of 35 percent of precious forest cover and the habitats it provides.
The country is mindful of the value of its precious natural resources. Mexico is home to no less than 24 ocean-based ecosystem sanctuaries and preserves. Some are areas of pristine natural beauty; others are places where rare animals live or breed. A selection includes:
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, more than 200 square miles of forested mountains just 65 miles from Mexico City. Hundreds of millions of gorgeous Monarch butterflies make the 2000 mile annual flight from Canada and the United States to their winter home in the fir trees festooning Michoacán and Mexico State.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the State of Quintana Roo has it all: tropical forests, wetlands, coastal lagoons, mangroves, canals, and part of the longest coral reef in the world, replete with 60 different coral species.
The Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve in Puebla and Oaxaca host more than 100 species of mammals and 356 bird species in their richly biodiverse rivers, valleys, and mountains.
The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino in Baja, California is an important reproduction and wintering site for the grey whale, harbour seal, California sea lion, northern elephant-seal and blue whale. Four species of endangered sea turtles live in area lagoons.
The Gulf of California or Sea of Cortés contains important reserves for the vaquita, an endangered mammal related to dolphins and whales.
The Sonoran Desert to the east is home to hundreds of species of animals and plants including snakes, coyotes, lizards, birds, and cacti.
Mexico has declared the Gran Arrecife Maya (Gama Reef or Great Mesoamerican Reef)—in the Caribbean Sea—a protected area. This reef is part of the Yucatán Peninsula off the coast of Cozumel, an island to the south of Cancún. This huge reef—the second largest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, contains extraordinary sea life, such as the rare black coral and functions as a breeding ground for hundreds of 200 varieties of tropical fish.
The area of National Park lands in Mexico encompass some 62,727,251 acres or about 13 percent of Mexico’s land area. It is protected by law from being developed.
The effort to protect Mexico’s precious natural resources and indigenous species has not been without success. Two such stories deserve special mention. Dolphins were once an endangered species in Mexico because many were accidentally caught and killed in the nets of tuna fisherman plying their trade in coastal waters. In recent years, however, fishermen have been persuaded to change their methods, such that tuna fishing can go on without endangering the lives of dolphins that share the ocean. The dolphin story is proof that human commerce can co-exist with environmental responsibility.
In a related effort, laws have been established to protect the 10 species of marine turtles that inhabit or visit the Pacific, Gulf and Caribbean coastlines of Mexico to lay their eggs in the sand. In an effort to stem the practice of people stealing the eggs and selling them as delicacies, some beaches have designated specially protected areas where baby turtles are helped to survive, and companion laws have been passed to outlaw the illegal trade in turtle eggs. It works this way: when turtles lay their eggs, the eggs are taken by expert staffers to special fenced camps to protect them from ever-present predators (including humans). Once hatched, the baby turtles are released onto the beaches, where the baby turtles instinctively make for the sea. Camp staff make sure they make it to their destination safely. This demonstrates that with a little forethought and gentle intervention by concerned humans, the future of turtle species can be greatly improved.
While Mexico’s beautiful sights deserve to be seen and appreciated in person, there also needs to be an end to irresponsible, unsustainable tourism practices based on the destruction or degradation of coastal ecosystems – including mangroves, wetlands, and coral reefs – and the species that live there. Another shocking factoid: did you know the tourism sector consumes more than three times the energy of other sectors and more than six times more water than other economic activities? What is wrong with this picture? (For more along these lines, read the story of documentary filmmaker Rachel Appel’s experience in Tulum, Mexico, where she discovered that hotels and businesses are not always as sustainable as they seem.)
Ecocompanion is doing its part to preserve and protect Mexico’s natural resources and wildlife by offering tours and accommodations located mainly on the Yucatan Peninsula that permit you to experience some of the country’s natural reserve ecosystems — without leaving a destructive footprint. Each affiliate is aware and conscious of the need to support the services necessary to perpetuate Mexico’s amazing biological diversity through the storage of natural resources, environmental regulation, protection and maintenance, nutrient recycling and soil formation, as well as cultural services to honour native aesthetics and spirituality.