Life and work of Joann Andrews, indefatigable protector of the Yucatan Peninsula (part III of III)

RIDE INTO BIRDLAND is proud to present the third installment of our reportage about the life and work of noted conservationist Joann Andrews, Founder and Honorary President of Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan. Read on to learn how, even in the face of constant environmental challenges, Pronatura’s programs to preserve forests in the Yucatan Peninsula shed a light of hope on the future of Mexico’s majestic jaguars.

The majestic Jaguar (Panthera onca) can weigh up to 120 kilos and needs overlapping ranges of 50 Km2 to hunt for prey. This fine specimen was photographed in captivity at Xcaret Park (Photo © Iván Gabaldón)

Part III

The spirit of the Jaguar

Imagine walking along the trails of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, in the Yucatan Peninsula. All around you the forest is alive. You can see it, feel it, hear it. Suddenly something moves. You freeze.  Four… no, wait, five Ocellated turkeys cross the trail in single line a few meters ahead of you, entirely oblivious to your presence. You watch in awe as they walk, proudly displaying their iridescent feathers in metallic blue, green and red. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they are swallowed again by the forest. You remain standing there, now with a big smile stamped on your face.

I asked Joann Andrews to mention something that gratifies her after so many years of environmental work, and that is the vision she described to me.  Seeing a group of five Ocellated turkeys walking at leisure, members of an endemic species hunted nearly into extinction (Agriocharis ocellata), is not just gratifying but also an indication of the reserve’s success.

The Ocellated Turky, with its iridescent plumage worthy of a king. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

There are jaguars out there as well, Joann tells me, and four other species of smaller felines (Puma, Margay, Ocelot and Jaguarundi, five of the six species extant in Mexican territory). “They’re always pretty careful about staying away from people”, she says with a hushed voice that suggests complicity with the cats of the peninsula. Even the mighty Jaguar (Panthera onca), top predator on the land and a highly efficient carnivore that can weigh up to 120 kg and grow to almost two meters, has long ago learned to avoid us, the human species.

Seclusive as they may be, the Peninsula’s felines are regularly photographed by Pronatura’s trap cameras.  According to data gathered by the organization, more than fifty percent of Mexico’s surviving jaguars live on the Yucatan Peninsula, a remarkable fact made even more stunning if one considers the entire region makes up less than 10% of Mexico’s territory. The Peninsula is really the last hideout for the jaguar, which says plenty about the importance of the region’s forest reserves, but the case that can be made for the jaguar is not based only on ecological considerations. “It’s so much of the Mayan heritage”, Joann says. “If we really care about identifying the Peninsula as one of the great centers of Mayan culture, we must consider that the Mayas thought of the jaguar and the rattlesnake as the two power symbols, the jaguar also being king, the sun, the most powerful animal, almost a godlike figure. He still exists here, and losing him would be like exterminating a great symbol of power that these people at one time had and still have in the jaguar. Plus the beauty of him, and the fact that he has survived for so long”.

Jaguar photographed by trap-camera in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Courtesy PPY / SMAAS)

The number of jaguars on the Peninsula has actually increased in recent years, thanks to sustained conservation efforts that include enforcement of heavy fines on hunting and promotion among local communities of important environmental concepts. Calakmul, for instance, was a heavily hunted area when Joann was first there from 1969 to 1976. In 1989 the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve was established and the situation began to improve, particularly thanks to successful efforts by reserve guards to keep hunters out.  With a total extension of 6,883 km2, the Calakmul reserve adjoins to the south with other mostly undisturbed or protected forest areas in Belize and the Guatemalan Petén, which makes for a much larger preserved area.

Beyond’s the reserve’s northern borders, however, trouble is brewing, as people who have lost their land in Tabasco or Veracruz have come to settle in the area of the Calakmul municipality. “The Secretary of Agriculture has many different projects for these people to come in and settle with government assistance right on the edge of the Calakmul reserve and the Balan Kin and Balan Chen state reserves as well”, Joann explains. “They’re bringing in goats, sheep, cattle and pigs. The pigs wouldn’t be so bad, because the settlers always keep them very close to their homes, but in the case of sheep and goats, they have to go out and forage. And this is just yummy-yummy food for jaguars”.

The ensuing conflict is fueled by different branches of government carrying out opposing initiatives: protecting the reserves and at the same time providing incentives for human settlement in areas too close to the reserves. “We have increased the number of jaguars, but they’ve introduced what really is bait to them”, Joann continues. “We know we just can’t have these animals so close to our reserve, but at the same time, what are these people going to live on? Their dream is that the cattle ranch they couldn’t have in Tabasco, they can have it here. And then they have baby calves, and there’s a good chance that the jaguar will come in to hunt them, particularly the nursing females, they’re the boldest ones.”

Paradoxically, changes in human settlement patterns have resulted in improved conditions for the environment in other parts of the Peninsula. “An enormous number of campesinos have migrated to cities”, Joann says. “Mexico has now more people in cities than in the country, and you have migration to the United States as well. So you see areas, particularly in southern Yucatan, which are just abandoned. It’s sad for Mexico in the sense that nobody is raising corn, but for the wild animals, they’ve recuperated quite rapidly”. Some species, however, have fared better than others. “I don’t think the deer are doing so well, because they are hunted intensively and the meat is sold in Cancún”, she continues. “The problem with hunting the peccary and the tepezcuincles and the deer for meat to sell mainly to Quintana Roo, is that it’s just the very prey the puma and the jaguar need. So you’re really destroying the food chain and that’s a huge preoccupation”.

The Central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) is a large rodent that is hunted by both  jaguars and men. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon).

An adult male jaguar, according to some studies, needs overlapping home ranges of up to 50 sq km, where it prowls in search of prey that includes deer, peccary, monkeys and other smaller mammals, as well as lizards, birds and the occasional crocodile.  Preserving patches of forests is not enough: corridors are needed for the jaguar population to remain genetically healthy, “places where they can slip across”, as Joann puts it. Adult male jaguars have been photographed swimming across the Panama Canal to find a female on the other side. “One of these corridors would be from Northern Yucatan Peninsula, including Pronatura’s private reserve, El Zapotal, all the way through the Sian Ka’An reserve and down to Belize and Guatemala. Preserving these corridors is very difficult with the big four-lane highways and constant human development reaching new areas”.

The Calakmul Reserve adjoins forests in Belize and Guatemala. (Map by Google Earth)

The jaguar constantly faces loss of habitat to human occupation, as forests are cut down for agriculture and urban development. They also face competition with human hunters and have been hunted themselves since ancient Mayan times for their beautiful skins or to protect livestock. Even today, in spite of standing legislation, jaguars are often killed. “The local men love the excuse that the jaguar is eating a domestic animal, it allows them to kill one”, Joann says of hunters who have yet to realize the importance of preserving the species. “It’s sad to say, but it’s a macho thing that men love to do. Saturday night they all drink together and say, we’ll go out and get it tomorrow. On Sunday they all get their guns and go out until they get him”.

An actor at Xcaret’s “Mexico Spectacular” stage performance wears a costume that suggests how the ancient Maya may have used jaguar skins for battle or ceremonial dress. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon)

Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan has worked with the Mexican government and the ejidos near El Zapotal to devise counter-measures.  “The area really isn’t susceptible to good cattle raising, it’s just too rocky, with poor water resources”, Joann explains. “So the government will pay you not to do anything with it if you can show that it has real potential as an area for natural resources. We’ve justified this by working with the ejidos and setting up discreetly placed trap cameras that take pictures of all these animals”. The trap cameras have thus become instruments not only for the collection of scientific data, but also for the acquisition of legal evidence that may result in the preservation of the areas involved.

Another program devised for settlers that keep livestock near the reserve works like a government-backed insurance policy (Fondo de Aseguramiento Ganadero). Again trap-cameras play a vital role: “They have taken pictures of jaguars coming in and munching on pigs, goats and other animals, coming in closer than you would have thought. If you can prove your animal was eaten by a jaguar, the government will compensate you for its value”. PPY has also worked with the ejidos to make films celebrating the wild flora and fauna in their area. “They’re really proud of them” Joann says, “they show them in their schools, we have a wonderful relationship with them”.

Trap cameras are being used not only for scientific data collection, but also as tools to produce legal evidence about wildlife activity needed to support several of Pronatura’s programs. (Courtesy PPY / MSAAS)

Aiming to empower local communities to tap into the economic potential of ecotourism, Prontura has also implemented successful programs to educate and prepare nature guides. In Campeche a group of fifty potential guides “have been immersed in English and birdwatching, and taught how to take people on trail walks and show them all the exciting things in the forest, and also how to be careful”, Joann tells me. “We have Campeche Tourism really interested, and they’ve given the Guide Certificate. We have the most guides in the Conhuas area, and they’re making quite a lot of extra money, both boys and girls”.

As important and positive as all those initiatives are, an integral change to a more sustainable model of development is needed at all levels of society if the Peninsula’s natural resources and habitats are to be preserved for future generations. Mass tourism has brought a mixed bag of positive and negative things, but expecting it to continue growing endlessly is simply not realistic and certainly not advisable: the Peninsula is not limitless, the environmental costs would be huge, and over-development eventually leads to a general downgrading of tourist destinations, as has been proven by experience in other parts of the world. The key buzzword is “sustainable”, but just stamping it on something does not make it so, as Joann is quick to point out: “It’s usually just a word used to allow development to come. And what’s sustainable about it is that you can make money doing it.”

To prove her point, she ellaborates: “Almost any of the protective regulations can be twisted one way or another. Let’s take one: you can’t destroy the mangrove forest, it’s on the endangered list. But the developers say it’s not really endangered and there’s enormous pressure to fill in the mangrove forests, it’s the only way they can get more development along the Yucatan and Quintana Roo coast. So they’ll say, we’ll pay for mitigation, we’ll invent a mangrove forest in another area. You must know, that’s just impossible really. Certain NGOs get the mitigation money and they’ll throw seeds out, but there isn’t the salinity or anything to make that delicate balance which is the mangrove forest.” The pressure is constant, she explains, and even after two of the mangrove species have been included in a new endangered species list (which means no mitigation is allowed), the mangrove “gets destroyed overnight and nobody does anything until three weeks later, and then what can you do?”.

The beautiful Mangrove Warbler (Setophaga petechia), one of many species whose survival is directly connected to the mangrove ecosystem. (Photo © Iván Gabaldón).

The challenge ahead remains a great one, Planet Earth is in trouble everywhere and more than ever before every action counts. The big question about how to balance human and environmental needs will always be facing us and no organization can control all the variables affecting that dilemma, not even governments or coalitions of governments. Territories with rich ecosystems are becoming rare luxuries, and scientists are often seen scratching their heads as they watch global warming and other environmental situations deteriorate much quicker than they themselves had forecast. The entire human race needs to evolve towards a better relationship with the planet, one that is not destructive, but this will not happen easily and certainly not overnight.

Through many years of sustained work, Pronatura Península de Yucatán has taken hold as a solid environmental organization, carrying out positive programs with endurance, leading by example and creating an institutional framework for future generations of conservationists to work in. It all started with Joann Andrews’ determination to protect the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, and it is our privilege to ask her how she sees the road ahead. Can we still learn from orchids how to thrive in Planet Earth, our host, without behaving like destructive parasites? “The good part is that there are a lot more concerned people, young people”, Joann says. “Mexicans love their nature, particularly the Maya people too in this area, so it’s really wonderful to work with them.” An optimistic reply that should not surprise us coming from Joann Andrews: she knows from experience that we, the human species, can still be touched by the spirit of the jaguar.

A spirit so powerful it reaches us like traveling wind through lush tropical forests, urging us to save this unique part of Planet Earth we call Yucatan Peninsula.


For more information about the programs and activities organized by Pronatura Península de Yucatán, please visit their website by clicking on the logo below.

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2 Responses to Life and work of Joann Andrews, indefatigable protector of the Yucatan Peninsula (part III of III)

  1. Reg Deneau says:

    What wonderful journalism and a great tribute to Joann Andrews. If it hasnt already occurred the government of Yucatan and the federal government should formaaly recognize this incredible woman!

    • IVAN GABALDON says:

      Thank you very much, Mr. Deneau.

      I first met Joann while attending my first ever bird festival, back in 2011. Weeks later my wife and I found ourselves riding our motorcycle from Riviera Maya, where we lived then, to Joann’s house in Merida. In preparation for the interview I had done plenty of research on-line, finding scant information about her. On the quiet afternoon of our meeting, during a long conversation, she graciously shared her lucid ideas on conservation as well as many personal memories, striking deep chords within me. I decanted her testimony into a narrative-reportage format, as has been published here, but I still think the unabridged interview may be worth sharing with our readers at some point in the future.

      An official ceremony in recognition of Joann’s work was held in Oct. 2017 at Universidad Marista, with representatives from both the private and public sectors in attendance, which is not to say that should be the end of all tributes.


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