Lawyers, guns and money. For the last several hundred years these have been the tools employed throughout the Americas to resolve land use and land ownership issues, and the system continues to thrive in present-day Baja California Sur. If you have enough of all three deployed in the correct proportions, you can generally carry the day. So how could the staff of a resource-restricted, government-operated, conservation-driven institution face down a large multinational company aiming to put an open pit gold mining operation in the UNESCO-certified natural area that they are charged with protecting? If you’re the employees of CONANP (The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) in Baja California Sur you look to the earth. You invoke the powerful forces of nature. You call in the botanists.
When the CONANP team first met Dr. Sula Vanderplank of the Botanical
Sierra El Taste.Photo by Jon Rebman
Research Institute of Texas in 2014, she and her colleague Dr. Benjamin Wilder of the University of Arizona and Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen; www.nextgensd.com) had just completed a terrestrial biodiversity study of the lands surrounding Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Not coincidentally, these were the same lands targeted by a developer with plans to construct a massive 30,000-room hotel complex on the shores of the marine park. While there are likely many factors that ultimately lead to the termination of the project –massive protests, focused effort by leading local and international NGOs, international media scrutiny – it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that the findings of the team lead by Sula and Ben were a strong contributing factor. Why? In the area where they were to construct the hotel the botanists and their bi-national, multi-disciplinary team recorded no fewer than 560 species of flora and fauna. Of those, 100 (almost 1 in 5) are endemic to the Cape region of Baja California Sur, and 42 are on the Mexican endangered species list. Until that time, no one had any idea of the magnitude of the biodiversity of the area. As the authors of the study concluded, “Given the large number of endemic species present in the area, large-scale development projects risk the full scale and local extinctions of endemic species with narrow geographic ranges. Entire species could be lost forever (and their roles within the Sonoran Desert ecosystem) from the unique places where they evolved in situ during thousands or millions of years.”
Development ‘s deadly impact on biodiversity: CONANP was inspired. Gold mines operating in a protected natural area: N-Gen was invigorated. The opportunity to bring serious scientific scrutiny to Arroyo La Junta and the Los Cardones open pit gold mining project: it was too compelling to ignore. The CONANP/N-Gen team of Sierra scientific superheroes was born.
Now fictional superheroes like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark conveniently come with immense family fortunes to back their earth-saving endeavors. Not so with reality-bound botanists and their colleagues. When Sula and Ben were first introduced to the Arroyo La Junta area in the Sierra foothills where the Mexican government had authorized the Los Cardones mining project, they couldn’t find much science on the area. A good bit of work had been done at the higher elevations of the Sierras, but the area around the proposed gold mine had remained a generally science-free zone. With the help of CONANP, Sula and Ben set out to change that and, as they had done in Cabo Pulmo, created a proposal to bring rigorous scientific investigation and analysis to determine the magnitude of endemism and biodiversity in the area. CONANP was thrilled. Potential funders were silent.
Anti-mine protest in Todos Santos town plaza. Photo by Kamal Schramm
“Then an interesting thing happened” says Ben. “When the government approved the MIA (environmental impact assessment) of the Los Cardones mine, the people of Todos Santos and La Paz rose up in protest and staged rallies and marches against the mine. This public outcry really gave new life to the importance of understanding the potential impact to the biosphere reserve.”
Anne McEnany, president of the International Community Foundation, had been involved in educating people about economic activities in the Biosphere Reserve for years, and immediately grasped the importance of the N-Gen project. “ICF has been working with local organizations to educate and inform the general public about the Biosphere Reserve and the La Paz watershed by developing curriculum, analyzing potential economic activities, and convening workshops. When the N-Gen research team approached ICF to finance a biodiversity assessment there, we knew it was the right next step. How can CONANP appropriately manage such a large area without knowing what is there?” The CONANP team breathed a sigh of relief. The botanists got busy.
Sula came down in September 2015 to scout out the area and to work with the director of the Sierra La Laguna Biopshere Reserve, Jesús Quiñónez Gómez, on the permitting required for the team to conduct its research. The scouting trip a little scary. Recalls Sula, “The Los Cardones people had guards and check points at several spots in the Arroyo La Junta area, and it was definitely a little intimidating. So when we came back with the whole team in December 2015, we were apprehensive about the type of reception we might receive.” The “whole team” consisted of 46 participants, including 29 scientists from 19 institutions (10 from Mexico and 9 from the US). Everyone was a little nervous, but by the time the team arrived to conduct their 8 days of investigation starting on December 4, 2015, the roadblocks and guards had been removed and the team worked without interference.
And apparently without much sleep either! The group, many of whom had worked on the Cabo Pulmo study and are part of the N-Gen network of investigators, consisted of 5 main teams of scientists: 4 botanists (the plant people), 6 entomologists (the insect folks), 8 herpetologists (the snake and lizard researchers), 7 mammologists (self-evident) and 4 ornithologists (the birders). Specialists for each taxonomic group worked almost around the clock, systematically surveying different areas as daytime collections gave way
Herpetology Team. Photo by Alan Harper
to nocturnal studies, which in turn rolled into bird surveys underway well before dawn. A CONANP management team of 10 people kept the whole project going, while the Rancho Agua de Enmedio family kept them all well fed, and Niparajá assisted with local logistics.
It couldn’t have been more perfect: a CONANP-inspired, ICF-funded, N-Gen-executed project with a multinational team of scientific rock stars to assess the biodiversity of an area that has been consigned to the ravages of open pit gold mining. It is the people of Baja California Sur’s dream team, and if ever salvation were at hand, it is now. But “now” is December. The rains of summer are but a distant memory so few annual plants persist, and the perennials are not sporting many of their distinguishing flowers and fruits; the botanists are challenged. The weather is cool and the cold-blooded snakes are not inclined to come out; the herpetologists find solace in the amphibians. There’s water in the arroyo so land mammals are around, but volant mammals (AKA bats) are the least likely to be active in the Sierras in December; the mammologists scan the night skies with few catches. Aquatic invertebrate communities often show great seasonal variability, and there are substantial taxonomic limitations to larval identification; the entomologists take pleasure in the huge number of harvestman spiders around that freak out all the other scientists. Lots of birds are in residence, but several important species frequent the Cape Region only in summer; the ornithologists make do with what they have.
Baja California Sur Tree Frogs. Photo by Michael Bogan
All of which makes it even more impressive that in the 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land currently petitioned for use as the Los Cardones open pit gold mine project, the N-Gen team found 877 (eight hundred and seventy-seven!) species of flora and fauna, including 107 species endemic to the Cape Region alone, and 29 species listed as endangered by the Mexican government. Not only that, entirely new species were documented, including 2 insect species (and possibly more), and a completely new plant species record for the entire Peninsula, Brickellia diffusa, part of the sunflower family. And given the limitations of their research – they only had 8 days at a relatively unproductive time of year – the results are all the more astounding. In fact, the scientists reckon that their study represents only 25% (invertebrates) to about 50% (reptiles and amphibians) of the total species present in the region. It’s the frickin’ Garden of Eden on a 500 hectare lot.
But everyone knows that the Garden of Eden comes with a fast-talking serpent (apologies herpetologists) who doesn’t have the happiness of mankind at heart when he offers temptation to the innocent. As Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS) and co-editor of the study writes in the introduction to the soon-to-be-published study, “At the end of ten years of operations, the Los Cardones mine would have extracted about 173 million tons of rock, 135 million of which will have been deposited as waste in large pilings, and 38 million tons will have been accumulated in tailings in the form of sediments saturated with cyanide solution. In those ten years the project would have consumed about 300 million kilowatt-hours from the local power grid, releasing about 150,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere generated by the consumption of about 100 million liters of fossil fuels. In return, the project would generate only about 200 jobs for the entire region and only a meager eight tons of gold for the benefit of a private company.”
Scarier still, like the Garden of Eden, Arroyo La Junta is bounded by rivers, and its tributaries lie along the division of two watersheds. The ridge just to the north of Arroyo La Junta demarcates the boundary where water flows to the La Paz watershed, ending in the Gulf of California. Arroyo La Junta itself flows towards Todos Santos and empties into the Pacific Ocean. As Exequiel writes, “The mining project Los Cardones….plans to extract gold at the headwaters of the La Paz watershed treating the extracted rock with tons of cyanide, an amount sufficient to kill the entire population of Mexico.” Everyone on the peninsula knows that just one big hurricane could release a disaster of untold proportions from the mining site – it’s already happened in Sonora.
Of course it is the water that is the very source of the incredible biodiversity of Arroyo La Junta. The aquatic organisms that the water supports attract a vast array of predators like bats, birds and spiders, and the huge number of insects attracts reptiles and amphibians like frogs, who in turn attract larger predators like raccoons and coyotes. The arroyo is not just a source of drinking water for many of these species, it forms the actual basis for regional biodiversity. The humid air and damp areas extend the active period for many species, most especially reptiles, which means that they can extend their ecosystem functions for a larger part of the year.
CONANP discussed the study’s results. “When a company arrives to undertake a project in a protected area, the government wants to know if the project is compatible with the
Dr. Benjamin Wilder and Dr. Sula Vanderplank at Arroyo la Junta. Photo by Alan Harper
mission of that area. In this case, the protected area is the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, and the mission of CONANP is to protect its biodiversity for future generations. The results of this study reaffirm that mining is incompatible with that mission. The mining company says that it can restore everything as it was after it digs these huge holes in the earth, but this study proves that restoration would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.” Ben is more direct. “The biodiversity numbers of the mining company’s MIA (environmental impact assessment) don’t even come close to what we documented. Restoration to what we see today after 10 years of mining would be impossible.” Exequiel agrees. “…we want to remind ourselves again, extinction is forever; our children will never be able to see the species that our generation pushes to oblivion.”
Lawyers, guns and money. In some cases these tools bring clarity, but in others they are employed to obfuscate, intimidate and renumerate away obstacles. And therein lies the beauty of the N-Gen study – it is pure, crystal clear, science. Every fact fully documented and not subject to dispute. And the timing could not be better as there is now a precedent for scientific institutions setting environmental parameters for mining operations. On February 8, 2016 Colombia’s Constitutional Court repealed Article 51 of the National Development Plan that had allowed the Environmental Licensing Authority to authorize mining projects in the Andean paramos, tropical alpine ecosystems. It ordered the Ministry of the Environment to use the map created by a scientific research institute, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, as the basis for demarcating the boundaries of the paramo habitat. As Exequiel writes, “This was the first time a country had so explicitly put the human right to a safe water supply above the interest of big mining companies. It was also the first time that a nation had given such importance to a scientific research institute in the decision making process.”
Arroyo La Junta is in the part of the Sierras that was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the Mexican government in 1994 and by UNESCO in 2003. So the area’s value has long been suspected, but now, because of the inspiration of the CONANP team to bring in the scientific star power that is the N-Gen network, the true natural wealth of the area has finally been documented and all the players know exactly what is at stake: “Hundreds of species, many of them rare and endemic, others new to science or yet to be described.” The incredibly high rate of endemism is a result of the extreme isolation that the Sierras enjoyed for possibly millions of years. It is the natural heritage of the Mexican nation, and the very source of life for the residents of the Baja California peninsula. All the gold, all the lawyers and all the guns in the world cannot replace it. The botanists showed us that.
Endangered Species List
Reptiles & Amphibians
Botanical Research Institute of Texas
Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers
Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History, The College of Idaho
CICESE, Unidad La Paz
San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego State University
Fauna del Noroeste
San Diego Zoo Global
Sky Island Alliance
Rancho Agua de En medio
University of Arizona
University of California, Santa Cruz
University of Guadalajara
Vanderplank S, BT Wilder, E Ezcurra. 2016. Arroyo la Junta: Una joya de biodiversidad en la Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra La Laguna / A biodiversity jewel in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve. Botanical Research Institute of Texas, Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, and UC MEXUS. 159 pg.
The study will be published in June 2016, and you will be able to find it on the N-Gen web site at www.nextgensd.com.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures operates trekking and cultural programs in the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve, working with local ranchers and their families. For more information please visit www.TOSEA.net
There are four mangrove species that dominate in Baja California, and in 2010 they were all reclassified from “special protection / Protección especial” to “endangered / Amenazadas” species by SEMARNAT, Mexico’s environmental protection agency. These include: Red mangrove/ Mangle rojo (Rhizophora mangle), Black mangrove / Mangle negro (Avicennia germinans), White mangrove / Mangle blanco (Laguncularia racemosa), and Buttonwood mangrove / Mangle botoncillo (Conocarpus erectus).
Red mangroves are the most prevalent in Baja California Sur and they are easily identified by their gangly, aboveground “prop roots”, which have earned them the nickname “walking mangroves”. Like all mangrove species, red mangroves had to solve the problem of breathing and collecting nutrients in anaerobic, or oxygen-free soil, and the prop roots are a brilliant solution. These roots grow down from branches above and in the water, and eventually anchor in the mud, transporting air and nutrients. This nutrient-rich environment attracts a huge array of organisms, from protozoa to sea turtles to dolphins -creating a magnificent and complex food web. In the tropics, red mangroves can shoot past 80 feet, but in the arid climate of Baja California they rarely get past 15. On Isla Espiritu Santo, in San Gabriel Bay, the Magnificent Frigatebird uses a red mangrove canopy as a huge, elongated nursery, just a few feet off the water. It’s a sight worth seeing. Of all the mangrove species, red mangroves in Baja extend into the deepest water, the seaward zone, where conditions are harshest. Many species spend their entire life cycle among the red mangrove’s prop roots.
Black mangroves, like all mangroves, must deal with the troublesome issue of being a tree growing in seawater with a high concentration of salt – which is toxic to trees. Black mangroves solved this problem by exuding surplus salt through their leaves, where it appears as salt crystals. And, in contrast to red mangroves, they solved the problem of breathing in anaerobic soil by growing aerial roots up from a subterranean main root growing in the mud. When the tide is low these aerial roots are exposed to air and they breathe, and when the roots are covered in seawater, they take in all the nutrients they need. The black mangroves grow in the shallowest water of all the Baja California species, the landward zone. Like red mangroves, the aerial roots of the black mangroves form a natural living room, dining room, bedroom and nursery for a vast array of species along a very long food chain.
White mangroves, like their other Baja mangrove counterparts, have solved the problem of how to reproduce in such harsh, watery conditions by adopting a reproductive strategy that is more commonly found in mammals than in plants: vivipary. That is to say, they bring forth live young. Unlike most plants, the mangrove seeds germinate while still safely attached to the parent plant, producing “mangroves to go” or “propagules” – complete, miniature, folded plants that have already completed almost half a year’s growth while still attached to the parent tree. When mature, these baby plants fall into the water and drift with the sea currents. When a propagule reaches land, it immediately produces roots and soon sends up a seedling. At 40 days, the drift period is longest for red mangroves and at 5 days, it is shortest for white mangroves. Uniquely, the drift period of the white mangrove also includes germination, making it the only semi-viviparious of the Baja California mangrove species. White mangroves reach maximum density between the red and black mangroves, and the three species together form the bulk of the mangrove forests of Baja California.
Buttonwood mangroves, like all mangrove species, are working to solve the problem of global carbon emissions by burying enormous amounts of carbon in their peat soils. In fact, mangroves sequester 15 times more carbon, 50 times faster, than inland forests. Buttonwood mangroves are very sparsely distributed across Baja California, and generally as individual plants of 7 to 9 feet. Only one stand of buttonwood mangrove has been documented in BCS and that is at Isla Espiritu Santo.
So what about sweet mangroves / mangle dulce / Maytenus phyllanthoides? In Baja California sweet mangroves often form part of the salt-scrub vegetation associated with mangroves on the landward side. Yet, because they grow inland, sometimes even a good distance from the water’s edge, many more people of the Baja peninsula are familiar with this species and have a great fondness for it. As sweet mangroves are typically not in watery conditions, they take a much more traditional approach to reproduction, putting their seeds in a bright red aril, or seed covering, that develops from the seed stalk. The bright color attracts birds who act as seed dispersers. Happily, sweet mangroves do not appear on SEMARNAT’s list of protected species in Mexico.
Extinction. It happens. In fact, scientists estimate that 99% of all species that have ever strutted, slithered, swum, fruited, flitted or flowered on earth no longer exist. Cataclysmic events like asteroid hits, smashing continents and massive volcanic eruptions have already caused 5 mass extinction events over the last 4.5 billion years, each wiping out 50% to 90% of extant species. So why do some people currently get so het up about the extinction of a pretty bird species here or a weird-looking fish species there? Because it’s personal this time. After only 200,000 years on the planet our poor homo sapien habits have disrupted 65 million years of peaceful evolution to trigger the 6th mass extinction. That is, this time humans are not only the major cause, we’re also a likely casualty. Let’s face it, being at the top of the food chain matters not if there’s nothing underneath.
Mangrove Circle of Life. Collage by Tori Sepulveda and her students Monica Devine, Carol Bailey, Susan Willison, Joanna Spinoza, Christina Douglas and William Dubroraw.
Two Mexican biologists – Gerardo Ceballos and Andres Garcia of the National Autonomous University of Mexico – workingwith colleagues from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and the University of Florida, recently published an article in Science Advances showing that if the loss of species in the world continues at its current rate, then the current extinction could be on par with the 5 previous ones in 240 to 540 years – three to seven human life spans. A mass extinction happening fast enough to be perceived within a human lifetime – it’s completely unprecedented. The study states that the triggers for these deaths – pollution, predation and habit change – are all manmade. But Dr. Ceballos, the lead author on the study, offers some hope, “I’m optimistic in the sense that humans react – in the past we have made quantum leaps when we worked together to solve our problems.”
In other words, we need to get our collective act together. The study concludes, “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change.” It’s perhaps not surprising that two of the study authors are Mexican, as Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and actually is considered mega-diverse – one of only 17 countries in the world with 70% species diversity. And here in Baja California Sur, mangroves are one of the most biologically important ecosystems in the state. In fact, mangroves are one of the most productive and biologically complex systems on the planet.
Magnificent Frigatebird Rookery at Isla Espiritu Santo by Ettore Botta
Mangroves are arboreal amphibians – salt tolerant trees that have evolved to bridge land and sea in tough coastal environments. They cover over 700,000 hectares (over 1.7 million acres) of the Mexican coastline, which is 5% of the world total – only the huge coastal countries of Brazil, Australia and Indonesia have more mangroves than Mexico. And they don’t just look cool, they are a full service life support system, providing food, refuge and breeding grounds for numerous crustacean, fish and bird species, waste processing and pollutant filtering for good ocean and wildlife health, and hurricane and storm surge protection for coastlines and coastal communities; with roots deeply embedded in mud, mangroves can absorb up to 90% of a wave’s energy. On top of all that, they’re a heckuva lot of fun to explore recreationally. Dr. Octavio Aburto of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has calculated that these services can reach an annual value of US$100,000 per hectare, which means that every year, Mexico’s mangroves contribute up to 70 billion dollars to the national economy.* Even Donald Trump would call that a lot of money.
Yet every year humans clear thousands of hectares of mangroves in Mexico to make way for tourism developments, shrimp farms and other agro-industrial developments, giving Mexico the dubious distinction of having one of the highest mangrove deforestation rates in the world. Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the Institute for Mexico and the United States at the University of California laments, “This short-term vision ignores the losses for society that are generated by degrading such a valuable ecosystem.”* Dr. Aburto and Dr. Ezcurra predict that, at current deforestation rates, in 25 years close to 50% of Mexico’s mangroves will have been lost, and countless more species will succumb to habitat loss. To put this into perspective, the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the planet lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years, and that habitat loss is the greatest threat to all remaining species.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons in Mangroves by Kaia Thomson
Dr. Patricia Gonzalez Zamorano, a landscape ecologist at CIBNOR (Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste) in La Paz who has been studying the mangroves of the Baja peninsula since 1997, cites a book† on mangroves recently-published by her institution and others when discussing the importance of mangroves to biodiversity in Baja California. “The mangroves of Baja California are the northernmost in the Eastern Pacific, and they support a tremendous number of species. Research over the years has confirmed that our mangroves support 159 fish species, 152 bird species – 43% resident, 57% migratory, 214 seaweed species, and 213 species of marine macroinvertebrates, including 72 species of crustaceans such as crab, shrimp, and krill, and 62 species of bivalves including oysters, clams, and mussels. While the rate of mangrove loss in Baja California is comparatively low at “only” 2% per year, between 1973 and 1981 we lost 23% of the mangrove forests surrounding La Paz alone due to development.” It can cost several thousand dollars and up to 100 years to restore a single hectare of mangrove to its full environmental services capacity.
Fish in Mangroves by Octavio Aburto
Dr. Aburto and Dr. Excurra worry that mangrove loss could cause irreparable damage to fisheries. Mangrove-related fish and crab species account for 32% of the small-scale fisheries landings in Baja California Sur, and mangrove loss, coupled with overfishing, have already had a severe impact on the state’s fishing industry. While the evidence is only anecdotal at this time, it is clear that many families who have been fishing in the state for generations are already looking to other sources of income as rapidly declining fish stocks are challenging their traditional livelihoods.
As homo sapiens we often make the short-sighted decision to allow a habitat to die, because we feel the resources required to sustain it are needed to allow mankind to live. It can take great creativity and commitment to find solutions to immediate human problems that will provide the biodiversity mankind needs to flourish past more than just the next three generations. The stakes are about as high as they come: Dr. Ceballos and his colleagues state that if the loss of species continues on the current projection, then “On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify.” In other words, save that pretty bird, that weird-looking fish, that mangrove today, and they just might return the favor tomorrow. Extinction. It happens. But it sure feels different when it’s coming for you.
*National Geographic Voices, the International League of Conservation Photographers, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mangroves in the Gulf of California increase fishery yields
†Los Manglares de la Península de Baja California, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur
Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares (Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves) is a brand new project taking place in BCS. It’s the brainchild of four marine biologists who, while sitting around the pool enjoying a cold beer, got into their favorite topic: how dirty the ocean is becoming and how plastic seems to be everywhere. Usually that would have been the end of it. But not this time.
Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares
A date was set, a plan was made, and on July 22, 2015 more than 50 divers cleaned four reefs. Then less than a month later, on August 16, more than 100 kayakers and SUPers cleaned all the mangroves in La Paz Bay. Just a few weeks later, on September 6, the divers cleaned Pargo Villa, a rocky reef in 60 feet of water south of Cerralvo Island. While the divers were out a classroom of 5th graders cleaned the beach at La Ventana. Afterward the two groups got together to share what they had found, talk about how it got there, and how to prevent it from returning.
The organizers of Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares – Mariana Padilla, Pepe Torres, Ronaldo Vilchis and Pablo Ahuja – have pledged to do a cleanup of a reef or mangrove every month, and so far have completed 3 cleanups in less than 3 months.
The organizers are seeking donations to purchase a laptop and computer projector so that they can begin environmental education in the schools of La Paz. To learn more about how you can get involved and be a part of the project, please visit them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Rescatando-Nuestros-Arrecifes-y-Manglares or contact organizer Pablo Ahuja at .
ROCKIN’ THE MANGROVES. The rock band Linkin Park is taking center stage in conserving mangroves in Baja California. Through their philanthropic arm Music for Relief, Linkin Park has partnered with the environmental group WildCoast to conserve 61 miles of mangroves in Baja California’s Magdalena Bay. Through WildCoast’s #MangleEsVida campaign, the program is raising funds to help protect mangroves so that they in turn can help mitigate coastal flooding to protect wildlife and coastal communities. For more information on Linkin Park, WildCoast and saving mangroves in Baja California, check out #MangleEsVida and/or contact WildCoast’s Monica Franco Ortiz at .
The cardón cactus, endemic to Baja California, is one of the most massive and ubiquitous cacti on the planet. Huge groves of multi-limbed old timers that witnessed the arrival of the first Europeans over five centuries ago can still be seen the length of the peninsula, and single young upstarts that haven’t even sent up their first arm yet crowd the desert landscape. What accounts for such rampant success? In a word, bats. Now of course there are many factors that help the cardón survive – isolation, summer rains, water retaining skeletons – but none of this would matter if it wasn’t for the bat, because the cardón is a cactus that deigns to open its flowers for pollination only as the sun is setting, a time when the kings of the PM pollination scene are emerging from their caves ravenous for their first meal of the night. That’s right, bats.
But not just any bat. Researchers have known for years about the role of the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) in cardon pollination. In fact, when a young graduate student named Winifred Frick arrived in Baja in 2004 to work on her dissertation in bat ecology, the lesser long-nosed bat was considered the only cardón pollinator game in town. Says Frick, “The lesser long-nosed bat is highly specialized for nectar-feeding. It can hover at an open cardón flower and use its
Lesser long-nosed bat. Photo by Rick Jackson.
long tongue to extract nectar, transferring pollen from one flower to the next in the process.” Clean, precise, targeted. Evolution at its most elegant. “So I was really surprised to see this other desert bat, the pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), regularly visiting cardón flowers. The pallid bat has a short face, long ears and loves to eat scorpions off the ground. At first I thought maybe it was visiting the bat-adapted flowers of the cardon to opportunistically glean insects attracted to the flowers. But as we observed it over 2005-2007, we realized that the pallid bat was actually indulging in cardón flower nectar. Apparently it likes a little something sweet to wash down savory scorpion meals. However, unlike the lesser long-nosed bat, the pallid bat doesn’t hover but dives onto the whole flower, caking its whole body in pollen.” A cardón pollinator usurper?
Frick, now Dr. Frick of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was doing her dissertation on “the relationship between the size and isolation of (Baja) islands and bat species richness in a near-shore archipelago …” so didn’t follow up on her pallid bat observations at the time. But she didn’t forget the pollen-laden pallids, and a few years later teamed up with some of her UC Santa Cruz colleagues to study bats and cardón pollination in more depth, resulting in game-changing research that was published in American Naturalist in 2012 (Frick is the lead author of the study conducted with her colleagues Ryan Price, Paul Heady and Kathleen Kay). For the study, which was funded in part by the National Geographic Society and UC MEXUS, Frick and her team monitored cardón flowers at several sites in southern Baja. When they saw a bat visit a flower they would identify which of the two cardón-nectar-loving rivals it was, then retrieve the stigma of the flower to determine how many grains of pollen the bat had deposited. They also recorded the total number of flower visits by each of the two species at each study site. Turns out, pollination’s not just for the long-nosed crowd.
Pallid Bat on Cardon Flower. Photo by Merlin Tuttle. http://merlintuttle.org
“The results blew us away. The lesser long-nosed bat has an ancient cardón-pollinating lineage that has been co-evolving with the cardón flower for a very long time. We were therefore very surprised to see that the newby, the pallid bat, is a far more effective pollinator, delivering about 8 times as much pollen per visit. We observed several factors that account for this. One is that the pallid bat rests its body on the flower and plunges its whole head into the flower to get at the nectar. It therefore gets far more pollen on its body than the hovering lesser long-nosed bat, who is using its tongue only to access nectar. So this new pollinator is actually better than the more specialized pollinator because it is not well-adapted to nectar feeding. (The pallid is the only nectar feeder from an insect-feeding family, Vespertilionidae). Its stats are also helped by the fact that the lesser long-nosed bat uses pollen as a source of protein, so therefore regularly eats the pollen off its fur, reducing the amount available for pollination. Finally, the lesser long-nosed bat is migratory while the pallid bat is a year-round Baja resident, a fact that makes the pallid bat especially important to the cardón.”
The cardón. Amazing record of longevity and survival. How has it done that? It has been scientifically shown that plants respond to stimuli such as sound and touch. Some wounded plants produce a chemical that acts as an alarm signal, prompting nearby plants to produce chemicals that help them defend themselves against insects – or attract insect predators. Venus fly traps just eat the interlopers. So is it possible that the cardón has sensed that it’s a hair risky to continue entrusting its future solely to an endangered, migratory, picky eater like the lesser long-nosed bat? Has it therefore made its flower scent / nectar taste so enticing that even – or perhaps especially – a scorpion-loving, insect-grubbing, and – until recently – flower-snubbing permanent Baja resident like the pallid bat would literally plunge in head first to its rescue? Says Frick’s co-author Kathleen Kay, “What is actually happening in terms of how species are mutually interacting can be more complicated than what meets the eye.” Wily cardón. Lucky bats.
Pallid bat photo by Merlin Tuttle. http://merlintuttle.org
Photographer Merlin Tuttle
MerlinTuttle decided to devote the remainder of his career to bat conservation in 1982 “as an act of desperation. It was obvious that without major improvement in public attitudes, the situation for bats would continue to worsen.” Battered by centuries of harmful myths and misinformation, bats were despised and casually slaughtered around the world. Merlin has made education – correcting those myths and teaching the economic and ecosystem benefits of bats – a major part of his work. Distressed that most bat photographs showed roughly handled bats snarling in self-defense,Merlin taught himself photography. He became a world-class wildlife photographer whose images have appeared in books and magazines around the world and played a crucial part in his education efforts. To view his amazing photographs and contribute to his bat conservation efforts, please visit http://merlintuttle.org/.
When you arrive at Areli Sarah Castillo’s house in Pescadero on a late summer afternoon, the look and feel of the front of her house is very similar to that of her neighbors: there’s a teenage boy working on his truck in beat to the radio’s tunes; two young girls are playing with dolls on the sofa under a well-placed beach umbrella; and several dogs are enjoying afternoon napping bliss in various poses. There’s nothing to suggest that the Castillo family is at the forefront of a movement to change the eating and health patterns of a town – until you go around back. There you find the riot of green and rampant plant life that is the greenhouse built by Areli and her children, and from which they feed the twelve people who now call their house home. Beautiful long vines of tomatoes, steamy-looking chiles, delightfully prickly pineapples, all manner of herbs and spices, all lovingly cared for in a space next to the chicken coop where the happy, well-cared for hens oblige the family with at least 15 eggs a day. All healthy, all organic, all the time. It’s not really what you’d expect from a woman who used to sell hotdogs for a living.
Greenhouse Greats of Pescadero
Areli is one of 18 women in the Sistemas Naturales y Desarrollo AC (SINADES) greenhouse program in Pescadero run by Inés Melchor Pantoja, with assistance from her husband, Julio César Rivas García. Inés and Julio, with a grant from Fondo Acción Solidaria AC, or Fasol* , started a community center about five years ago where their first program was teaching the children of Pescadero in accordance with the SINADES motto, “Educar para conservar” – Educate to preserve. Here kids were able to learn about composting, recycling, healthy eating, and growing things. The kids loved the program so much (seriously, we’re playing in dirt here – what’s not to love?) that they wanted to get their parents involved, so Inés and Julio started a pilot program for women in the community called Conscious Cooking. It has transformed the lives of the women and their families.
Like many Mexican towns across the country, Pescadero is plagued by health problems associated with poor diets. Manuela Tapis, one of the participants in the Conscious Cooking program, has lived in Pescadero for 40 years. She says that many of her neighbors in town suffer from diabetes, severe allergies, gastritis and other chronic health issues. Pescadero is not alone. Mexican government statistics indicate that 71% of the entire Mexican population is either obese (32%) or overweight (39%). That’s over 48 million Mexicans walking around in plus sizes. According to journalist Olaya Astudillo writing in The Lancet, a leading medical journal, one of the key culprits in this rise in obesity in Mexico is the global trend away from traditional diets towards highly processed foods. More specifically writes Astudillo, “Cost is highly influential for when a family with limited income has to make decisions about the home diet. They will spend their money on the food that contains more calories for lower prices. But the food might not necessarily be more nutritious, of best nutritious quality, nor contribute to a more adequate diet than other products with less calories.”
The Conscious Cooking program aims to change all that by making healthy foods affordable, desirable and an integral part of family life. And it was the desire to procure organic, pesticide-free produce at a reasonable price that drove SINADES and the women of the Conscious Cooking program to start building greenhouses. As Margarita Vasquez, one of the women in the group explains, “The older people in Pescadero used to grow their own food, but we lost all those skills. Now with SINADES and the greenhouse project we’re recovering those values. Through this program we’ve learned how to make our own organic fertilizer by composting, we’ve learned about watering our plants using gray waters from the house for irrigation, we’ve learned great skills like how to make nutritious snacks by drying fruit in the sun and so much more. We have learned such an incredible amount here about how to have healthy food at a low cost, and the impact on our personal health and that of our families has been remarkable.” Janette Albañez, who has lived in Pescadero for 25 years agrees. “Health, health, health is what this program means for me. I used to have chronic asthma and ate very poorly. Now my asthma has cleared up and even my junk-food guzzling husband loves eating raw vegetables.”
Ines Melchor Pantoja
Janette got involved when she saw one of her neighbors building a greenhouse, and this is the type of knock-on effect that the SINADES program is having in Pescadero. As more people see the health benefits that their friends and neighbors are achieving, the more that are interested in learning the skills to achieve similar results for themselves. And even more than for themselves, they are motivated on behalf of their children. Angeles Caballero, mother to two children ages 3 and 7, really speaks for all the women involved when she says “I started this program because of my kids. I’ve only been in Pescadero 10 years and was so surprised to see all the young children here that already have diabetes. I was motivated to save my children from this fate, but now my kids are even more motivated than me. Their friends think it’s weird that they’ll have tomatoes with salt instead of potato chips, but they don’t care. My kids love working in the garden and love this program. It is wonderful for us as a family.”
Areli couldn’t agree more. “My children are actually even more excited about the greenhouse than I am. They love coming out here and working every day. They love that we no longer buy any canned food, and they love how much better they feel with so much less junk food in their diet. These are benefits that you just can’t put a price on.”
But there is a price of course, and the 4,000 pesos (~US$285) required to build a greenhouse is a fairly high barrier to entry for many of these families, a barrier that they must surmount once again as Hurricane Odile (September 2014) destroyed every one of the greenhouses built by the women and children of SINADES in Pescadero. But they are not discouraged. Says Inés, “We recovered some of the material from the greenhouses and received a small donation to buy more mesh, so we are slowly coming back around. Some of the families are already in production again and everyone is continuing to move forward. It’s a strong community and we will rebound.”
Before the hurricane, there were signs around the Pescadero community center that read “Cue da-temba, nuestra casa”. Cue da-temba means Mother Earth in the language of the Guaycura Indians, the now extinct indigenous people of Baja California Sur. And of course nuestra casa is Spanish for “our home”. The goal of Inés, Julio and the women and children of SINADES is to create a sustainable and healthy lifestyle for the families in their community. Helping them to do that is really just enlightened self interest because, after all, “Cue da-temba, nuestra casa” applies to us all. Inés can be reached at and the SINADES Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/SinadesAc.
*Fasol, headed by the dynamic Artemisa Castro and a group of likeminded environmental activists, provides financial support to grassroots groups that are working for social and environmental change in Mexico. SINADES is a great example of the type of success they have achieved in communities across Mexico. For more information please visit their web site at: http://fasol-ac.org/fasol_wp_ing/
At Todos Santos Eco Adventures we run 4-day hiking trips in the mountains of Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve, a little-explored but fantastically beautiful area in Baja California Sur. We asked 6 former guests to share what they found most memorable about the trip. So here, in their own words, is each guest’s description of their Sierra trek:
Photo by Thea Thomas
“A few adventurous friends of mine in Baja had hiked to the Sierra de la Laguna and told me how amazing it was, but it was more wondrous than I imagined. At an elevation of 7,000 feet it is a world of its own, an “Island in the sky” as one friend described it. The forests of oak, pine and madrona are host to unique plants and animals. For me as a birder seeing the Yellow-eyed Junco, Oak Titmouse, Baja morph of the American Robin and Acorn Woodpecker was great fun. Our trip was lead by an incredible guide, Mauricio Durán, from Todos Santos Eco Adventures. His knowledge of the natural history of the area added greatly to our experience.”
Thea Thomas, Cordova, Alaska
Photo by John Valentine
“One of the highlights of the trip was meeting our guide Sergio. He is so knowledgeable about everything, a true renaissance guy. I learned so much about geography, birds and the natural world from him. I often think about that trip. The hike itself to the top was more difficult than I thought it would be but absolutely beautiful. What I couldn’t believe is the diversity of trees. There were parts of it that looked exactly like Colorado. The most exciting point was the freak electrical storm one night. I think we had a few snowflakes and our water bottles had ice in them. I have never seen or heard such an electrical display. I remember the beauty and serenity of the camping area and the hikes we took each day to the peak and waterfalls. The beauty and diversity of this area nestled between the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez—so different from the normal Baja tourist itinerary. People need to see the incredible beauty of Baja beyond the beaches.”
John Valentine, Kansas City, Missouri
“Your effort to get to the top will be well rewarded. Seeing both the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific at the same time was an extraordinary experience!”
Jon Dallman, Seattle, Washington
Photo by John Dallman
“I’m 58 years old, and consider myself in pretty good condition. I ride mountain bikes three times a week. Practice yoga in-between. But no matter how much you do, climbing to El Picacho in Southern Baja’s Sierra de la Laguna Mountain Range is a challenge, and our hike to base camp took about 6 hours. The most welcome sight at the end of our hike up was that picture-perfect camp, completely set up with pitched tents and snacks laid out on the table. I felt as if I was on a photo shoot for one of those Abercrombie and Fitch high-end tours of Africa. We spent the night enjoying delicious al dente pasta, and a choice of excellent wines by the light of a crackling fire. We camped along the shores of an ancient dry lakebed at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. Giant pine and oak trees sighed in the breeze. Vaqueros (cowboys) had carried all of our gear and food up on muleback. The mules, now hobbled, were happily munching the tawny grasses of this high mountain meadow. It was a scene straight out of the old west.”
Mike Brozda, Todos Santos, Mexico
“My greatest memory of the trip was the bells. The cowboys hobbled their horses and mules so they would not leave the meadow and each of the animals had a bell around its neck. The bells created a symphony under the starlit night, and it was spectacular.”
Patty Romanchek, New Buffalo, Michigan
“I went swimming on my birthday in a frigid mountain lake. Everyone was going to join me…but after I took the plunge, they all were still on the rocks
Photo by Craig Ligibel
laughing. That was the coldest birthday swim I have ever had. One of our group was a urologist. He assured me that a certain appendage that had almost disappeared would be sure to return the next day. I’m glad he was right!”
Craig Ligibel, Annapolis, Maryland
“Sergio led us on a 3 hour climb up the face of El Picacho itself, the literal and metaphorical high point of the trip. The trail winds through shady pine forests before emerging into oak-covered scree. We threaded along a razor’s edge portion of the trail, with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean on our left, and the Sea of Cortez on the right. We descended about 100 feet–down the distinctive notch you see in El Picacho–before scrambling up
Photo by John Valentine
huge granite boulders to the top. We spent about 90 minutes at the top of the world in Southern Baja, drinking in the view, munching on snacks, and snapping photos. That evening, back at camp, we had a meal of delicious fajitas, rice and beans, fresh hot tortillas with guacamole, fresh vegetables, and toasted our success.”
Mike Brozda, Todos Santos, Mexico
For more information about trekking in the Sierra de la Laguna Biosphere Reserve please visit our web site at www.tosea.net and/or email us at