2 Aug 2016

Ecotourism magic in Mexican villages

Belding's Yellowthroat © Alan Harper
Belding's Yellowthroat © Alan Harper
By Irene Lorenzo

The vivid colours of Belding’s Yellowthroat were becoming a rare sight. Luckily, the locals of Baja California Sur seem to have taking a liking to this small bird and are now getting involved in the business of ecotourism. Find out how avian research is saving species in this Mexican state.

Original press release by Conacyt (Spanish).

Todos Santos is a small coastal town at the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. For a while the village thrived as the sugarcane capital of the region. Recently declared by the government as one of the countries’ Magical Villages owing to its tradition and beauty, it’s now become a well-known stopover for tourists.

However, the ever-increasing tourism means that many of the natural areas around the region are becoming vulnerable to human activity. This means less land for birds and increasingly degraded landscapes. Habitat loss is especially bad for Belding’s Yellowthroat Geothlypis beldingi – an endangered bird that lives in scattered patches of oases around the state. Research estimates there’s only between 1000 and 2500 individuals adults left, living in an estimated of 30 km2 of fragmented habitat in 3,800 km2 of desert.

In order to protect species such as the Yellowthroat, researchers at the Laboratory of Birds of the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) in collaboration with Pronatura Noroeste (BirdLife in Mexico) are developing models for sustainable business based on scientific research in order to safeguard bird habitats. Their objective: to include people in their equation.

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Helping people to help nature

The Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBA) Programme reveals that the State of Baja California Sur holds most important places for birds in Mexico, sites which could be lost if development continues in the same vein.

Looking for solutions that could work both for nature and people, UABCS' research has generated a database of the natural conditions that are necessary to develop birdwatching tourism in the state. With this knowledge, they are training locals as specialised guides that are able to detect and identify birds of interest, without harming nature.

"The scientific knowledge generated at the UABCS is passed on to rural communities through ecotourism programmes organised by Pronatura, creating an environmentally friendly activity that is economically viable," said Dr. Roberto Carmona Piña, Professor and Researcher at UABCS.

The economic benefits go directly to rural communities that offer their birdwatching guide services. Indirectly, various service providers such as hotel and restaurant owners and local artists benefit from the programme too.

"The key point is to give an alternative to people. We tell them ‘Do not disturb nature and in return you will get an economic benefit thanks to ecotourism’," he concluded.

Basic research methods used for complex issues

The bird research carried out by UABCS mainly consists of monitoring, surveys and analysis of biological characteristics. These data allow specialists to know the general status of populations and generate models of distribution and abundance that can be used for conservation purposes.

 ‘’We carry out bi-weekly and monthly monitoring - it varies depending on the species and season. We conduct tours and identify fixed points for critical or rare species and count the number of individuals," said Roberto Carmona Piña.

So far UABCS has records of about 450 bird species in the region, of which three are endemic species: Xantus's Hummingbird Basilinna xantusii, Grey Thrasher Toxostoma cinereum and the aforementioned Belding's Yellowthroat Geothlypis beldingi.

These science-based studies have also laid the foundation to manage conservation projects for the governments’ Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, mainly related to endemic birds of Baja California Sur.

"On top of the research aspect we are looking at the technical and management side of things to achieve a protected area for the Belding’s Yellowthroat in Todos Santos. This would allow us to conserve the species through management plans with the support of the government",

said González Carrillo, Legal Representative at Pronatura.

Through these outreach programs and by sharing knowledge with the locals, Pronatura has seen how the residents of Todos Santos are increasingly interested in saving the Belding’s Yellowthroat. Down the street, you can hear the locals say how they’d love to turn this yellow beauty into the emblem of their magical town.