New Desert Refuge in Mexico to Provide Critical Habitat for Wildlife

Rare tortoises, nesting and migratory birds, unique lizards and a variety of mammals are set to benefit from the recent purchase of a 18,850-acre former cattle ranch, Rancho Guimbalete, in Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert. Rainforest Trust, Turtle Conservancy and its local affiliate HABIO, A.C. and Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) partnered on a deal to purchase the ranch, which will be converted into a desert wildlife refuge. 

Rancho Guimbalete, which is in the state of Coahuila on the northern edge of the Bolsón de Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, covers a large tract of mostly undamaged Chihuahuan desert vegetation and is home to a range of resident and migratory wildlife. This includes the Critically Endangered Bolson Tortoise, which “was recently uplisted from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature,” said Stephanie Wester, Latin America Conservation Officer at Rainforest Trust. “It is incredible that over 18,000 acres are now protected for this species and other wildlife.”

Critically Endangered Bolson Tortoise. Photo by Maurice Rodrigues/Turtle Conservancy.

Rancho Guimbalete is also home to lizards that live only in the local sand dunes, nesting birds and migratory birds that stop to feed and rest at the seasonal wetlands and a variety of resident mammals, such as kangaroo rats, Mule Deer and Pumas. The ranch is also home to an incredible diversity of cacti, herbs and shrub species. 

“Wild desert landscapes all over northern Mexico are being lost to overgrazing and, even worse, conversion to irrigated crop agriculture,” said Eric Goode, president of Turtle Conservancy. “These drylands cannot sustain agriculture for very long. But when exploiting them, native plants and animals are lost, and the landscape is forever changed for the worse. We lose wilderness, and we can never replace that.” 

Under the leadership of HABIO, A.C., a Mexican NGO dedicated to biodiversity conservation in the country’s northern deserts, the ranch will now be managed primarily to protect the biodiversity found there. The ranch will also serve as a buffer zone for the neighboring Bolsón de Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, which the Mexican government established in 1977 and is a candidate Key Biodiversity Area. The site of global importance for the persistence of biodiversity. 

“We are particularly grateful to the previous owners of the ranch, who used it to raise cattle but did it in an environmentally sensitive way,” said Peter Paul van Dijk, a senior associate scientist with GWC. “They prevented overgrazing and resisted the temptation to introduce damaging non-native grass species as fodder for their cows. Their care for the land safeguarded its biodiversity.”

In addition to putting an end to cattle grazing — which will help spur the recovery of grasslands habitat — HABIO, A.C. will implement management strategies that minimize erosion, encourage vegetation recovery, increase water availability for native wildlife and prevent agricultural land use.

“The purchase of Rancho Guimbalete by HABIO, so that it can be managed in the future for biodiversity conservation, represents a significant step forward for the conservation of the Bolsón de Mapimi’s unique biology and landscape,” said Judith Rios, treasurer of HABIO, A.C.

As many as 200 bird species, 70 mammal species, and 50 reptile and amphibian species potentially live in or use the ranch habitat, though future surveys will confirm the exact number of species that will benefit from the protection of the ranch. Habitat destruction and poaching are the biggest threats to the wildlife that live here, in addition to more severe droughts that result from climate change. 

This purchase was made possible through the generous support of the Rainforest Trust Conservation Action Fund and SAVES Challenge, the Turtle Conservancy and Global Wildlife Conservation. 

Header image: The Guimbalete Ranch covers extensive areas of Chihuahuan desert vegetation backing up to the foothills of the Sierra Mojada. Photo by Peter Paul van Dijk, Global Wildlife Conservation and Turtle Conservancy. 

 

Voices from the Rainforest: Messias Gomes da Silva, Rainforest Trust Conservation Guardian

To celebrate this World Ranger Day, Rainforest Trust would like to honor the important conservation work of Messias Gomes da Silva and his nephew Matheus, Rainforest Trust Conservation Guardians. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Land and Family

Matheus Gomes da Silva. Photo by REGUA.

The Lagoinha Valley in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state is lush with Atlantic Forest, unique to South America. For generations, Messias Gomes da Silva’s family owned the entirety of the valley, inexorably linking the family’s ancestry with the rainforest. Over time, they sold the majority of the land, which they referred to as the Lagoinha Farm, to sharecroppers. When the family’s deep connection with the land was severed, the rainforest began to suffer. Cattle pastures and housing developments caused immense deforestation in the region. Messias’ family was able to keep a small portion of the land to live on. This is where he spent his childhood, learning the rich history of the property from his family. 

Adulthood brought him to the city for better career opportunities, but he eventually returned to the rainforest of his youth to care for his elderly parents. Messias began farming and regularly hunting nearby animals. Brazilian conservation organization and Rainforest Trust partner Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu (REGUA) took notice of his activities and offered him a position as a ranger. They hoped he would use the skills he developed hunting to monitor their protected areas.  Through his work as a ranger, Messias witnessed firsthand the devastating impact poaching has on an ecosystem, which ultimately inspired him to study protected area management. 

A few years later, by pure coincidence, REGUA was offered one of the sharecropper-owned parcels of land from the Lagoinha Farm. Because of his rich family history in the area, Messias was able to provide valuable information regarding the geographical limits of the property and teach REGUA about the intricate nature of the land. This brought REGUA to focus on mapping and acquiring the remaining properties of the Lagoinha farm. Messias sold them a section of the land that his family still owned, and they sought out other owners to convince them to sell their portions. 

Eventually, REGUA successfully purchased 1,062 acres of the sharecroppers’ land, which decreased anthropogenic threats to the region. REGUA partnered with Rainforest Trust in 2018 to complete two additional purchases, expanding the protected area by 225 acres. REGUA now protects the vast majority of the 2,350-acre Lagoinha Valley ecosystem, now named the REGUA reserve. The organization continues to make land purchases within the region to safeguard vital rainforest. They have installed fencing around the property and have plans to implement proven ecological restoration techniques on areas that have suffered from deforestation. 

Messias currently resides outside of the Lagoinha property and still contributes to the protection of its unique habitat. He understands the importance of properly maintaining the rainforest to protect its biodiversity and ensure clean water access. The Guapiaçu watershed, which offers abundant streams of fresh water, flows within the reserve. This makes the protected area essential in guaranteeing sustainable water resources for the future. The communities of Lagoinha are beginning to understand REGUA’s objectives and are helping to secure the property. 

This monumental chain of conservation efforts occurred because of Messias’ willingness to change his way of life and learn to protect the land he was raised on. He has passed down his knowledge and passion for conservation to future generations. His nephew, Matheus Gomes da Silva, is a young REGUA park ranger in the Guapiaçu Valley and Rainforest Trust Guardian. The history of the da Silva family and Lagoinha rainforest are forever intertwined. The family once owned the land, helped to fight for its protection and will now continue to ensure its survival in perpetuity. 

Header image: The Lagoinha landscape. Photo by REGUA. 

New Marine Protected Area in Bay of Bengal

Rainforest Trust and local partner Wildlife Conservation Society (WSC) recently worked together to establish the Nijhum Dwip Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the northern Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The new protected area encompasses 1,222 miles of brackish water habitat at the mouth of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers, which come together to create the world’s third largest river system. The MPA will play an important role in connecting marine conservation in the region to productive fisheries and other offshore protected areas. 

According to a recent at-sea survey conducted by WCS, the waters of Nijhum Dwip are a biodiversity hotspot home to an array of iconic marine wildlife. Some of the world’s largest populations of endangered dolphins, porpoises, sharks, rays and marine turtles can be found in the MPA. 

Citizen scientists releasing the Critically Endangered Hawksbill Turtle. Photo by WCS.

The new protected area will safeguard at least 15 threatened marine species, including the Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin, Olive Ridley turtle and Scalloped Hammerhead shark. The habitat will also serve as key spawning grounds and provide migration routes for the Hilsa shad, Bangladesh’s most treasured species of fish. Known locally as the “King of Fish,” the Hilsa shad is considered a delicacy due to its soft and oily texture. The sustainable catching and consumption of this fish is critical to Bangladesh and its communities. The Hilsa fishery employs about 2.5 million people and generates over 1.3 billion dollars for the national economy. 

“Declaration of the Nijhum Dwip MPA is a huge opportunity for marine conservation in Bangladesh,” said Dr. Wahab Md Abdul, Team Leader for the USAID supported EcoFish Project. “This is due to its location that covers habitat vital to the spawning and migration of the economically valuable Hilsa shad and for protecting of threatened marine biodiversity, including charismatic wildlife such as dolphins and hammerhead sharks.”

Bottlenose Dolphin and survey vessel. Photo by WCS.

Marine species are not the only wildlife that are set to benefit from Nijhum Dwip. The intertidal mudflats shared by the MPA and the Nijhum Dwip National Park serve as critical migratory feeding habitat for a variety of threatened shorebirds, including the Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The new MPA is a critical step in creating an effectively managed network of marine protected areas in Bangladesh. The protection of this habitat will provide safety for marine biodiversity at global risk of extinction, and sustain fisheries vital to food security, local livelihoods and the national economy. 

 

Header image: Endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins leaping. Photo by WCS.

Voices from the Rainforest: Walter Elías Vicente Barrondo, Rainforest Trust Conservation Guardian

Leading up to World Ranger Day on July 31, Rainforest Trust would like to honor the important conservation work of Walter Elías Vicente Barrondo, a Rainforest Trust Conservation Guardian. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Logger to Conservationist

Walter working in the Cerro Amay-Chimel Cloud Forest Reserve. Photo by Stephanie Wester/Rainforest Trust.

Born into a successful logging family in Guatemala, Walter Elías Vicente Barrondo understood since childhood that logging was essential for the survival of his family. Each day growing up, Walter accompanied his father on logging expeditions in the montane forest, and witnessed the fallen trees transforming into wood, then into ash. And after years of watching his father’s success, Walter was determined to become the most accomplished logger in his community. His dreams came to fruition — at just 15 years old, he was able to use a chainsaw perfectly and became renowned for his skill.  

Years later during a village meeting in Chimel, community leaders selected Walter to lead a group of tourists on a field trip through a local reserve that protected cloud forests. They invited him to visit the protected area before the trip and gave him full access to the grounds. Upon his first visit, Walter was amazed by the richness of life within an undisturbed rainforest. The expansive variety of animals and plants forced him to acknowledge nature in a way he never had before. What stood out most prominently to him were the enormous trees looming overhead, acting as guardians to the fragile ecosystem. 

While leading the excursion, Walter was genuinely surprised by the eco-tourists’ interest and appreciation for the remote cloud forests. He had the opportunity to learn from them about the unique biodiversity and the important role trees play in the habitat. He was also educated on the many threats they face from deforestation, including logging. This recognition was an alarming wake-up call for Walter. He felt partially responsible for some of this damage, and was compelled to play a part of protecting the remaining forest. 

Motivated by the same drive that made him one of the most successful loggers in his community, Walter shifted his career focus to forest conservation. He worked with forest technicians to develop management plans and learned how to use Global Positioning Systems to monitor protected areas. He was eventually recommended to work as a park guard for Fundación para el Ecodesarrollo y la Conservación (FUNDAECO). He is currently stationed at Cerro Amay-Chimel Cloud Forest Reserve, a Rainforest Trust-supported protected area that safeguards one of the largest areas of intact cloud forest left in Central America. As a Rainforest Trust Guardian, Walter is now able to spend his life monitoring and protecting the forest ecosystems that he once took for granted.

Walter and FUNDAECO staff in the reserve. Photo by Stephanie Wester/Rainforest Trust.

Header image: Walter Elías Vicente Barrondo. Photo by Stephanie Wester/Rainforest Trust.

Giant Creatures Make Homes for Tiny Creatures

Elephants are, to state the obvious, very big. I mean, have you ever stopped and looked at one of them? They’re huge, massive, enormous creatures. They’re so big, their hearts only beat every two seconds—that’s 30 beats per minute. Count it out—it’s a long time between beats in their giant, oversized, gargantuan hearts. A low human heart rate is 60 beats per minute. Mouse hearts can beat up to 840 times per minute.

But the elephant—just once every two interminable seconds.

Their size helps them become what ecologists call “ecosystem engineers.” That means that they can alter the landscape drastically enough to affect ecosystem function. For example, elephants can turn wooded areas into grasslands by trampling and knocking down vegetation. By doing so, they create space for grassland species to thrive. Elephant dung fertilizes and seeds these grasslands and their digging for water opens up watering holes for other, less bulldozer-like species.

Many species have places to live, eat and drink thanks to elephants. And a recent paper found more of those species.

Researchers in Myanmar studied flooded elephant footprints and found frog eggs and tadpoles living in them. They determined that the footprints were an important breeding habitat for the frogs. They may even be “stepping stone” habitat for frogs between larger habitats such as ponds or wetlands.

Apartment construction for frogs.

These footprints can last—and I’m serious here—for more than a year. Groundwater apparently helps these pools persist throughout the dry season. These footprint in-ground pools are clearly more than temporary housing for their amphibian tenants.

The paper also included this gem of a quote: “Water-filled elephant tracks are in effect small lentic waterbodies created when elephants walk across a substrate unable to support their great bulk without being modified.” Meaning: Elephants make these footprints when the mud is real squishy.

“Elephant tracks are virtual condominiums for frogs,” said Steven Platt, the study’s lead author. “This study underscores the critical role wildlife play in ecosystems in sometimes unexpected ways.”

This isn’t the first time researchers have found a link between elephant ecosystem engineering and amphibians. A few years ago, scientists found a positive correlation between amphibian diversity and the level of elephant activity in study plots in Tanzania.

So let’s recap: Giant creatures step all over squishy dirt, making tiny pools. Tiny creatures then live in those tiny foot-pools.

What a magical planet we live on.

Header photo by Wildlife Alliance.

Voices from the Rainforest: Samuel Ngueping, Rainforest Trust Conservation Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

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Using Social Media as a Conservation Tool

Samuel Ngueping is a Protected Area Manager with Rainforest Trust Partner Environment and Rural Development Foundation (ERuDeF) in Cameroon. He began working at the ERuDeF Institute in 2013 as Program Development Officer and since, has worked there for many years in several different capacities. Since April 2018, he has been stationed at the ERuDeF head office in Buea, Southwest Region, working as the Director of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Management in the Conservation department.

Samuel (holding sign) participating in a sensitization meeting in Bechati. Photo by ERuDeF.

Why did you become a conservationist?

Since childhood, I have had a passion for nature. While attending primary and secondary school in the Western Region of Cameroon, I found through my studies that in the 1940s there were many local, threatened wildlife species, including African Forest Elephants, Lions and Leopards. I discovered that the Santchou Game Reserve was an important elephant hotspot in the region around that time. But unfortunately, I have realized that there are no more elephants in the reserve and no more large mammal species in the entire Western Region of Cameroon.

Because of my dream to see the charismatic African Forest Elephant, I decided to become a conservationist. This motivation prompted me to register in an undergraduate program in Botany at the University of Buea where there are many elephant ranges. I also earned my Master’s Degree in Protected Area Management. All these trainings have enabled me to acquire practical skills in the field of conservation in order to better contribute to the sustainable management of biodiversity as a whole.

What inspires you most or makes you proud about being a Fellow?

Being a Rainforest Trust Fellow connects me with renowned conservationists and allows me to exchange field experiences in diverse conservation specialties with other experts in the field. This lets me contribute the little I know with peers to promote a safe environment where man can live in harmony with nature.

Tell us about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist.

The time I felt I have made a difference in conservation was when I created my Facebook page promoting wildlife conservation. I frequently publish articles there promoting biodiversity conservation.

Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

Insufficient funding to tackle issues related to conservation in different landscapes; insufficient skill in GIS, wildlife survey and data analysis; insufficient working equipment like cameras, laptops, GPS and bikes.

Tell us about a conservation success.

I have succeeded in reaching millions of people through an awareness campaign for conservation during school and community environmental education and with my Facebook page.

I also engaged many stakeholders (community members, council, civil society organizations, NGOs and government ministries) in the process of the creation and management of the Tofala Hill Wildlife Sanctuary and the proposed Njoagwi-Fotabong III-Essoh Attah Wildlife Sanctuary.

I participated in many landscape restoration projects and planted more than 5,000 agroforestry trees through the collaboration of students and community members. In addition, I successfully coordinated the research project for the management of human-elephant conflict in Mount Cameroon National Park in 2012.

Conservation helps us manage the natural resources we have in a sustainable way without compromising the benefits of future generations. It also helps me protect my own life because I can equally be affected by climate change if I don’t act now. Conservation helps me to live in harmony with other living creatures around me.

What has surprised you the most in the field?

I went to the village of Bechati in the Wabane Subdivision, Lebialem Division for environmental education and noticed that children were going to school without shoes and yet still managed to earn good grades. This made me realize that what matters in life is not the amount of wealth you have, but managing what you do have the best way you can.

Header image: Samuel (center, orange shirt) working with local students on a landscape restoration project at a local nursery. Photo by ERuDeF.