A cactus flower blooming next to a lush fig tree, a desert tortoise resting beneath an elegant trogon perched in a mesquite: I first encountered these strange bedfellows when I visited the forest near Alamos in Sonora, Mexico, during the summer monsoon. It is here, along the slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental, that one finds the Western Hemisphere’s northernmost tropical deciduous forest. The landscape of this unique biome alternates between monsoon-driven tropical forest part of the year and towering columnar etcho cacti the rest of the time, and hosts exceptional biodiversity.
In the dry season, the Sonoran tropical deciduous forest is desert-like; the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum calls it the evolutionary “grandmother” of the Sonora desert. Over the three-month monsoon season, the desert turns into tropical forest and the columnar cacti are hidden by the green of Ficus, guayacán, palo verde and San Juanico. Within the forest are animals more commonly associated with the tropical dry forests to the south, such as ocelots, magpie jays and leaf-cutter ants, desert species found in the north such as gila woodpeckers, desert tortoises and phainopepla, and endemics such as beaded lizards and elegant quail.
The tropical deciduous forest is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world; it is considered even more threatened than tropical rainforests. The fact that pockets exist throughout western Mexico is due, in part, to the rugged nature of the Sierra Madre. Unfortunately, the inaccessible nature of this region is not enough to protect it from the centuries-old culture of cattle ranching, the harvesting of endangered endemic palms and the effects of climate change.
This is where Reserva Monte Mojino (ReMM) steps in. In order to protect and rehabilitate this unique ecosystem, the conservation organization has developed a deeply integrative approach that involves the local and global communities. The Mexican government has designated 230,000 acres of tropical deciduous forest in southern Sonora as the Área de Protección de Flora y Fauna Sierra de Alamos-Río Cuchujaqui. This protected region is administered by the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP). However, this federally protected area is largely comprised of privately owned lands, so CONANP can only make recommendations, not directly regulate how the land is used. In the last decade Reserva Monte Mojino has purchased approximately 14,000 contiguous acres of tropical deciduous forest within the federal reserve with the support of Nature and Culture International (NCI), a United States nonprofit that facilitates ecosystems preservation in Latin America. As a private landowner, ReMM is able to implement large-scale conservation practices that serve as a model of sustainable land management in the region.
After acquiring land, ReMM has any livestock removed and builds wildlife-friendly fences to keep out the cattle from adjacent ranches. This basic management plan has resulted in a remarkable resurgence of understory vegetation. To date, ongoing surveys have identified members of 36 families of tropical trees and 48 species of orchids, as well as approximately 330 species of birds, including six species of parrots. Jaguars, four other cat species, and 79 species of reptiles and amphibians have also been identified — in all, they represent half the species found across the entire state of Sonora!
The combined expertise of the core ReMM staff has resulted in a project that integrates three critical elements of conservation success: a deep knowledge of the biology of the region, a great respect for the local culture, and an understanding of the operations of Mexican governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations in both Mexico and the United States
While its work serves to protect and rehabilitate land in the present, ReMM also seeks to awaken the next generation of Alamos citizens to the biological riches that surround them in order to ensure long-term conservation. To this end ReMM has started the EcoClub Monte Mojino to teach elementary school students about local biodiversity, and the need for conservation and sustainability. Although the EcoClub is still new, children have already learned to identify plant species on the reserve as well as birds and pollinators such as bats. EcoClub discussions have had ripple effects throughout Alamos, facilitating a town-wide program to increase recycling. A recent grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund will allow ReMM to extend the children’s program, giving kids an incredible opportunity to participate in a wildlife-tracking project targeting jaguar and other local species. Using photos from camera traps as well as other methods, children will learn to document the extent of jaguar presence within the reserve, and the incidence and range of other species. They will present the results of their work at NCI’s Wildlife Festival.
ReMM also provides direct support for scientists who want to conduct research or engage in specialized conservation in the tropical deciduous forest. The deeply dissected mountains around Alamos are rugged and hard to access, especially during the monsoon season. ReMM has developed three basic but comfortable field stations and its staff have intimate knowledge of all the foot trails and primitive roads within the reserve. Their infrastructure and knowledge are facilitating a number of projects. A team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo is working on restoring threatened palm species. In another study, researchers from UCLA are investigating the ecological relationship between cattle and habitat, as well as the impact of climate change, using methods of tropical tree censusing modeled from work documenting forest dynamics in Panama. The Sonoran Joint Venture, a US-Mexican conservation partnership, funded the first comprehensive bird breeding survey of ReMM in 2014 and, since 2010, Reserva Monte Mojino has been conducting a National Audubon Christmas Bird Survey, yielding important information about resident and neotropical migrant species.
When I was a graduate student, Mexico was a flyover country for American ecologists bound for Costa Rica and Panama, two countries that already understood the benefits of attracting scientists and, to that end, created an infrastructure of field stations. This facilitated key biology research and established these countries’ reputation as drivers of our understanding of tropical biodiversity.
Mexico may now be catching up: ReMM’s work combining an engaged local community with the necessary infrastructure and expertise to support research and ecologists from all over the world proves that the country can be an important player in this field.
Some of the data collected here is specific to the tropical deciduous forest of Sonora. However, our understanding of endangered tropical ecosystems as a whole stands to benefit greatly from the direct measurement of biodiversity, the rehabilitation of habitat damaged by cattle ranching and palm poaching, and the long-term prognosis of this region of tropical deciduous forest in light of climate change.
Given that wildlife knows no borders, increased understanding of this region will help the United States understand how to manage its own resources, and should facilitate inclusion of this knowledge into all North American biodiversity and ecosystem surveys and studies. In other words, ReMM’s uniquely integrative approach makes the future of the region — for the flora and for nonhuman and human fauna alike — a much brighter one.
Additional Resources Regarding Reserva Monte Mojino
Jennifer Calkins, PhD, MFA, is currently a student at UW School of Law as well as an evolutionary biologist and writer. She also served as Voices for Biodiversity Interim Assistant Managing Editor. Her writing and multimedia work have been published in a variety of venues, from peer-reviewed scientific and humanities publications to literary journals to the New York Times’ online blog Scientist at Work.