More than 700 volunteers from Mexico and the U.S. have engaged in binational riparian restoration along the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo corridor .Photo Credit: Chris Best/USFWS

by Melida Tajbakhsh

In terms of biological diversity, Mexico is one of the most important countries in the world. Although it comprises only one percent of Earth’s land surface, it contains more than 10 percent of all species known to science. Half of these species can be found only in Mexico. Mexico also boasts examples of most of the planet’s recognized ecosystem types. Fourteen Mexican eco-regions are considered a world conservation priority. With 32 major vegetation types, Mexico was also a major center of early plant domestication. Its position as the transition zone between New World temperate and tropical regions establishes it as a key plant and animal dispersal corridor for North America.

Unfortunately, this rich biodiversity is at risk. About 33 percent of Mexico’s mammal species are either threatened or in danger of extinction. Seventeen percent of the birds, 18 percent of the reptiles, 17 percent of the amphibians, 4 percent of the fishes, and 2 percent of the vascular plants share this unfortunate distinction.

A Mexican campesino cultivates agaves for reforestation. Agaves are a critical food source for the endangered long-nosed bat.A Mexican campesino cultivates agaves for reforestation. Agaves are a critical food source for the endangered long-nosed bat.Photo Credit: USFWS

In response, Mexico has taken unprecedented actions in the past two decades to protect its wildlife resources. It joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1991 and the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993, then established its own National Biodiversity Strategy. Landmark events include creation of the Office of the Attorney General for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) in 1992 and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in 1994, which elevated natural resource conservation to the cabinet level for the first time in Mexico’s history. Again in 1994, Mexico enacted its Law for Endangered Species Protection.

In 1995, SEMARNAT established Mexico’s national wildlife agency. The same year, it joined forces with the United States and Canada to create the Canada/Mexico/U.S. Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystem Conservation and Management. Then, in 2000, Mexico enacted its General Wildlife Law, the country’s most comprehensive wildlife legislation. A year later, it created the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), which now manages 173 protected areas totaling more than 60 million acres (over 24 million hectares), over 12 percent of Mexico’s land. More than one-third of these protected areas are along the U.S.-Mexico border and encompass 6,855 square miles.

Both countries recognize the need to work together for conserving these shared biological resources. In fact, with the extirpation of some species from the U.S., the remaining Mexican stocks provide a chance for managers to reestablish species in historical ranges within our country. Cross-border cooperation is essential to conserving the biological diversity of the border region and, just as significantly, in providing stopover and wintering habitats to the myriad migratory species shared by the two nations.

A Mexican campesino cultivates agaves for reforestation. Agaves are a critical food source for the endangered long-nosed bat.The largest species of cat in the Western Hemisphere, the jaguar historically ranged from southern South America northward to the southwestern United States. If jaguar numbers are restored in northern Mexico, this cat could reoccupy parts of its U.S. range.Photo Credit: Gary Stolz/USFWS

A major obstacle identified by Mexico in the development and implementation of its conservation strategies is the lack of trained personnel. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’sWildlife Without Borders-Mexico Regional Program (WWB-Mexico) and SEMARNAT created a joint grants program to address this problem. The goal is to strengthen Mexico’s capacity to conserve biological resources through training in wildlife and natural resource management. Since 1995, this program has supported almost 300 conservation projects to promote local capacity building in Mexico, investing over $8 million and generating more than $21 million in counterpart contributions.

Projects supported under the WWBMexico program fall within one of three strategic initiatives. “Managing for Excellence” provides on-the-job training in natural resource management for Mexican personnel, with an emphasis on state-level personnel, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Stewards of the Land” provides training in sustainable natural resource use for natural resource owners and/or direct users, such as ranchers, local farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ organizations, particularly in or around nature reserves and other areas important for biodiversity. “Voices for Nature” provides training in environmental education and public outreach to key stakeholder groups, such as teachers, journalists, and decision-makers.

Projects supported by WWB-Mexico in the Monarch Butterfly Reserve exemplify the effectiveness of this program. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are well known for their very lengthy migration patterns, unique in the insect world. When WWB-Mexico first began to support habitat conservation at the monarch’s wintering grounds in Mexico, many local farmers believed “outsiders” cared more about an insect than the survival of their impoverished children. They also resented that their lands were declared a reserve without consultation. Animosity grew to the point that some butterflies clustering in tree branches were burned. Today, however, training provided through this program has benefitted more than 2,000 farmers living in the Monarch Reserve. Training in soil and water conservation and ecotourism has brought economic benefits to the local communities. Environmental education has raised the level of awareness of local people, who now enthusiastically celebrate the arrival of the monarch butterflies each winter. Brigades of volunteers are involved in projects to protect this species and its wintering habitat. Their work includes habitat restoration, reforestation, population monitoring, and efforts to prevent illegal logging, in partnership with PROFEPA.

Monarch butterflies find refuge in Mexico at the end of their long annual migration..Monarch butterflies find refuge in Mexico at the end of their long annual migration.Photo Credit: USFWS

Nearly 15,000 people in Mexico have received training through this program. Other accomplishments include 50 courses benefitting hundreds of Mexican natural resource managers, 170 management and/or species recovery plans, 200 training manuals, 20 new non-governmental organizations, and 5 new nature reserves in Mexico. More than 40 nature reserves and 100 species of international concern (60 of which are shared with the U.S.) now stand to gain additional protection. Species aided by these efforts include the jaguar (Panthera onca), Mexican grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), brown pelican (Pelecanos occidentalis), California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris curasoae), leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii). For a complete list, see the Wildlife Without Borders-Mexico Report at

Melida Tajbakhsh, Chief of the Branch of Mexico in the FWS Division of International Conservation, can be reached 

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