The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve sits within the Mayan forest, the second largest tropical forest in the Americas. Home to jaguar, tapir, deer, bats, amphibians, reptiles and monkeys, the reserve is one of the most biodiverse and threatened regions of the world. Recently, the Mexican government has been aggressively promoting economic growth and tourism in the region. But with development comes deforestation and highway expansion – bad news for Mexico’s wildlife. According to some estimates, if all highway plans are carried out, at least 768,917 acres of the Mayan forest will be lost by 2030. That’s bigger than Yosemite National Park!
For the past few years, Mexican officials have been widening Highway 186 that crosses through the Calakmul biosphere reserve to accommodate more traffic. Fortunately, Mexican conservation organizations have been working with officials to incorporate wildlife-friendly measures along the highway. Without them, these bigger, wider highways carrying more cars and faster traffic through the preserve would put wildlife and motorists in jeopardy.
In the summer of 2009, I was invited to Mexico to discuss the best ways to reduce the impacts on wildlife and provide the animals with ways to move throughout their habitat. Together with partner organizations, I met with representatives from the Mexican federal transportation and natural resource agencies, as well as the biologists who have been tracking jaguar movement throughout the reserve. During my last few days, we even toured Highway 186 to scout out the best locations for wildlife crossing structures.
Entering the bat volcano
One evening, my hosts took me to see a unique cave less than 600 feet from the highway called “el volcan de los murcielagos” (in English, “the bat volcano”). Each night, two million bats of eight different species leave the cave to hunt and feed. Standing at the mouth of the cave, I watched in awe as the bats swirled like a black tornado, and then zoomed right by my head as they flew out for their nocturnal activities. It was a wildlife encounter I will never forget.
Sadly, I also was witness to the slaughter on Highway 186 that ensues every night right after the bats’ departure. As we left the forest, we saw the highway littered with dead bats, hit by passing cars. Looking in both directions, I could see the bats in the headlights just before they were struck. I could hear the tiny impacts on the grills of the trucks as they zoomed past me. I knew this would only get worse as Highway 186 was widened and more and more traffic passed through.
Today, I’m happy to report that we are seeing progress on Highway 186. Due to the ongoing, tireless efforts of our great partners in Mexico, plans are underway for wildlife overpasses and tunnels to be constructed in selected sites with the agreement of the Mexican federal government.
Until then, motorists will have new signs to alert them when they are entering wildlife habitat areas. Using the information provided by the conservation organizations, signs were placed where animals are most likely to cross and speed limits are reduced for added safety.