As the region’s supreme predator, jaguars keep the ecosystem in balance, scientists say. “If you remove a predator from an environment, you could trigger an explosive proliferation of populations of other species, which in turn could wreak havoc on the habitat, causing it to collapse completely,” says Zarza Villaneuva.
“By tracking down jaguars, we can prove that they need enormous space to survive,” adds Ceballos. Saving jaguars, he says, will also protect animals down the food chain. âWe need this kind of argument, using a charismatic kind, to convince the government to expand the reserve. This is our last chance to save what constitutes an invaluable reservoir of Mexican history and our biological heritage, âhe said. About 500 jaguars live in the Calakmul biosphere, along with, according to Ceballos, nearly 70,000 other species of plants and animals.
Much of this rich flora and fauna could be disturbed by the next Tren Maya, or Maya train, which will pass through the reserve. The massive infrastructure project, which is slated to be operational by 2023, will connect Mexico’s poorest and southernmost Chiapas state to affluent tourist hubs like Cancun. Work began in 2018 and is accelerating and dividing. Some say it will bring much needed opportunities to remote towns and villages; others warn that it is an ecological disaster in the making. Zarza Villanueva says opposition groups, including many indigenous communities, call it “ecocide”. In 2020, a group led by Ernesto MartÃnez JimÃ©nez, an indigenous activist from Calakmul, won a legal battle to halt construction along part of the planned line, but it is unclear how long the break will last.
Back at our camp as night falls and the air is loaded with mosquitoes, Campos Hernandez pours me a shot of tequila. âFor the bites and itches,â he says. When I mention the train, he and Ceballos pour themselves another drink. We sit in silence for a long time, letting the chorus of nocturnal insects fill the space between us.
Finally, Ceballos speaks. âWhen the train was first announcedâ¦ I told government officials that if they touch the biosphere, they should take care of me. As he and his colleagues learned more about the project and its inevitability, he said, “instead of throwing our hands up and calling it ecocide, we decided to get involved.” Ceballos and his team began to model the potential ecological impact, and they asked the government to incorporate wildlife crossings into the plans, to allow animals to pass safely between the two parts of the reserve. Campos Hernandez notes that the Maya Train project will destroy fewer forests than illegal loggers do each year. He and Ceballos now hope that the project can really encourage ecologically sustainable development. âHaving the military and government on our side means that we can protect the biosphere from illegal logging and potentially expand the reserve,â says Ceballos. He also believes it could offer locals an alternative to illegal logging and hunting. He finishes his tequila and talks about the Maya train. âAnd now I strongly suggest everyone get some sleep because we have a 4am alarm clock,â he says.
A few hours later, the alarm clock and the howling of the dogs wake me up. Our two car trailer plus a pickup truck with four expert dogs, jaguar trackers, rolls along a trail through the forest. We reach the pile of fresh meat that we left the day before but find no sign of jaguars. As the team searches for traces in the area, Don Pancho tells me to smell the air: There is a backyard musky aroma. âJabali,â he said. âThey just passed us, but no jaguar. “