As the region’s top predator, jaguars keep the ecosystem in balance, scientists say. “If you remove a top predator from an environment, you can find an explosive mushrooming in the population of other species, which can instead destroy the habitat, causing it to be completely destroyed,” said Jarja Villanieva.
“By tracking jaguars, we can prove that they need a huge space to survive,” Seblos added. Protecting jaguars, he believes, will protect more animals in the food chain. “We need such an argument using charismatic species to persuade the government to expand the reserve. This is our last chance to preserve the invaluable reservoir of Mexican history and our biological heritage, ”he says. About 500 jaguars live in the Kalakamul biosphere, as well as, says Ceballos, about 70,000 other species of plants and animals.
Most of those rich plants and animals may be interrupted by the oncoming train Maya, or Maya Train, which will run through the reserve. The large-scale infrastructure project, which is expected to be launched by 20223, will connect Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, Chiapas, with rich tourist destinations such as Cancun. Work began in 2018 and accelerated, and has been split. Some say it will bring much-needed opportunities to remote towns and villages; Others warn that it is an environmental disaster. Opposition groups, including many indigenous communities, are calling it an “ecoside”, Jarza Villanueva said. In 2020, a group led by Ernesto Martinez Jimenez, an Indigenous activist from Kalakamul, won a legal battle to suspend construction on a section of the planned line, but it is unclear how long the break will last.
When night falls at our camp and the wind is thick with mosquitoes, Campos Hernandez gives me a shot of tequila. “For bites and itching,” he says. When I talk about the train, he and Seblos pour out another drink for themselves. We sit in silence for a long time, the choir of nocturnal insects filling the space between us.
Finally, Seblos spoke. “When the train was first announced … I told government officials they would have to deal with me if they touched the biosphere.” As he and his colleagues learned more about the project and its inevitability, he said, “Instead of throwing our hands in the air and calling it an ecoside, we decided to get involved.” Ceballos and his team began modeling potential environmental impacts, and they appealed to the government to include wildlife crossings in the plan, to allow safe entry of animals into both parts of the reserve. Campos Hernandez notes that the Maya train project will destroy fewer forests each year than illegal loggers. He and Seblos are now optimistic that the project can actually encourage environmentally sustainable development. “Having the military and government on our side means we can protect the biosphere from illegal logging and expand potential reserves,” Seblos said. He believes it could give locals the option of illegal logging and hunting. He finished his tequila, and spoke of the Maya train. “And now, I highly recommend everyone get a little sleep, because we woke up at 4 in the morning,” he says.
A few hours later, the alarm, and the sound of the hounding hound, woke me up. Our two-car convoy and a pickup with four experts, jaguar-tracking hounds are moving along a path through the forest. We arrived at the pile of fresh meat the day before but found no sign of the jaguar. When the team searches the area for the track, Don Pancho asks me to smell the air: here’s a musk, the scent of the barnyard. “Jabali,” he says. “They just passed us, but not the Jaguar.”