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Safeguarding Mexico’s Sierra Madre Cloud Forest against Logging

Recent trip to region uncovered survival of endemic salamander thought to be extinct

Due to its long evolutionary history, unique micro-climatic conditions, and the extreme luck of having survived millenia human pressure, the Mexican cloud forests represent the best of the American continent’s wild places. These small, oozing green islands lost in the mist of Mexico's Sierra Madre range have been destroyed for the establishment of corn fields and pastures, as well as by loggers. As a result, countless species of flora and fauna have been lost, ecosystem services have been diminished, and the region’s extraordinary scenic beauty has been compromised. And the threats continue: earlier this year, the Mexican government approved logging of a swath of forested land in the mountains, though the logging permit is now on hold.

image of big-footed salamanderPhoto by Roberto Pedraza Ruiz  The big-footed salamander, listed by the IUCN as "critically endangered (possibly extinct)," was spotted earlier this year in the Sierra Madre range.

In the state of Querétaro, located in Central Mexico, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve forms part of the grand eastern Sierra Madre range. Home to the Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda (GESG), the reserve houses some of the country’s last remaining cloud forests, which extend east into the neighboring state of San Luis Potosí. From towering oaks, to tree ferns, firs, sweetgums, cypresses, mexican basswoods covered thick moss, bromeliads, and orchids, these cloud forests represent authentic biological laboratories that are home to species of plants and animals only now being discovered.

The ecosystem services provided by Mexico’s cloud forests cannot be understated. The mantle of near-permanent mist that surrounds them is synonymous with groundwater recharge, ensuring rain permeates the limestone instead of running down the slope, and maintaining a water supply for the vast human population of the region. The forest also captures carbon dioxide while exhaling oxygen, assisting with climate regulation.

As the head of the GESG’s Conservation Land Program, I am charged with protecting ten private natural reserves. By purchasing land with high biological value, GESG has prioritized protection of the last cloud forests in the Sierra Gorda, home to jaguars, margays, and new species of magnolias. In these reserves, chainsaws, cattle ranching, and all other economic activities have been banned, and, as a result, wildlife has flourished. I have known these forests and mountains since I was a child, crossing them on foot and on horseback, uncovering many surprises. Visiting them is like a trip to the past, a peek at the wealth that once covered the entire eastern Sierra Madre range, from the tropical forests at the foot of the mountains, to the pines, oaks, and firs on their highest peaks.

Photo of Mexican cloud forest Photo by Roberto Pedraza Ruiz Cloud forests cover less than 1 percent of Mexico's territory, but contains 12
percent of the country's biodiversity.

Last week, I had the opportunity to once again explore the forests that neighbor the area threatened by the issuance of the logging permit. Accompanied by a local guide, I was looking for any kind of amphibian, from tree frogs to some of the 116 salamander species that live in Mexico, most of which are micro-endemic. We visited a dark, humid cave hiding a small salamander that was climbing a stalactite thousands of years old.

I have photographed other salamander species in that area (including Isthmura belli, Aquiloeurycea cephalica, and Pseudoerycea leprosa, all of them endangered), and immediately something told me that this one was different. Once back at the office, I sent some photographs to the experts on the subject and three of them independently confirmed the species’ identity. We had come upon the big-footed Salamander (Chiropterotriton magnipes), a species that is micro-endemic to a small stretch of the mountains between Querétaro and San Luis Potosí and is, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, “critically endangered (possibly extinct).” According to the IUCN, forest degradation and resulting loss of humidity and temperature change in the subsoil have caused the (near) disappearance of this small inhabitant of the caves.

The status of the species amazed me: rediscovering a species that experts thought might be extinct was thrilling, and provided a perfect example of the impact of conservation action in priority habitats. There, a true daughter of Mexico’s forests, the result of millions of years of evolution, natural selection, and adaptation, has survived years of disturbance. It seems reasonable to assume that the absence of chainsaws made all the difference to this small critter.

Three months ago, residents of Xilitla, a county of the neighbouring San Luis Potosí alerted GESG that the state’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) authorized logging of 2,000 hectares of cloud and temperate forests adjacent to the Sierra Gorda Biosphere reserve, near where I saw the big-footed salamander. The area is part of a 7,000-hectare-block of well-conserved and in some occasions primary forests that still provide the humidity and right temperature conditions that this particular salamander needs. After hearing of the permit, GESG sent a letter to SEMARNAT commenting on the management plan, pointing out numerous inconsistencies and omissions, particularly the minimization of impacts on biodiversity in the region, including the impact on species protected under Mexican law. The state’s delegate, Libya Lizette Santa Ana Castro, responded to our letter, noting that she would not revoke the authorization. Following a social media campaign and petition on the platform Change.org, the permit has been temporarily suspended, but not revoked. Until it is cancelled, the forest remains at risk.

What is worth more than ensuring groundwater recharge for the people of the area, hearing their disagreement with the logging, or securing habitat for the jaguars and the latest Big-footed salamanders? Preserving these last tracts of wilderness is essential both for the people and wildlife. Without them, Mexico´s last cloud forests will be a barren and grim place.

Roberto Pedraza Ruiz
Conservationist turned in to photographer

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