Forest research objectives

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is a huge expanse of tropical forest that is part of the Selva Maya that encompasses Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and spans over 10.6 million hectares, making it the largest section of tropical forest north of the Amazon. This stretch of forest was also home to the Ancient Mayan civilization and the city of Calakmul was one of the largest cities during the pre-classic and classic period of the Mayans (250BC to 900AD). Today the extensive ruined cities lie sprawled through the dense jungle, with some of the taller structures towering above the canopy at 62m in height. In addition, Calakmul contains diverse and abundant wildlife with many endemic species. The forest is one of the few remaining strongholds of large mammals such as jaguar, puma, Baird’s tapir and spider monkey in addition to over 90 species of herpetofauna, 50 species of bat, and 360 resident bird species. For this reason, Calakmul is a UNESCO World Heritage Site of Culture and Nature.

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is an extremely important wildlife corridor that ensures gene flow between animal populations, and ensures that populations can withstand natural disasters such as droughts, forest fires, hurricanes and floods. Moreover, forest corridors are crucial for animals with extensive ranging patterns such as jaguar and tapir. Although the reserve itself is very well managed, the forest surrounding the reserve that connects Calakmul to the other protected areas in the Selva Maya is disappearing at an alarming rate. The cause of the problem is increased population size combined with an unpredictable climate causing agriculture to fail. In conjunction with the reserve management team and our project partners Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, we have developed ecotourism and sustainable agriculture projects with local Mayan communities in the buffer zone of the reserve so that they can live in harmony with the forest ecosystem

Marine research objectives

Akumal is a small coastal town located approximately 2 hours’ drive south from the major tourist destination of Cancun. The name Akumal literally means “home of the turtles” in Mayan. It earned this name due to the numerous turtle nesting sites along the beaches and the permanent presence of juvenile turtles in the seagrasses just off shore. Prior to established tourism in the Yucatan, the only real source of income was from fishing. The reefs were so heavily overfished that the entire ecosystem almost collapsed. Moreover, sea turtles and their eggs were a major food source rather than an attraction to be admired, resulting in a serious decline in the turtle population. In an attempt to save the reef ecosystem and provide alternative income for local people, dive and snorkel based tourism was actively encouraged by the Mexican government. Tourism in the area has steadily increased over the last 20 years, but now it has brought problems of its own. More hotels are being built to accommodate tourists leading to loss of important nesting habitat for turtles, loss of mangrove habitat that cleans water and prevents sediment from washing onto the reef, and too many people snorkelling with turtles.

There are long-term datasets relating to coral reef diversity and turtle nesting in Akumal that are collected year-round. The Operation Wallacea research team help to collect additional data. The main research objective for the Akumal research project is to establish an annual monitoring programme for coastal ecosystem management that includes monitoring of tourist numbers and their use of the habitat, monitoring the effect of snorkel based tourism on turtle behaviour, monitoring mangrove connectivity and Diadema abundance as a symptom of reef deterioration, monitoring of seagrasses and the juvenile turtles that feed on them, and monitoring of nesting turtles and the availability of suitable nesting sites