As the supreme predator in the region, jaguars keep the ecosystem in balance, scientists say. “If you remove the top predator from the environment, you could release an explosive fungus in a population of other species, which in turn could wreak havoc on the habitat, leading to its complete collapse,” says Zarza Villaneuva.
“By following jaguars, we can prove that they need a huge space to survive,” adds Ceballos. Protecting jaguars, he believes, will also protect animals further down the food chain. “We need this kind of argument, using the charismatic kind, to persuade the government to expand the reservation. This is our last chance to save what is an invaluable asset to Mexican history and our biological heritage, ”he says. About 500 jaguars live in the Calakmul biosphere, as well as, according to Ceballos, almost 70,000 other species of plants and animals.
Much of that rich flora and fauna could be disrupted by the upcoming Tren Maya or Maya Train, which will run through the reserve. The massive infrastructure project, which is expected to be operational by 2023, will connect the poorest and southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas with rich tourist centers like Cancun. The works started in 2018 and were accelerating and had divisions. Some say it will bring a much-needed opportunity to remote towns and villages; others warn that it is an environmental disaster. Zarza Villanueva says opposition groups, including many indigenous communities, call it an “ecocide.” In 2020, a group led by Ernest Martínez Jiménez, an indigenous activist from Calakmul, won a legal battle to suspend construction along one part of the planned line, but it is not clear how long the break will last.
When night returns to our camp as night falls and the air is full of mosquitoes, Campos Hernandez pours me some tequila. “For bites and itching,” he says. When I mention the train, he and Ceballos pour another drink. We sit in silence for a long time, allowing a chorus of nocturnal insects to fill the space between us.
Finally, Ceballos speaks. “When the train was first announced … I told government officials that if they touched the biosphere, they would have to deal with me.” As he and his colleagues learned more about the project and its inevitability, he says, “instead of raising our hands in the air and calling it an ecocide, we decided to get involved.” Ceballos and his team began modeling the potential environmental impact and then asked the government to include wildlife crossings in the plans, to allow the animals a safe passage between both 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 the project could boost environmentally sustainable development. “Having an army and government on our side means we can protect the biosphere from illegal logging and potentially expand the reserve,” Ceballos says. He also believes it could give locals an alternative to illegal logging and hunting. He finishes his tequila and talks about the Mayan train. “And now, I warmly recommend that everyone get some sleep, because we have a wake-up call at 4 in the morning,” he says.
A few hours later, the alarm and the sounds of the hounds howling shake me in my waking state. Our caravan of two cars and a truck with four expert hounds that follow the jaguars are fast on the path through the forest. We arrive at a pile of fresh meat we left the day before, but find no trace of a jaguar. As the team searches the area for clues, Don Pancho tells me to smell the air: It has a musky aroma, a barn. “Jabali,” he says. “They just passed us, but there are no jaguars.”