Yucatan Dispatch 5 October 6, 2009 from Isla de Cozumel, México

As we prepare to land at Cozumel International airport, my first thoughts are “where are the people?” I’ve taken an early flight over from Cancun on the mainland of Mexico and I am the only passenger on a twenty-plus seat passenger airplane! Now…I’ve either just hit rock star status or Cozumel is hurting for tourists. I think we all know which it was. This world renowned destination for divers has really been hit hard by the swine flu scare and the economy. More about tourist later…let me give you a summary of my 13 day adventure to find and photograph the 24 or so endemic animals that call Cozumel, and no other place on our planet, home.

Upon arrival, I go directly to a meeting with my two main guides and assistants on this shoot Robert Cudney and Cristopher Gonzalez Baca. Robert is gringo who has lived a good part of his life in Mexico and was the past director of the National Parks and currently director at Mexico Silvestre…a non profit conservation organization in Mexico. Cristopher is a trained biologist who would become my main resource to make sure I was photographing the right species. Some of these endemics…especially the birds, look very much like similar species and one of my concerns was to spend hours photographing the wrong animal. In fact, this only happened once. Cristopher and I were out working in the forest early one morning and we saw what we thought was the Cozumel endemic Vireo…I worked my way into shooting position and range and got some very nice images of a parent bird feeding it’s fledgling young. Yahoo…we were very excited to check off another Cozumel endemic! The next day Cristopher conferred with some biologist friends and informed me that we had not photographed the Cozumel endemic Vireo, but had instead photographed the Yucatan Vireo which happens to be endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula. Since this was the Yucatan RAVE….I didn’t feel too bad about this news and we did end up photographing the real Cozumel endemic Vireo several days later.

A quick note regarding the shooting conditions: The long dry season had ended a week before my arrival with daily heavy rain storms coming in the afternoon and lasting most evening. I arrived in perfect time to provide the first meal for the huge mosquito hatch out that followed. Great! Combine that with temperatures and humidity’s in the 90’s and you get the picture. The rain storms did continue through out my two week shoot, but they tended to hold off until late afternoon, which keep us shooting and ticking off endemics nearly every day in the field. So beyond some physical discomforts, the daily excursions into the field were very successful, thanks to Robert and Cristopher, and we found ourselves with a good file of 18 endemics photographed after the 12 days or so spent in the field. A couple species we didn’t get, that would have been nice, the three foot tall Curassow, the rare endemic hawk, and the possibly extinct Thrasher. One of the endemics that we were having trouble finding was the Cozumel peccary. This relative of the pig is found all over the island, but tends to be quite shy and difficult to see. Since the rains had saturated the island and provided water everywhere for the animals to drink, our hope of setting up a remote camera on a water hole (cenote)to capture an image of one coming for a drink was not looking very promising. As my trip was coming to an end we had yet to find any peccaries. We finally decided to check out the golf course on the Island because people had been reporting seeing them while playing a round of golf! Sure enough, our first afternoon we saw several peccaries running off the course into the forest after spending time grazing on the fresh green grass. I spend another two morning near the golf course and finally got some good pictures of the Cozumel Peccary as one made his way into the native forest after eating breakfast on hole nine! So not all the pictures of wildlife are taking from a blind 50 feet up a tree and after two weeks of silently waiting…..some are taken from a golf cart!

Some thoughts regarding Cozumel:

This small, beautiful Island is still in good shape. Flying over the island you will see huge tracts of virgin forest and only small areas of disturbance around the centers of habitation on the west side of the island. As past history has showed us however, things can go wrong very fast on an Island this small. Introduced animals can have devastating consequences on the local fauna and flora. I saw introduced white-tail deer and captured an introduced Boa constrictor. I heard of coatis and peccaries from mainland stock getting lose and possibly diluting the gene pool of the endemic species. Sometimes the effects of introduced species are not discovered until it is too late, so hopefully these types of genetic threats will be taken very seriously.

Tourism: Right now it seems that Cozumel is addicted to the cruise industry for tourism. When the ships are in town the Island is all a buzz with taxis, rented jeeps, and people shopping along the ocean board walk for jewelry and such. When there are no ships…the place is a ghost town! Long time locals whom I talked with aren’t too happy about this shift and say the vibe of the Island has changed dramatically. They also said that very little of the “cruise money” stays in the community. Most of the retail shops that cater to these ships are owned by foreigners or people off Island. Another problem is the increases number of people living on the Island because of the cruise industry and the pressure on local resources because of it. Water is a huge concern on Cozumel. All of the fresh water comes from water aquifers on the Island. Increased consumption threatens the shear volume of water available and the increased population…often in un-permitted housing tracts without proper sewage….threatens to pollute the entire fresh water source for the Island. Unrestricted and illegal housing projects are a possible huge threat to Cozumel. The MO for some developers in Cozumel (and other parts of Mexico)is to bulldoze and build, without permission or permits, and pay fines or graft later if caught. We saw this in several areas on the Island in pristine forest. Off the one main road that bisects the Island, you would see new roads cute into the forest which led to proposed housing lots. Some had electric polls in place and grand entrances with gates. One such development had a sign saying Cozumel Island Estates. Luckily it seems that the bad recent economy had put many of these projects on hold. I was told by Christopher that projects like these are almost positively without permits, without environmental impact reports, without proper sewage and really pose a huge concern and threat.

My appreciation goes out to the Tourism Promotion Board for donating a free week of car rental and Mimi Becerra for providing me with lodging at her wonderful hotel. Also many thanks to Jose de la Fuente and Juan Barbachano.