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Working together in the Sierra de Manantl√¡n Biosphere Reserve, western Mexico

A Decade of Collaboration

Eduardo Santana Castellón and Sarahy Contreras Martínez

Residents of RocjáPomtil√¡, Guatemala, practice monitoring with point counts. Steve Latta is in the background. Photo by Knut Eisermann
Western Mexico harbors one of the most diverse landscapes in all of North America, from steamy coastal mangroves and lush tropical forests to active volcanoes and snow-capped peaks, surrounded by large expanses of pine-fir and oak forests. This relatively small area (smaller than Texas) is home to an astonishing 600 species of birds and includes, according to governmental and international conservation organizations, 31 terrestrial, hydrological, and marine priority conservation areas, three centers of plant genetic diversity, and 17 Important Bird Areas (IBAs, as designated by BirdLife International). Western Mexico was recently identified in the Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan as the most important region for protecting Neotropical migratory songbird species in winter. It is also recognized as harboring one of the highest numbers of endemic species and subspecies of birds in North America. Thus, it has continental relevance for bird conservation.

In the heart of Western Mexico, the Manantl√¡n Institute of Ecology and Conservation of Biodiversity (IMECBIO) of the University of Guadalajara promoted, in 1987, the creation of the 140,000-hectare (540 square-mile) Sierra de Manantl√¡n Biosphere Reserve, which is now part of UNESCO's global network of biosphere reserves.

Achieving bird conservation in this complex environmental context is a difficult task. The accelerating rate of habitat destruction is compounded by how little is known about the status and trends of bird populations, as well as their habitat needs. Additionally, few institutions are conducting long-term ecological research in the region. The number of practicing ornithologists, ecologists, and conservation biologists is dismally small compared to the scale of the conservation and management challenges.

In this context, PRBO and IMECBIO began collaborating in 1995, offering training workshops on bird monitoring techniques for Mexican ornithologists. Cooperation began with an understanding that the partnership was not to become a program "for training resident Mexican technicians to help migratory U.S. researchers." The spirit of collaboration and mutual respect has now been sustained for over a decade of joint work, in which more than 130 students and professionals have participated in the IMECBIO-PRBO training programs.

After a few workshops it became clear that many of the participants were unable to apply their knowledge and skills because they did not have the funding or institutional support to implement continuous population monitoring field projects. In response, IMECBIO and PRBO teamed up with with other institutions* and initiated a formal training program, targeting natural protected area managers, universities, and conservation NGOs. To date, staff from over 35 natural protected areas have received training; ten areas have initiated formal bird monitoring programs. Two years ago, moving beyond the trainings, we initiated joint research projects on conserving birds in riparian forests.

Over a decade of collaboration, PRBO has contributed expertise and funding opportunities, while IMECBIO has provided networking opportunities and realistic conservation perspectives in a developing-nation setting. Our fruitful partnership opens new venues for bird conservation in western North America. It helps build alliances advancing on-the-ground conservation and management initiatives.

Our goal may be far away, but we feel we are walking in the right direction.

* Partners include the Manantl√¡n Foundation for the Biodiversity of Western Mexico (MABIO), a new local non-governmental organization; Mexico's federal Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP); the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.