River of Raptors

River of Raptors

One of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles takes place every autumn as millions of hawks and other soaring birds funnel through Veracruz, Mexico, where a pioneering program aims to keep them flowing for millennia to come.

By Susan McGrath
Published: September-October 2010

On a recent weeknight a score of ranchers from Mozomboa--all of them men, most still dusty from a day in the fields--gather at the grange for a ProNatura workshop. Representatives from state and federal forestry agencies take turns on the dais. Their slides show flowcharts crammed with acronyms. The farmers seem weary, yet they edge to the fronts of their seats. The officials are outlining technical help and tax incentives available to ranchers who put at least 25 acres into private conservation.

"We're not going to take your land," says Flora Zitacuaro, from the Veracruz department of the environment. "And we understand that you have to make a living. You will still be able to make use of the conservation units. You can apply for permits to allow hunting in the protected forest. You can plant timber lots. You can raise native palms and orchids to sell to nurseries. And believe it or not people pay for a moment of quiet and peace in the countryside." ProNatura's goal is to put 1,250 acres into conservation, although titles have yet to be verified, habitat potential assessed, and government permissions granted.

While they're keen for the support, ranchers are wary of relying on the government. Not unreasonably, says Peresbarbosa, a warm, elegant straight-shooter. She herself is wary of creating expectations that can't be met.

"As the landowners are starting to get excited, I'm a little bit scared," Peresbarbosa says. "I tell them every time we have a meeting: 'We, ProNatura, can't do this for you. You, the landowners, have to do it yourselves. Many, many doors will be closed because of corruption, because of bureaucracy, because these projects are not easy to accomplish, and they take time."

Here in Veracruz, as everywhere in Mexico, Peresbarbosa explains later, privately, that it's all too easy for people with special connections or deep pockets to subvert the public process, getting development rights to state conservation lands, for example, or permission to operate unsustainable sport hunting on lands with conservation easements, or rights to drain protected water sources. One's paperwork can get "lost"; applications can fall to the bottom of the pile.

"But we can help landowners navigate the process, fill out their paperwork, act as go-betweens with all the many government bureaucracies. We need patience, and we will find together what we can do."


Altamirano invites Templeton, Burns, and me for a hike up a ridge into the sierra on his land. Here's conservation writ large: A property line runs down the ridge from the granite escarpment at 2,000 feet to sea level below. On the neighbor's side of the line it's all pasture a la Veracruzano. Though ragged, it looks like a manicured greensward compared with the frothy jungle on Altamirano's side of the fence.

Altamirano stopped burning to clear pasture in 1999 and reduced his herd three years later. In 2005, with a government subsidy, he planted a 50-acre timber lot and put another 50 acres in conservation. His father, who still owns the land, was furious and his neighbors laughed, calling him a slacker. "A tree isn't a hindrance," Altamirano told them. "It's a treasure."

Now, as the land has become ever drier and the ranching less and less profitable, Altamirano has bold plans. With ProNatura's help he's putting another 100 acres into conservation. The deer and armadillo populations have boomed, and he plans to have paid hunting here; the government will fund signage, and ProNatura has some money for fencing. Altamirano envisions trails, some small cabins, ecotourism. It won't be easy, though. He's still worried about his long-term prospects.

We perch on a rocky outcropping together, watching raptors kettling and gliding south across the sky. The birds boil upward, stream out the top, coast like surfers riding a wave, bubble upward once again, overflow again in a broad line. Thousands and thousands of hawks, eddying, flooding, truly a river of raptors. We sit, silent, hypnotized by the seemingly endless aerial spectacle. "Some people weep when they see this," Templeton says. I translate to Spanish for Altamirano. He nods. Yes, one can see why.

Taking Pride
How do you motivate a fisherman in Belize to use less destructive nets? A farmer in Paraguay to adopt organic growing practices? Community leaders in Panama to halt forest clearing? You launch a RARE Pride campaign, so named because it inspires people to take pride in the natural assets that make their communities unique and offers them viable means to protect those features. Audubon's International Alliances Program works closely with the nonprofit RARE and partner organizations throughout the Western Hemisphere to conserve critical bird habitats along migratory flyways that cross international borders. In addition to the RARE Pride Campaign in Veracruz, Mexico, Audubon has helped launch campaigns in the Bahamas, Belize, Panama, and Paraguay. To find out more, click here.

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