‘All of my life, from when I was a toddler, I have been surrounded by animals. Apparently my first word was not ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’, but ‘Flamingo.’ Every birthday or Christmas, I asked for animal books, which I devoured. When I was 11, I appeared six or seven times on the TV show, The 64,000 Peso Contest, giving presentations on mammal biology that I had learned with my encyclopaedias.
After seeing the show, my mother got a call from the Dean of Mexican Mammalogy, Professor Bernardo Villa from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He invited me to come to the Institute of Biology at the University of Mexico to see and learn about mammals first-hand. When I was 12 years old, I started to join researchers on field trips, helping to collect samples – I was in love with mammals. I like to think that by immersing myself in the practicalities of field work, I gained a lifetime’s worth of inspiration.
From my early memories, I’ve been fascinated by evolution; how it partitions the animal kingdom into environmental niches. Take African antelopes; some feed on the grass low to the soil, others are browsers, eating higher vegetation. Bats are similar; some eat insects, some feed on nectar and fruit, and others feed on blood.
I was also drawn to bats because of their negative reputation throughout Mexico. The Covid-19 outbreak has been negative for bats. There’s so much misinformation out there. Over the past few years, the conservation community has come a long way in changing people’s perception by communicating the vital role bats play in ecosystems. It is really humans that have created the virus through a warped relationship with those animals. That message is going to take time to get through to policymakers, but it’s time that we realise that without an environment, there’s no future for us.
I made a commitment to always making sure my work was relevant for policymaking. In 1995, Mexico elected a new president, who appointed the first Minister of the Environment, who happened to be a good friend of mine from the School of Biology at the University of Mexico. She called me and said that I needed to act on all my complaints about how wildlife was being managed in Mexico. So, I started as the first head of the Mexican Wildlife Service.
After two years, the forests started to call me back to my research; my successor was appointed but I remained as an advisor to the federal government. Each of my research papers has to have a policy angle or policy impact – I’m passionate about this.
When we talk about conservation philosophy, it tends to split people into two camps; there are those that say ‘use it, or lose it’, and those that say ‘don’t touch nature, it needs to be pristine.’ I try to be more pragmatic, and think that local landowners and communities should benefit from very sustainable use of wildlife, in turn helping to protect it.
In Mexico, we always want landowners to be stakeholders in biodiversity conservation. In 1995, the new Units of Management for Conservation (UMA) programme was launched, which now includes about 17 per cent of the country. Through the programme, landowners have become stewards for conservation. One example is the indigenous Seri communities of the Sonora in the extreme northwest of Mexico, who own Tiburon Island. UMA worked with the communities to develop sustainable hunting quotas for bighorn sheep, in which all the profits go straight to the communities. The first auction of a sustainable hunt for only two animals raised $395,000 for the community, which created a domino effect throughout Mexico, where many more communities have started to protect their wildlife.
Ultimately, to be a professional in conservation, you need to have common sense – it’s the most essential characteristic for conservation success. To help local communities and wildlife to coexist, or even thrive, we need to stay loyal to the task at hand, and think about the practical ways that we can reach sustainability.’