Regaining the traditional use of wildlife in wetlands on the coastal plain of Veracruz, Mexico: ensuring food security in the face of global climate change
Wetlands play important roles that benefit social-ecological systems. They are threatened by climate change and human activities, i.e., raising livestock and wildlife hunting. The latter is essential for subsistence and for the food security of rural communities. To understand the traditional uses of wildlife, we examined the use of wildlife among people living within and outside of, but close to wetlands, in the communities located in four municipalities of Veracruz, Mexico, using open-ended interviews. We also analyzed the socioeconomic factors and environmental problems associated with the use of wildlife, and how these affect food security. People, especially those living within the wetlands, use wildlife mainly for food and trade. Wildlife is mainly used as food but also as pets, ornaments and medicine. The most useful species were black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) and Meso-American slider (Trachemys venusta). People living within the wetland make more intensive use of wildlife. The main problems causing decreasing wildlife populations were water pollution, hunting practices and deforestation. Local communities were aware of the importance of wetlands, their degradation and the need to preserve them. More research focused on socioecological systems is required to address both the need for biodiversity conservation and food security. Also, good local management plans that incorporate current knowledge about key species have to be drawn up with the participation of government and scientific institutions, citizens and local stakeholders.
KeywordsHunting Wetland loss Management Rural areas Traditional use Veracruz
The wetland ecosystem: importance and threats to climate change
Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet. They provide important environmental services such as flood control, water filtration and microclimate stabilization and diverse benefits for people, such as water, food, construction materials, and areas for recreation (MEA 2005). They are important in the conservation of biodiversity due to their high levels of organic material and humidity, both of which favor the diversity of plants and animals, both resident and migratory (Costanza et al. 1993). Although freshwater habitats represent less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the Earth’s water, rivers, lakes and wetlands harbor up to 12 % of the world’s biodiversity (Ramsar Convention Secretariat 2007). Over the past 50 years, we have transformed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than at any other time in human history, primarily to meet our growing demand for the services provided by them (MEA 2005). Unfortunately, wetlands are one of the most threatened ecosystems and also one of the most vulnerable to climate change (Botello et al. 2010), which increases the risk of species extinction, especially for those species restricted to certain habitats and whose population numbers are low. As ecosystems are transformed, many of the essential services they provide and consequently peoples’ livelihoods will be affected (Halsnæs and Trærup 2009).
Dams, diversion of water, invasive species, overharvesting and pollution are degrading wetlands. Climate change may exacerbate impacts of these threats through predicted reductions in rainfall and increased temperature, decreasing flow and altering timing and variability of flow regimes (Kingsford 2011) although not all wetlands will be equally affected. Vulnerability of wetlands dependent primarily on discharge from regional ground water flow systems are the least vulnerable to climate change, because of the great buffering capacity of large ground water flow systems to climate change (Winter 2007). In Mexico, 62.5 % of the wetlands have been lost or are degraded (Landgrave and Moreno-Casasola 2012). In Alvarado (with wetlands covering 66,485 ha), Jamapa (not assessed but <5 % of the surface), Tecolutla (8831 ha) and Tuxpan (14,897 ha), 50, 9 and 13 %, respectively, have been lost or transformed. In our study areas, the main drivers of wetland change are transformation into flooded pastures for cattle growth, wood extraction, urbanization, port and energy industries and pollution (Moreno-Casasola 2008); they are all fed by ground water systems.
Climate change and food security
Climate change is worsening the living conditions of farmers, fishermen and those who live in the wetlands, many of whom are already vulnerable and under conditions of food insecurity. Rural communities, especially those located in fragile environments such as wetlands, face an immediate and increasing risk of crop and livestock loss and reduced availability of marine, forest and aquaculture products. Increasingly frequent and extreme weather events have a negative impact on food availability and access to it and decrease the stability of the food supply and its use, in addition to affecting goods and the opportunities for making a living in both rural and urban areas. Poor people run the risk of food insecurity because of the loss of their property as a result of disastrous events resulting from the impact of climate change and the lack of adequate insurance coverage. The capacity of the rural population to live with the impact of climate change depends on the cultural context, existing policies and socioeconomic factors of each place. People, plants, livestock and fisheries are exposed to new pests and diseases that flourish only at certain temperatures and humidity conditions and that bring new risks for food security, food safety and human health (FAO 1999).
To better understand the concept of food security and insecurity, we used Ford’s (2009) and the FAO’s (1999) definitions. Food security exists “when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Thus, individuals and households must be able to rely on food access, nutritious food must be available in sufficient quantities, and it must be of an acceptable quality. Food availability refers to the existence of sufficient food. For example, for an animal or plant to be part of food security, it must be available to all (i.e., there should be enough food for the whole community). Food access refers to the ability to access adequate resources for a nutritious diet. In this case, the place an animal lives must be accessible to users and it should be economically viable for people to go to these sites. Food quality concerns the existence of safe food with sufficient nutritional and cultural value, i.e., animals or plants must be in pollution-free sites, to ensure the safety of meat or fruit. Food insecurity occurs when food systems are so stressed that food is not accessible, available, and/or of sufficient quality (Ford 2009). This can happen when an ecosystem is greatly transformed by human activities, as has been occurring in many wetland ecosystems.
The impact of climate change on food safety has been studied with an emphasis on water and crops, but there are very few studies focusing on wildlife (Jiménez et al. 2010). One of the few studies focused on wildlife use was done by Ford (2009), who developed a conceptual model to illustrate how the climate-related conditions interact with the Inuit food production systems, traces the pathways through which these processes affect food systems based on its susceptibility (exposure sensitivity) or adaptive capacity. It takes into account the social context, government policies, traditions and store components of the Inuit food system, as well as the temporal dimension, identifying and explaining the presence of vulnerable groups to climate change.
The traditional use of wildlife to ensure food security
Wildlife is an important natural resource for humans as a source of protein, medicine, clothes and recreation (Naranjo et al. 2004). It has provided food security since time immemorial mainly in rural communities. The study of the traditional use of tropical wildlife has focused largely on tropical forests (Robinson and Redford 1991; Ojasti 1993) and on indigenous communities (Enríquez-Vázquez et al. 2006), with only a few studies on the traditional use of wildlife in wetlands (Desbiez et al. 2011) and none focused on mestizo people, the main inhabitants of a large proportion of rural land in Latin America.
There are many forms of traditional wildlife use, which reflect local economic, cultural and social differences, as well as diverse ecological conditions (Ojasti 1993), so it is essential to understand the role of wildlife in people’s lives to guarantee food security through the sustainable management of natural resources (Ziervogel et al. 2006). Many people live beside and make use of wetlands, and this cannot be overlooked when planning conservation and development strategies and trying to ensure food security. In a previous study, González-Marín et al. (2012) analyzed the use of wetland palms along the coastal plain of Veracruz, Mexico. The fruits of Attalea liebmannii were used as a food source for both people and animals. The participation of the local inhabitants in conservation and natural resource management has proved to be extremely important because they are the main users of these resources (Robinson and Redford 1991), even more so as part of an effective adaptation strategy to face climate change.
The aim of this study was to document the traditional uses of wildlife by the mestizo people living within wetlands and those living close to, but outside of wetlands, to ascertain whether they differ in how they use these resources. We also examined how social, economic and environmental factors can affect the traditional use of wildlife and breach food security. Management strategies and wildlife conservation are proposed to ensure food security; therefore, this information can serve as the basis for developing the environmental education projects, restoration plans, population biology studies and breeding programs that are needed to ensure wildlife permanence and recovery, and so it continues or can once again become an important dietary protein complement for local rural people and an incentive for wetland conservation.
Main characteristics of the study sites
Municipality (degree of moderate and of extreme poverty), towns and approximate number of inhabitants and degree of marginalization
Main productive activities
Degree of isolation and legal wetland status
Problems affecting the abundance of wildlife populations
Alvarado (40.3 and 13.1 %)
Costa de San Juan (100)-high
El Nacaste (30)-very high
Los Pajarillos (15)-high
Fisheries (shrimp and fish)
They have no access to shops or other manufactured products in their area. Must travel 40 min by boat to get to Alvarado, the closest city, where they acquire products for their daily lives. The three towns form part of the Alvarado Ramsar wetland
Water pollution caused by agrochemicals, industrial wastewater (e.g., sugar mills), sewage and garbage (organic and inorganic matter)
Exploitation of wildlife (especially of birds and turtles)
Cattle ranching and obstruction of water flows to dry land
Jamapa (42.9 and 11.3 %)
(both have more than 500 but less than 1000)
Cultivation of mango
Planting corn and beans
Raising animals in backyard (chicken, turkeys, pigs)
Proximity (1 h by road) to the Port of Veracruz (ca. 550,000 inhabitants)
They have some access to shops and diverse products. Wetlands unprotected, although a marine reserve is 25 km away
Water pollution due to agrochemicals and garbage (organic and inorganic matter)
Poaching and wildlife sports
Immoderate tree felling (habitat loss)
Tecolutla (47.2 and 29.8 %)
Ricardo Flores Magón (1000)-medium
Cruz de los Esteros (< 100)-high
Fishing (shrimp and fish)
Cultivation of oranges, watermelon, lemon, coconut, corn, beans, grapefruit, pepper, banana and pumpkin
Day labor (planting grass seed)
Travel services (hotels, restaurants, tours, sale of handicrafts) in nearby towns
A tourist area with access to shops and diverse products. Wetlands form part of a state reserve (Ciénaga del Fuerte). R.F. Magón is 500 m away, and Tecolutla, the farthest, 17 km
Exploitation of wildlife
Cutting of mangroves and swamp trees, and disturbance from hurricanes (habitat loss)
Water pollution because of industrial wastewater (e.g., sugar mills and bottling companies of fruit juice)
Tuxpan (37.5 and 9.9 %)
El Golfo Barra de Galindo (75)-high
La Mata de Tampamachoco (2000)-very low
Fishing (shrimp and oysters)
Casual work as employees in the oil and thermoelectric industry
Travel services (rent beach huts, selling food and drinks)
The people of Barra de Galindo need to travel approx. 40 min by a sand road to reach the city and buy products. La Mata is very close to the city of Tuxpan (2–3 km). Both are on the border of the Ramsar site Manglares y Humedales de Tuxpam
External and internal pollution from industrial wastewater (a thermoelectric plant) and drains from hospitals and urban centers
Siltation of the lagoon
Exploitation of wildlife (parrots)
The inhabitants of these rural communities were divided into two groups to reflect the location of their homes and activities with respect to wetlands: (A) Internal users live in communities located within the wetlands themselves and carry out most of their daily activities within this ecosystem (residents of Alvarado), and (B) external users live in communities near wetlands and the majority of their productive activities take place outside the wetland (residents of Jamapa, Tecolutla and Tuxpan). For example, the communities of Alvarado are the most geographically isolated and its inhabitants are mainly engaged in shrimp and fish extraction, as well as clam farming. Jamapa communities have road access to the Port of Veracruz, the largest city in the region, and the main activities of its population are livestock, agriculture and the raising of backyard animals. Tecolutla communities work in fishing and agriculture, but are also engaged in tourist services, as they are in a touristic area known as “Costa Esmeralda”; thus, they have access to various products. Finally, Tuxpan communities are focused on marine fishing and oyster collection; temporarily, they are also employed in industries and tourism services (Table 1).
Materials and methods
The methodology used was described in González-Marín et al. (2012) and was based on qualitative research methodology (Denzin and Lincoln 2000), with open interviews, as well as participant observation and discussion groups (Taylor and Bogdan 1984; Tarrés 2004). It allowed us to talk with informants and document the ways in which they perceive wildlife and the environment.
Introduction to communities and sample selection
All the communities under study are close to wetlands, and this was the main criterion for choosing them. Another selection criterion that we used was the interest and availability of the people to participate in the wetlands conservation. To get a general idea of what people knew about wildlife, we conducted a workshop in each of the four municipalities (8–12 people). Participants included young and old, local men and women; key people were identified as those who because of their status in the community, had more information. We used pictures of the birds, mammals and reptiles known for the region as support material to enhance our dialogue with participants. After the workshops, we worked directly with families in their homes. Family selection depended on whether or not a member was aware of regional wildlife. Generally, in each family there was a person with more information (usually the family head: father, mother, grandparent), who more frequently left the house to work in the field. They were those who had more information on wildlife and therefore used to participate more than the other family members. However, all the family was involved in this activity, because they often complemented the knowledge that we were documenting. To locate more informants, we used the “snowball” technique where one family would recommend another that they thought might have information regarding the topic and so on until the information provided became redundant, indicating that the sample was complete (Taylor and Bogdan 1984).
The questionnaire used for interviews had also three sections (González-Marín et al. 2012), but the latter two were focused on wildlife instead of palms and their uses: (1) personal data about the informants; (2) a list of useful animals and their availability according to peoples’ perception of the wildlife species found in wetlands; (3) questions about each wild animal species that the interviewees cited as useful. Topics included the local name of the animal, the animal parts used, type of use, their eventual marketing and price. We also documented socioeconomic factors that could influence the use of wildlife and the problems associated with its use. When the information became repetitive among families, the interviews ended; a level of saturation of data was reached (Law et al. 2007). A total of 60 interviews, 15 per municipality, were conducted and tape-recorded to analyze transcripts in detail. Also, in each community, participant observation was developed, recording all information through field notes. We worked in Alvarado (six families interviewed in the town of Costa San Juan, five in Nacaste, five in Pajarillos), Jamapa (nine in Piñonal, six in Matamba), Tecolutla (four in Casitas, five in Ricardo Flores Magón, three in Tecolutla, four in Cruz de los Esteros) and Tuxpan (seven in Golfo Barra de Galindo, eight in Mata de Tampamachoco).
All interviews were transcribed and analyzed following the procedures suggested by Taylor and Bogdan (1984) and González-Marín et al. (2012): (1) Interview transcripts and field notes were examined line by line; (2) a code was used to recognize relevant ideas for the research, allowing us to establish categories from the data; (3) these categories were listed according to the number of times they were mentioned and used helping us to develop interpretative texts using the number of times a category was mentioned, e.g., the most frequently named bird species was Dendrocygna autumnalis (37 times); (4) observations collected in the field were further used to verify the answers and also to establish a broader social context for the usefulness and people’s perception of wetland wildlife; (5) discussion groups were held to verify results that coincided with those given by the groups and also to supplement information.
Wildlife species used in the wetlands
In all four municipalities, 32 (94 %) of the 34 bird species shown in pictures are used by people. Of these, 25 species are used as food, six for trade, five as pets and three as ornamentation. The most frequently mentioned species was black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis, 37 times). Of the 17 reptile species shown in pictures, 15 (88 %) were mentioned. Of these, 14 are used as food, seven for trade, three for medicine, three as pets and three as ornaments. The most frequently mentioned was Meso-American slider (Trachemys venusta, 45 times). Of 20 mammal species, 12 (60 %) were mentioned; nine used as food, six for trade, four as pets, two for medicinal and one for ornamental purposes. The most frequently mentioned species were nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus, 47 times).
Traditional use by internal and external users of wetlands
In the communities of Alvarado (internal users), people use wild animals more frequently and more often dedicate time and effort to capturing them because wildlife is more accessible. These communities live in the wetland, and using wildlife is one of their subsistence activities. In the communities of Jamapa, Tecolutla and Tuxpan (external users), the use of wildlife is casual (Electronic Supplemental Material 1) with animals usually caught during other activities (e.g., fishing, farming, tending livestock).
In Alvarado’s communities, birds were mentioned the most (17 times), especially migratory ducks. On a hunting trip, up to 20 are caught. Reptiles are the second most used taxa for food, especially freshwater turtles (Electronic Supplemental Material 1 and 2). A single family can consume 15–20 turtles of different species (mainly T. venusta) per year. Wildlife—mainly ducks, turtles and iguanas—is traded when caught by a member of the community who sells the animal to neighbors or in nearby communities. The use of wild mammals is rare, except for P. lotor and Nasua narica, which are hunted for food. Otter pelts (Lontra longicaudis) are sold because of their value in the local fur industry. Some families mentioned that there are manatees in the area (Trichechus manatus) and people used to consume their meat; however, informants said that they no longer hunt it because it is protected by Mexican law and there are very few of them nowadays.
Most respondents said wildlife is used infrequently, although some mentioned hunting rabbits for food. Armadillos and squirrels are only rarely captured for food, being mostly terrestrial animals. Of the reptiles, iguanas are consumed often (Iguana iguana and Ctenosaura similis), and some turtles occasionally (e.g., Staurotypus triporcatus, T. venusta, K. leucostomum; Electronic Supplemental Material 1). The main bird species used as food is D. autumnalis, while parrots (A. autumnalis and A. nana) are usually caught for trade and pets. The skunk (Conepatus semistriatus) is used medicinally, as the meat is thought to cure some skin problems (acne and blemishes; Electronic Supplemental Material 2).
The most used taxa are the reptiles, mainly T. venusta and C. moreletti (Electronic Supplemental Material 1). The most frequently mentioned mammals are D. novemcinctus and P. lotor, which are used for food (Electronic Supplemental Material 2). Participation in the pet trade is common with parrots (e.g., A. autumnalis and A. nana) and squirrels (Sciurus aureogaster) seen in homes, hotels and restaurants. The villagers also mentioned that T. venusta and S. triporcatus turtles are occasionally exchanged for fish and other seafood.
The inhabitants of La Mata de Tampamachoco make little use of wildlife, in contrast to the Gulf of Barra Galindo where the elderly commonly mentioned P. lotor and D. novemcinctus as food species (Electronic Supplemental Material 1 and 2). Reptiles are rarely hunted, though the turtle T. venusta was frequently mentioned. Some parrots (A. autumnalis and A. nana) and squirrels (S. aureogaster) are sold as pets. Some interviewees also mentioned that Didelphis marsupialis and C. semistriatus have medicinal uses (Electronic Supplemental Material 2).
Socioeconomic factors influencing the use of wildlife in municipalities
The use of wildlife is closely linked to the main economic activities of each location and their degree of isolation with respect to major urban centers (Table 1). The inhabitants of Alvarado are isolated by numerous waterways and lagoons. They must travel by boat to a city to acquire merchandise, so they use wildlife frequently and dedicate time exclusively to hunting. In contrast, people from Jamapa raise livestock and grow fruit trees and have road access to urban centers, so they usually capture wildlife species while doing these activities. In Tecolutla, wildlife is often used as pets because this municipality includes one of the most important tourist destinations in the region (Costa Esmeralda). In Tuxpan, people depend on finfish fisheries, shrimp and oysters, so wildlife use is secondary (i.e., capturing parrots for sale). However, in the Gulf of Barra Galindo, which is a rustic, isolated community, people sometimes hunt wild mammals and migratory ducks in addition to eating fish and marine crustaceans.
Another factor determining wildlife use in wetlands is the origin of the inhabitants. In the municipalities of Tecolutla, Jamapa and Tuxpan, most of the people are mestizos who arrived during the Agrarian Reform implemented by the Mexican government between 1920 and 1940, during which land was distributed. The communities of Alvarado are the exception; their villagers are Afrodescentants who colonized mangrove areas from villages surrounding the wetland and therefore consumed wildlife as part of their heritage from centuries of living in wetlands. Wildlife trading also provides an additional source of money and resources for people living in wetlands; some earn extra money by selling animals and their parts, also allowing others to benefit from acquiring animal protein at a more affordable price than that available in shops and supermarkets (Electronic Supplemental Material 2).
Problems currently affecting wildlife populations
From the perspective of the residents of Alvarado, the population size of migratory birds, reptiles and medium-sized mammals has decreased owing to causes originating outside of the wetlands. The most cited factors were water pollution (mentioned 15 times) and excessive hunting (10) (see details in Table 1). For the villagers of Jamapa, wildlife is becoming scarce and the biggest problem is hunting, mainly by outsiders and guided by local villagers interested in making some extra money (15), though turtle carcasses were spotted in a few homes. People also mentioned that deforestation (12) and water pollution (9) affect wildlife. In Tecolutla, respondents said that the overexploitation of natural resources (plants and animals) (13 times) and water pollution (8) are the main factors affecting wetland wildlife; hurricanes were also mentioned as causing the loss of wildlife or their habitat (4 times). Water pollution was also the most mentioned (15) in Tuxpan.
It is important to clarify that people who mentioned the problem of water pollution perceive it as both waste pollution by organic matter from human activities and that caused by stagnant water, produced by high temperatures. These, in turn, are associated with wetland desiccation by different human activities, including the tree felling to make way for pastures and house construction.
Wildlife species used in the wetlands
Our results reveal that people generally use more species of birds and reptiles than mammals, probably because they are the most diverse and abundant taxa in the wetlands (Weller 1999); therefore, according to what the people mentioned in Electronic Supplemental Material 1, the frequency of use of the species is consistent with their availability in the wetland. People living both inside and close to wetlands used wildlife mainly as food, demonstrating that this is a basic need even nowadays. However, traditions and customs also have an important role in the study area. People use wildlife for pleasure, and there is a tradition of consuming wild meat. Similar results have been observed in indigenous communities living in tropical forests (Robinson and Redford 1991; Naranjo et al. 2004). Also, the market price of wild meat reported by the respondents (Electronic Supplemental Material 2) was noticeably lower than the price per kilogram of chicken (3.93 USD), pork (5.2 USD) and beef (8.34 USD) (PROFECO 2013). Thus, wildlife meat is a more accessible resource to poor people. Furthermore, by selling meat, skin or live specimens of wildlife, they can earn an extra income, allowing them to purchase commodities.
Traditional use by internal and external wetland users
Those living in wetlands used more wildlife species and did so more frequently than external users. This may be because: (1) there is a greater diversity and abundance of birds and reptiles in Alvarado, and (2) people living in wetlands are more likely to capture wildlife. Regarding the first point, the Alvarado wetland is the largest and is located further south, lying biogeographically in the Neotropical region and within the distribution range of more animal species (e.g., turtles, Ippi and Flores 2001). In contrast, Tecolutla and Tuxpan are located further north, where there are fewer species. The proximity and ease of access to hunting sites can facilitate hunting success (Naranjo et al. 2004), because people can locate their prey easily and know more about wildlife habitats and behavior (internal users), which helps them capture and use more species, compared to external users (Shively 1997). However, these characteristics also make communities more dependent on natural wetland resources, and therefore also more vulnerable to food insecurity.
In the communities of Jamapa, there is a lot of poaching pressure on wildlife, mainly to sell the animals and earn extra money as guides for poachers, similar to the exploitation of turtles in the Brazilian Amazon (Schneider et al. 2011). In this region, turtle, especially that of T. venusta, has been heavily exploited (González-Marín, unpublished data). It is worth noting that many of Jamapa’s wetlands have been replaced by cattle pastures, degrading wildlife habitat (Andrén 1994; Loreau et al. 2003), though this was never mentioned by the interviewees; in fact, the respondents perceive turtles as a common resource in the wetlands.
In Tecolutla and Tuxpan, people use wildlife occasionally. According to those interviewed, the consumption of wildlife has also declined because of the laws protecting them, and because of increased patrolling in the area due to the proximity of Tuxpan, an important seaport on the Gulf of Mexico. However, the decrease in fishing resources (e.g., shrimp) and the lack of jobs have made some people start capturing wild animals illegally (e.g., parrot chicks), for sale or personal use. Worldwide the illegal wildlife trade has an estimated value of 7.8–10 billion dollars (GFI 2011) and persists due to the high demand for exotic species in big cities or some countries (e.g., China, USA and Germany), where large amounts of money are paid to have a live specimen of a rare or endangered species or their parts (e.g., up to 23,068 USD for a yellow-headed amazon). Moreover, there is a big difference between the prices that are handled locally and those that can reach the products in national and international markets; for example, an armadillo can be sold at 5.83 USD in the study area, but can achieve ten times this value in Mexico City. Unfortunately, irresponsible wildlife trade and overexploitation are threatening this resource, and those most affected tend to be the poorest people because they depend directly on wildlife for consumption and as a way of earning cash.
In the coast of Veracruz, illegal trading results from the regional demand for wildlife, its aesthetic value and popularity with tourists. In fact, the use of wildlife as an attraction is a common practice in many tourist destinations worldwide, even though the negative impact on several species has been demonstrated (Orams 2002). The economic crisis in rural areas and people’s need to acquire products, among them food, is therefore having an impact on the populations of the wildlife species that are overexploited in the absence of any restocking program or conservation policy. Schneider et al. (2011) report that overexploitation from illicit trade can cause the rapid local extinction of species, since in the process of capturing and transporting the animals, several of them die, requiring the poachers to capture even more animals.
With regard to the above, environmental policy in Mexico is not about adopting a “no-take” approach. Mexican law gives priority to the use of the resource in a sustainable manner, which can be extractive (hunting, commercial, subsistence, for rites and ceremonies, based on restocking and research) or non-extractive, as with certain protected species and those under some degree of threat (ecotourism, environmental education and research). In some cases, even though the species are protected (e.g., some freshwater reptiles, terrestrial mammals and certain plants), commercial exploitation is possible when controlled, continuously monitored, and with the possibility of devising compensatory measures such as stocking or reforestation (Zamorano de Haro 2009). However, our results show that people are not aware of the available options for the use of their resources provided for by environmental policies as legal alternatives, or perhaps they find them complicated and so cannot benefit from them. Thus, many make use of wild animals in a surreptitious manner. Also, the overuse of some wetland resources is the result not only of people meeting their basic needs, but also of external factors (Velayudan 2007), such as proximity to big cities (Guiling et al. 2009). People in cities buy wildlife as pets, and some even commission the acquisition of some species.
Socioeconomic factors influencing the use of wildlife
In this study, we found that the degree to which wildlife is used is determined by factors such as people’s main economic activity, the degree of isolation of a community, the origin of the population in each community, their traditions and customs (associated with people’s origin, Lion and Hardesty 2002) and the need for additional sources of income and resources. All these factors are closely linked to geography, economy and culture (Conway-Gomez 2008). On the Veracruz coast, the disappearance of the indigenous cultural influence left a void in the centuries following the Conquest. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and with the Agrarian Reform, the region was slowly populated by new groups of settlers, mostly mestizos who had lived in other parts of Mexico (González-Jácome 1999; von Bertrab 2010) with ecosystems completely different from wetlands (Hoffman 1994). Alvarado communities differ from those located in other municipalities under study, because its inhabitants are descendants of African slaves brought to Veracruz by the Spanish between 1590 and 1640 (Hoffmann 2010), and when mixed with indigenous dwellers, adopted part of their traditions and knowledge, so actually they make a greater use of wetland resources compared to those settlers who arrived in the last hundred years. Also, living within the mangroves and marshes favors these activities.
The use of wildlife as an extra source of money and resources is still a common practice in the rural areas of Mexico: The meat of wild animals is usually cheaper than poultry, pork or beef, because the price of the latter includes their production cost (Apaza et al. 2002). Finally, the consequences of governmental programs subsidizing extensive agriculture and livestock have a negative effect on natural resources and promote the loss of wetland ecosystem services (Botello et al. 2010). In this sense, the Veracruz coast is one of the Mexican regions with the largest area used for livestock, an activity that is the main threat to wetlands (Moreno-Casasola et al. 2012). The above implies the loss of habitat for wildlife (e.g., birds and mammals) and a decrease in their populations, causing wild meat be gradually replaced by that provided by domestic animals. As a final result, both the society and the economy of rural communities, particularly those who are living in extreme poverty are severely affected (Restrepo 2012).
Problems currently affecting the availability of wildlife populations
The problems mentioned in our results are directly related to socioeconomic conditions, land change policies and climate change (e.g., water pollution, deforestation; Halsnæs and Trærup 2009). Climate change is affecting biological systems worldwide and modifying species distribution, animal population size, breeding seasons, and the routes and timing of migration (Case et al. 2009). Thus, today, many of the services and food sources provided by ecosystems have decreased, severely affecting rural peoples’ way of living and ability to make a living. Food security is currently a top priority worldwide, especially in developing countries, and as such, is affected by the practices associated with economic growth and those that contribute to climate change (Jiménez et al. 2010).
Pollution, from both urban waste and agricultural runoff, has damaged these ecosystems. Deforestation also affects both the environment and wild animal populations, particularly for those species strongly dependent on trees. With deforestation, many environmental services are lost, affecting wildlife populations and the food security of rural inhabitants.
The factors mentioned in this study affect wildlife, its accessibility, availability and quality (seen as food; Ford 2009). Programs to ensure food security should address these issues to provide viable alternatives and ensure both the availability and quality of wildlife to the community (Ford 2009).
This study helps lay the basis for guaranteeing food security strategies that include the traditional use of wildlife, wetland conservation and restoration. However, further study is essential, with an emphasis on the quality of the food and the nutritional support that wildlife represents for rural people. Likewise, if we preserve the integrity and functions of wetland ecosystems, the negative impact of climate change can be mitigated, especially for the resources that ensure food security (e.g., wildlife). With this strategy, we would also be better prepared for the natural disasters that are exacerbated by climate change such as droughts, floods and hurricanes (Woodrey et al. 2012) and would suffer fewer social and environmental losses.
Management implications and proposals
The ecological integrity of wetlands depends on coordinating watershed management with the use and conservation of flora and fauna. This implies many types of use and stakeholders (Junk 2002), not all of which are directly associated with wetlands. Some activities in wetlands (e.g., raising livestock) alter wetland dynamics and jeopardize food security by affecting the availability of wildlife as a source of food for people (Turbay et al. 2000). The design and implementation of plans, programs and guidelines for the sustainable management of wetland resources is a priority. Communities must be involved in the entire process and in decision making, because the success or failure of management plans depends at least in part on people’s commitment to, and their attitudes and prejudices about the environment. The different bodies of knowledge, traditions and practices of the stakeholders need to be acknowledged to develop new ways of interacting with wetland resources.
It is difficult to prevent people from using wildlife because these practices are deeply rooted in their culture and also increase their income. However, to mitigate the impact of unregulated extraction, it is necessary for villagers, as well as governmental officials, conservationists and scientists to accept the need for changes or adjustments to the ways ecosystems are used. There is an urgent need for sustainable forms of land use, infrastructure and management strategies for livestock production, production system designs, the incorporation of local knowledge, participatory strategies and scientific advances that will make adaptation to climate change possible. Climate change is already having consequences, and as the mean global temperature continues to rise, it will be necessary to develop adaptation strategies for people and for wildlife species. Ensuring food security is a fundamental adaptation strategy that must be addressed.
In Mexico, the establishment of wild animal production units known as UMAs (units of management and sustainable use, Unidad de Manejo y Aprovechamiento, a legal instrument issued in the Mexican law), for their sustainable consumption is considered and has been vital for many species, including turtles, iguanas and rabbits, which has been useful in some cases and social sectors, for example, when breeders of wildlife have the financial resources to pay for technical advisors and infrastructure (González-Marín et al. 2003). In this study, some of these were used for food and management techniques for their reproduction have been developed (Aguirre and Cázares 2002). The legal breeding of wild species, together with wetland restoration and conservation actions to protect specific areas would help to secure food for local families and thus reduce the pressure on natural resources, giving wetlands time to regenerate.
In this study, we report that despite the loss of coastal wetlands in Veracruz, traditional use is still being made of wildlife in rural communities, mainly to meet basic needs (food and goods). Although use varies among communities because of the degree of isolation, economic activities and the origin of the population, it is clear that wildlife comprises an important resource for people and one that can be managed adequately to ensure the continuous availability of food under different climate change scenarios.
This research has shown that the use of natural resources should be considered in conservation planning and management, to make sure the needs of rural people are taken into account and to ensure their food security.
Mexican legislation on wildlife has legal figures and instruments for the sustainable use of wildlife; the main problem is that there are no human or financial resources to implement them. Besides the above, there is little knowledge of the laws and legal procedures, especially in the most marginalized communities. Thus, registering a UMA or obtaining a permit to make some kind of exploitation of wildlife involves a series of procedures that these people (some of them unable to read or write) simply can not follow, at least without having some professional guidance, so the hunter only has two options: break the law or starve their families. In order to change this situation, several things are necessary: more research on socioecological systems to address the need for both biodiversity conservation and also food security; good communication and coordination, and constant interaction between the government and scientific institutions, as well as the members of society to develop local management plans that incorporate current knowledge about key species (e.g., ducks and turtles), the interest of stakeholders, technical support and the dissemination of information, all of which would ensure the success of programs designed to both benefit people and conserve wetlands.
For their kindness and help in preparing this study, we thank the residents of the communities where we conducted the interviews. A. Juárez introduced us to the communities. B. Delfosse edited the English version of this manuscript. This study was made possible by a Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia doctoral fellowship (46372) awarded to the first author and funding from the International Tropical Timber Organization PD 349/05 Rev.2 (F) and PD RED-PD 045/11 Rev.2 (M), and from the Instituto de Ecología A.C. (902-17). We thank two anonymous reviewers and editors for their valuable comments on the manuscript.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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