Fewer people are eating Bolson tortoise

Fewer people are eating Bolson tortoise

A tortoise native to the Chihuahuan Desert of north-central Mexico was driven to near extinction by hunting and shifting weather patterns, but in just a few years it has revived and become a source of income and pride for some of the locals.

The Bolson tortoise, also known as the Mexican giant tortoise or by its scientific name, Gopherus flavomarginatus, was first identified by scientists in the 1950s after they witnessed a peculiar tortoise shell being used to feed chickens.

Locals had been consuming the tortoise for generations, preparing it with green or red chiles, cooked with tomato and onions, or dipping it in beaten eggs before cooking. Ernesto Herrera, 70, remembers that the animal’s egg chute, as prepared by his grandmother, was his favorite part.

For the people of the region, hunting for the tortoises, which can grow up to 50 centimeters in length and weigh up to 18 kilograms, was easier and cheaper than driving over 20 kilometers — a third of which remain unpaved to this day — to the nearest town to buy beef or pork.

Outsiders enjoyed the meat, too: people from nearby cities traveled to the small ejidos in the region to buy it for a few pesos.

In 1973 it was determined that the tortoises’ habitat was shrinking. By 1979 the 340,000-hectare Mapimí Biosphere Reserve was created in the state of Durango to protect the endangered tortoise and other unique flora and fauna of the Bolsón de Mapimí.

“We never considered that the animal could go extinct. We never gave it a second thought,” said Herrera.

It was during the last 15 years that staff from the National Protected Areas Commission (Conanp) began frequent visits to the region, but the locals didn’t understand biology, ecology or ecotourism, and would confront them and send them away.

Researchers found that cattle, the principal source of income for residents, compete with the Bolson tortoise for habitat and feeding grounds, which is the reason why each rancher is restricted to a controlled number of livestock.

Herrera says that cohabitation with the tortoises has been an educational experience. Aiding in their preservation efforts has also allowed the people of the ejidos to access federal funding for reforestation, monitoring and the upkeep of a small museum and tourist facilities.

Groups of up to 80 visitors arrive at the small ejido of La Flor, inhabited by 16 people. There, they learn to bake ranchero bread, take excursions to visit the tortoises’ burrows and nests, receive information about the preservation of the reptiles and, with luck, get to see a few of them.

Despite harsher weather conditions, the director of the biosphere reserve calculates that the population of the tortoises is stable at 10,000 specimens.

However, an organization whose goal is the preservation of threatened species of turtles and tortoises believes the Mapimí reserve is not enough because of agricultural activity within it. In response, the Turtle Conservancy has launched a fundraising campaign to purchase the 17,600-hectare Rancho San Ignacio and manage the land for the long-term protection of the Bolson tortoise.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks the tortoise as vulnerable to extinction on its conservation status scale.

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