Lacandon forests and primate populations - 1st expedition (July 2006)




A major goal of our population studies is to map the current distribution of populations of the three primate species that occur in southern Mexico and to gather information on their demographic features.


Having the field research station Los Tuxtlas and Palenque NacionalPark as bases of operation in southern Mexico, we have been conducting population surveys in the forests (protected and unprotected) that still exist in different regions of southern Mexico (see map).


In many instances these actions have taken our research team into hitherto unexplored regions in southern Mexico and to some areas of Guatemala and Belize (see map).


Here we briefly document a 1st expedition to the territories of three Lacandon Indian communities.







The satellite image to the right shows the general location of the territories of the Lacandon indigenous people. Also shown are the location of Palenque National Park and the area where the Los Tuxtlas field station is found.  













The Lacandon indigenous people


Currently there are about 700 Lacandon indians in the Lacandon forests of sourhern México. This is one of the smallest indigenous groups in Mexico and in Mesoamerica. They live in three communities: Métzabok, Nahá and Lacanhá (see image below). The Lacandon are members of the Maya indigenous groups predominating in the Yucatan peninsula, parts of Belize, northern Guatemala and the lowlands of Chiapas. They speak Maya-Lacandon, and consider themselves descendants of the ancient Maya that inhabited the Mayan cities of Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampák. The majority dress in white tunics and wear their hair long.



The Lacandons of the north are those found in the communities of Métzabok y Nahá, and those of the south are found in the community of Lacanhá (see image below).


The most tradicional communities are Métzabok and Nahá. They practice their own religion and ceremonies, prepare a ceremonial beer - “balche”, made from the bark of a Leguminosae tree - and are polygamous. They recognize the existence of Christ whom they call Hesuklistos, but he is considered a minor god and the son of Äkyantho’, the god of foreigners and their things in their cosmology.


Lacanhá is the most southern community and even though it is the most westernized community, the Lacandons still retain many of their traditions.


The Lacandons call themselves “Hach Winikor  true people, and they speak “Hach T`an” or true language. Non Lacandons are classified as a different type of people that speak an unintelligible language.





The Lacandons of these three communities manage the forest in a sustainable way. They have milpas, but rotate these on a regular basis, and they may plant up to 30 edible crops along with corn. Hunting and fishing are also an important component of their subsistence economy.


Recently the state government has supported the development of projects of ecotourism in the three communities. However, communities such as Métzabok and Nahá are difficult to reach due to the hazardous condition of the dirt road. Lacanhá can be more easily visited due to the existence of a paved road leading to the community.








The evangelist religión has been promoted in the Lacandon communities by missioners over several decades, and while resistant to change, some segments of the Lacandon communities have abandon their cultural traditions, including their own religion.


Currently and very recently the Lacandon communities have electricity, schools as well as alternative subsistence projects such as ecotourism and arts and crafts manufacture ‘ the two latter projects supported by state government initiatives.


Photo: Lacandon community of Nahá




Surveys of primate populations


During July 2006 we conducted, with the permission of the Lacandon people, a series of surveys of primate populations in the forested territories of the Lacandon communities of Métzabok, Nahá y Lacanhá. Such surveys were also aimed at establishing contacts with the Lacandons, to link up with the Mexican environmental agency) SEMARNAT-CONANP in various conservation oriented projects, and to assess the logistics needed to gradually intensify the surveys and study of the primate populations found within their territories.


The students that participated in this particular survey, all affiliated to the Primate Lab of the field station Los Tuxtlas, were: Genoveva Trejo (UAM-Xochimilco), Lesly Alejandre (Ciencias Biológicas, I.P.N.) y Octavio Cruz (Ciencias Biológicas, I.P.N.).



Below are some photos of our survey team in this expedition


Alejandro Estrada

Genoveva Trejo

Lesly Alejandre

Octavio Cruz




Métzabok and Nahá


Each of the territories of the Lacandon communities of Métzabok y Nahá cover about 3,000 ha.




Sights of some of the landscapes of the forested territorios of the Lacandon community of Métzabok (upper row) and Nahá (lower row)



Field camps (middle photos) in Métzabok and Nahá. In this first expedition, primate surveys were conducted using canoes borrowed from the Lacandons, along the contour of the lakes in their territories and by walking along some of their land trails.




Members of the Lacandon communities acted as our field guides in the exploration of the forests in their territories



Lacanhá. This was the third Lacandon community visited in our expedition. Lacanhá is found in the northern part of the 300,000 ha Montes Azules biosphere reserve.







The community of Lacanhá (yellow circle) is found at a considerable distance south of Métzabok y Nahá- shown these by the irregular yellow perimeters



View of our camp site in Lacanhá - located at the edge of the Lacanhá river, and a view of the forest protected by the Lacandons 






Satellite image showing the forested area where Lacanhá is found and the location of the Lacanhá river, where our camp site was located.


Using inflatable rafts in our surveys, we used the river as a sampling trail running through the rain forest.















View of the falls and rapids along the Lacanhá River and of our descent through some of these using inflatable rafts




Our surveys resulted in the record of auditory and visual contacts of black howler monkeys - Alouatta pigra. The Lacandon guides and other members of the communities indicated to us the existence of several groups of this primate species. They also pointed out the existence of spider monkeys - Ateles geoffroy - in their territories.


Subsequent surveys by our research team during 2006 and in 2007 will allows to gradually gather data on the size of the primate populations and on their demographic structure.



It is clear that the forests of the Lacandon communities of Métzabok, Nahá and Lacanhá have retained their integrity as a result of a traditional and sustainable management by the Lacandon people. This has resulted in the conservation of the biodiversity present in their territories. It is also evident that such traditional use of the forest has been sustained in spite of the absence of a written language. Importantly, the perception of the value of the forest in their daily life is palpable even amongst the youngest members of the Lacandon communities.



Conserve the Lacandon forests


copyright@2006 alejandro estrada


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