Photo: Valerie Hukalo, 2006
South of tourism hotspots Cancún and Tulum lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Sian Ka’an is Mayan for ‘where the sky is born.’ Such poetic language perfectly suits this lovely reserve, which comprises tropical forests, wetlands, reefs and a beautiful Caribbean coast.
Most travelers head to Punta Allen for sportfishing and some classic funky hotels. Everything must be brought to this remote town, including the diesel for the generator that provides the town with electricity for about four hours every night. Several tour operators have developed programs with local communities in and surrounding the park.
Sian Ka’an was established as a reserve in 1982 thanks to studies conducted by the Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo (CIQRO). The region received full status as a biosphere reserve in 1986. The park continues to grow. In 1994 the Bahia de Espiritu Santo, a large bay in the southern part of the reserve, was declared a wilderness refuge of 89,000 hectares (219,830 acres).
Within the park there unusually high levels of biodiversity. There are 318 species of butterflies and 345 (and counting!) species of birds, including roseate spoonbills, white-fronted parrots, egrets, belted kingfish, blue and boat-billed herons, frigate birds, and the jabiru stork, the world’s largest flighted bird.
The park is home to a list of endangered species including jaguar, puma, tapir, manatee, and the spider monkey. The loggerhead, hawksbill, and green turtles come ashore to nest between June and August.
There are 1,200 plants and 230 species of trees found in the reserve, 14 percent of which are endemic to the peninsula.
Geology and Archaeology
The reserve rests on the youngest geological segment of the peninsula, having emerged from the sea less than 2 million years ago. The marshes are younger than the forests. The park is roughly divided into thirds by tropical forests, wetlands, and marine environments. There are three core zones, Muyil in the north, Cayo Culebras in Ascension Bay, and Uaimil, the largest core area. The highest areas are only 20 meters above sea level. There are nearly 30 archaeological sites in the reserve, most from the late post-classic period (A.D. 1200-1500).Because of its natural and cultural wonders, UNESCO declared the reserve a World Heritage Site in 1987.
Diversifying Park Support
Sian Ka’an has links with other environmental reserves, both public and private. The reserve receives financial and technical support from the Amigos de Sian Ka’an, an environmental group created at the same time as the reserve.Unlike parks in the United States, which are mostly uninhabited, Sian Ka’an is a lively home to more than 5,000 people, 80 percent of whom depend on lobster harvests. The population is a mix of wealthy landowners and poor campesinos.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve boasts two exceptional bays, Ascension Bay and Espiritu Santo Bay. The vast estuary system and adjacent reefs enclose the bays and provide shelter for a large number of species. The reef provides shelter to small fish and crustaceans, which in turn attract larger predators.When the reserve was created, landholders were permitted to remain in the park. Catch-and-release fishing was promoted and the hotel owners have worked to eliminate gill nets in Ascension Bay.
An environmentally benign sport, catch-and-release fishing allows anglers to go after the most challenging of fish — bonefish, permit, and tarpon — without depleting the stock. Critics, however, criticize the activity and call it ‘torture-and-release.’
Bonefish prefer shallow water because the flats provide the crabs, shrimp, and mollusks it eats. In addition, bonefish find protection in the shallow water from sharks and barracuda. Fish as large as 33 inches have been caught and released. Permit are found in the shallow as well as deeper waters and are more difficult to catch than bonefish. Tarpon are the largest fish found in the bay. They prefer brackish water, which the mangrove coasts of the reserve provide.
Biosphere Reserve-Sian Ka’an