Installing and monitoring artificial water sources to help endangered species in the Maya forest, Mexico

A South African Tapir stands in ankle deep water and looks towards the left.
  • A jaguar drinks from a pool of water in an artificial tank
  • Camera trap image of a tapir standing in still water
  • A black and white camera trap image of a tapir in Mexico

Situated at the base of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve spans 1.8 million acres of Mesoamerica’s Maya forest and is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, such as the iconic and threatened Central American tapir, white-lipped peccary, ornate hawk-eagle, and the second-largest jaguar population on the continent. In recent years, however, there have been changes in precipitation patterns, including prolonged drought. Droughts in 2018 and 2019 affected the seasonal small bodies of surface water that are locally known as "aguadas." These sites play a fundamental ecological role as the main sources of water available for animals during the dry season. During the 2018 and 2019 droughts, 18 tapirs were found dehydrated, and some recovered while others perished.

To alleviate water scarcity, WWF and Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas installed artificial water sources in critical areas, monitored wildlife species using the water sources, and conducted a spatial analysis to determine the areas of greatest vulnerability. Thirty water collection and storage systems were established for wildlife, particularly to benefit tapirs and white-lipped peccaries. In addition to the tapir and the white-lipped peccary, camera traps revealed 91 other species of vertebrates (31 mammals, 54 birds, and six reptiles) benefiting from the water sources.

An adult male tapir was fitted with a GPS collar so that scientists could follow its movements and better understand how it uses water during the dry season. To date, the collar has generated approximately 300 location points, allowing experts to estimate its home range and its movements, which followed a pattern toward the water sources. This study was also complemented by the analysis of drought data from satellite images.

Results suggest the use of artificial water sources is a useful tool to reduce the effects of drought. Monitoring of water sources will continue in the region, and new water sources will be installed in critical areas.