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Botanists scour the US-Mexico border to document a forgotten ecosystem split by a giant wall

Near the towering border wall, flanked by a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle, botanist Sula Vanderplank heard a quail in the brush calling “chi-ca-go,” a sound the birds use to signal separation from a mate or group.

Then silence.

A quail on the Mexican side called back, creating a back-and-forth soundtrack that was both fitting and heartbreaking in an ecosystem divided by an artificial barrier.

Vanderplank was one of several botanists and citizen scientists who participated in the Border Bioblitz near the Mexican community of Jacumé, about 60 miles east of Tijuana.

About 1,000 volunteers, armed with the iNaturalist app on their smartphones, will document as many species as possible along the U.S.-Mexico border in May. By uploading photos to the app, plants and animals can be identified and the coordinates of the location are recorded.

The hope is that the information could lead to greater protection of the region’s natural resources, which have been overshadowed by news of drug trafficking and migrant smuggling.

On a recent day, Bioblitz volunteers studied a bright yellow flowering carpet of common goldfields, a sharp contrast to the border wall’s imposing steel bollards topped with coils of barbed wire. Some picked their way past piles of empty water jugs, a gray hoodie and empty tuna cans left under the branches of native flora like Tecate Cypress.

“There is a fantastic amount of biodiversity here that has traditionally been overlooked,” says Vanderplank of the binational Baja Rare program.

The effort began in response to former President Donald Trump adding hundreds of miles of border walls that toppled countless numbers of saguaro cacti in Arizona and cut through the biodiversity hotspot of Baja California.

“When construction of the border wall began, we realized how little hard data we had, especially when it came to plants and small organisms,” Vanderplank said. “We don’t know what we could lose.”

Since then, there has been a groundswell of initiatives to document the flora and fauna of the borderland, as climate change combined with habitat loss, pollution and development have affected the world’s biodiversity. One 2019 estimate warns that within decades, a million plant and animal species could be threatened with extinction, a loss a thousand times greater than expected.

The United Nations is expected to hold a high-level meeting in Colombia in October of signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, with the aim of protecting 30% of the land, freshwater and oceans considered important for biodiversity by 2030, known as 30 by 30. Representatives from nearly 200 countries are expected to present plans on how they will meet the conservation targets agreed in 2022.

Currently, 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas are protected.

The Baja California Peninsula, which borders California and is home to Tijuana with one of Mexico’s highest homicide rates, has more than 4,000 plant species. A quarter of them are endemic and at least 400 plants are considered rare and have little to no protection.

Flora and fauna that are extinct or in danger of disappearing in the U.S., such as the California red-legged frog, thrive south of the border and produce specimens that are used to bring back populations.

But crime in the region is keeping many American scientists from crossing the border. Mexico is also restricting permits for botanists and not allowing seeds to be collected, further restricting work, scientists say.

Bioblitz organizers are working with local communities and say they are only taking people to areas that are considered safe.

“You have to be very careful because of the violence,” said Jon Rebman, curator of botany at the San Diego Natural History Museum, who has named 33 new plants to science from the Southern California and Baja California region.

“It’s scary from that point of view, but yet these are the areas where we really need more information because there is hardly any protected area on the south side,” he said.

Using the museum’s collection, Rebman listed fifteen plant species endemic to Baja California that have not been seen since they were collected nearly a century ago. He created a binational team to find them. So far they have found 11.

Rebman also discovered two plants new to science in 2021 in a crevasse along a highway in Tijuana: the new species, Astragalus tijuanensis, and a new variety of Astragalus brauntonii called lativexillum.

“I was afraid they would become extinct before we even named them,” Rebman said. “That tells you what kind of area we work in.”

Tijuana-based field botanist Mariana Fernandez of Expediciones Botanicas leads a botanical expedition with students to document native plants along the U.S.-Mexico border at the Ejido Jacume in the municipality of Tecate in Baja California, Mexico, on Friday, April 19, 2024.  Flora and fauna that are extinct or in danger of disappearing in the U.S. are thriving in remote places south of the border, producing specimens that can then be used to bring back populations, scientists say.  But crime in the region has deterred many American scientists from crossing the border.

Tijuana-based field botanist Mariana Fernandez of Expediciones Botanicas leads a botanical expedition with students to document native plants along the U.S.-Mexico border at the Ejido Jacume in the municipality of Tecate in Baja California, Mexico, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Flora and fauna that are extinct or in danger of disappearing in the U.S. are thriving in remote places south of the border, producing specimens that can then be used to bring back populations, scientists say. But crime in the region has deterred many American scientists from crossing the border.

Tijuana-based botanist Mariana Fernandez of Expediciones Botánicas periodically checks the plants. Working with Rebman, she is pushing Baja California to provide more protection for native plants. Currently, only a fraction are on Mexico’s federal protection list.

She hopes the state will step in, while also trying to build support by taking Tijuana residents and Baja officials on walks.

“People are amazed that these things exist in Tijuana, and I hope to show it to more and more people so they can see the beauty, because we need that,” Fernandez said. “It is important not to be hindered by the barriers that people put up.”

With border security increasing and the number of people displaced by natural disasters, violence and wars at record levels worldwide, more and more migrants are moving to areas such as the Jacumé area. The small community of about 100 families includes members of the Kumeyaay tribe and lies across the border from an equally sparsely populated desert near the California town of Jacumba Hot Springs. Population: about 1,000.

The area has seen thousands of asylum seekers waiting for a chance to cross, usually under the cloak of darkness, then camping back out on the U.S. side after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Fernandez was one of the botanists who helped Bioblitz volunteers on the Mexican side at a crumbling 1920s intersection.

“I never thought there would be so much biodiversity on the border,” said Jocelyn Reyes, a student of Fernandez’s at La Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, who stopped every few meters to hover over a plant and examine its details. photographing. “It’s so interesting and it makes you realize that there is so much worth saving.”