May 9, 2011

Protecting the Queen Conch at Xel-Há

There is so much to see and do at Xel-Há Water Park. It's billed as 'the largest natural aquarium in the world'. With all that there is on offer, tourists often miss that they are seeing something very rare indeed. This is the home of the endangered Queen Conch! Over-exploited by generations of fishing, this reclusive creature is on the very brink of extinction. Yet, armed with funding from the European Union, scientists from three continents have now arrived to see what they can do.

Queen Conch

The Queen Conch (pronounced Konk-g) has fascinated humans for centuries. Their meat is a staple of the finer restaurants. It is second, in culinary popularity, only to the escargot, when it comes to edible snails. Nothing goes to waste, as every part of the conch can be devoured, though many profess to enjoying the 'white' meat only.

Their ornate pink shells often turn up in shops, bought to decorate private aquariums or to hang about in the garden. More prosaicly, conch shells have been used as home security, embedded into the top of walls, where the sharpened edges deter those thinking of climbing over.

Depictions of the ancient Maya have shown them using these shells as ink wells or bugles. Children of all ages still love to blow into the emptied shells, to produce a deep, resounding noise; or to listen into them to hear 'the sound of the ocean'.

Pink pearls are sometimes found inside these shells. They are destined to be fitted into beautiful jewellry.

Queen ConchQueen Conch

The conch isn't known for its speed of flight. It's the original sitting duck, just waiting for someone to pluck it from the seabed and take it to its doom. As a result, the 'harvest' of Queen Conch has gone on unabated throughout all of recorded history. It's only as recently as 2003 that it was recognized how critically endangered it had become.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) recommended that a blanket ban on the import and export of conch be effected immediately. Most Caribbean countries have complied. Domestically, there are also either bans or restrictions placed upon fishing Queen Conch.

In the Mexico state of Yucatan, the Queen Conch is protected at all times of the year. Next door, in Quintana Roo, fishing it is prohibited during the months of February through to October. Even during the rest of the year, only Queen Conch of a certain girth may be taken from the ocean.

For those tourists who have managed to purchase Queen Conch shells, or items made from them, then a shock may await them at home. In some European countries, these are the number one most seized items by customs. They take CITES recommendations very seriously.

Queen Conch

Which leads us nicely to what is happening in Xel-Há Water Park right now. In 2009, staff at the park teamed up with academics from the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV-IPN), based in Mérida. Their project is entitled, 'Protection and Preservation of Queen Conch (Strombus gigas)', and is headed up by award-winning environmental specialist, Dr. Dalila Aldana Aranda.

The aim of the project is to study the Queen Conch, discovering more about their biological cycle and the circumstances in which it thrives. Moreover, additional data about climate change can be gathered from examining the shells. The idea is to work out how to protect the remaining creatures and to help the species back from its critical state.

Recently, the European Union got on board. Their money has not only allowed the purchase of some important, but expensive, equipment to aid this research, but it's also been used to bring in more specialists. Australia's James Cook University and France's University of Western Brittany have both sent people trained in this field. Erwan Amice, Laurent Chauvaud and Thomas Stieglitz now work full time, under the direction of Dr Aldana.

Dr Aldana
Dr Aldana at Xel-Há

Of course, for the rest of Xel-Há Water Park, live goes on as normal. Tourists jump off cliffs into crystalline waters; lounge on hammocks on white sand beaches; discover the jungle, on foot or on a hired bicycle; or vist the El Dorado cave, with its unique geological formations around a blue-green pool.

But for those snorkelling, scuba diving or sea trekking, in the open Caribbean Sea, then a glimpse of something very special might await. They might spot the Queen Conch waiting on the ocean floor, easily seen through those clear waters; or they could observe the academics at their vital work, studying and protecting this endangered species.

Next time you are there, keep a sharp eye open. Unless the project is successful, then you might be the last generation ever to see a live Queen Conch.

Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.

Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Xel-Ha All Inclusive
An incredible natural aquatic theme park and Mayan archaelogical ruins.


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