MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ DEL TORO (1917-1996)
Miguel Alvarez del Toro was “one of the last of the all around naturalists and the first of Mexico’s modern conservationists” (Cuarón 1997). For most of his adult life Don Miguel, as he was known, lived in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. He was singularly devoted to the fauna of the region. Despite a lack of formal education, he published books not only on the birds of Chiapas, but also on forest animals in general and, more specifically, the mammals, the reptiles, and the spiders, as well as a memoir, ¡Así era Chiapas!. Like many young naturalists, Álvarez del Toro got his start as a collector for an American institution – in his case the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, for which he collected in 1938-39, before moving to Chiapas in 1942. In 1944, he founded a zoo in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which is distinctive for displaying only animals native to its immediate region.
By the 1970s the zoo was “renowned as the finest zoo in Latin America” (Howell and Webb 1995, 51), a place where visitors are restricted to paths, with the animals free to roam in large, open habitats. Álvarez del Toro’s greatest accomplishments lie in the area of conservation, particularly the protection of El Triunfo, a cloud-forest habitat famous for being home to the horned guan (Oreophasis derbianus), one of the world’s rarest and most unusual birds. The guans are not the only attraction of this magical valley, which runs along the continental divide in Chiapas. In his first visit to the place, Álvarez del Toro was also stunned by the quetzals: “During the sunny hours (very few indeed) it was quite a spectacle to watch the males chasing each other and crossing the diaphanous sky in all directions, flying repeatedly downward from the nearby ridges or from the edges of a dark forest of tall trees that surrounded the clearing. Near where we camped on the shore of the stream was a lone dead tree of medium height where the quetzals paused to show off their splendid metallic plumage while they watched for the arrival of a rival male . . . I never saw, nor shall I see, so many quetzals as those that frequented this small opening and astonished me with so much beauty, showing off all their splendor in their aerial maneuvers” (Álvarez del Toro 2010, 5-6). After his first visit, he lamented that without an effort to save the place, it would be “converted into just another bleak plateau with an ejido [communal farm] planted in the center” (ibid., 18). Fortunately, his years of patient effort resulted in the area being set aside as a permanent reserve, although it is still threatened by the encroachment of a fast-growing local population.