The Yucatán Peninsula, with a mean width of 320 kilometers and a coastline of 1,100 kilometers, is a northeastern projection of Central America that separates the Gulf of Mexico on the west and north from the Caribbean Sea in the east. The peninsula shares its territory with the Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche, as well as parts of the Central American countries of Belize and Guatemala. The Yucatán Peninsula can be thus considered as the geographical feature demarcating the division between North America and Central America. The peninsula occupies an area of around 197,600 square kilometers.
As per archaeological evidence gathered from different sites, the Yucatán Peninsula served as the home of the advanced indigenous culture of the ancient Mayan civilization from as early as 2,500 BC an onwards. The Mayans built impressive ancient cities and other settlements in the peninsula such as, for example, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. The Toltec people, whose culture gradually dominated over the Mayan culture, arrived in the peninsula in around 987 BC. After the Mayan civilization’s sudden and mysterious demise in the 8th and 9th Centuries, the history of the Yucatán Peninsula again sprang back to significance in the 16th Century when European explorers first started arriving into the peninsula. The Spanish adventurer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba was the first reported European to visit the peninsula, doing so in February of 1517. The years 1519 and 1527 witnessed severe clashes between the European newcomers and the native inhabitants of the peninsula. Sadly for the natives, the latter soon found themselves no match for the modern European weaponry of the former. By 1549, Francisco de Montejo, a Spanish conquistador, had already gained control over nearly half of the peninsula. The remoteness of the Yucatán Peninsula, however, soon made it an unimportant colonial land of Spain, and internal revolts in the region became common. The Mayan descendants of the peninsula fought for their own freedom, and in these fights they sometimes won and at other times lost. Finally, over the years the land of the Yucatán Peninsula was divided between the modern countries of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala as we know them today.
The Yucatán Peninsula is globally famous for its rich cultural heritage, ethnic diversity, and historical sites of international importance. Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, both ancient Mayan cities in the peninsula, have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The tourism industry thrives in the Yucatán Peninsula, and is one of the most important economic activities in the region. Oil and natural gas reserves have also been discovered and their prospective extraction promises lucrative returns for the regional economy. The fertile soils of the peninsula allow the cultivation of a wide variety of warm climate crops, including cotton, sugarcane, corn, and coffee. Chicle and henequen are two other important native crops commercially produced here. Fishing, cattle ranching, and forestry activities form the other major economic activities of the Yucatán Peninsula today.
Habitat and Biodiversity
The overall climate of the northern portions of the Yucatán Peninsula is hot and dry, while the southern part of the peninsula receives a significant amount of rainfall. May and June are the hottest months in the region, while from December to May are the driest months of the year. The location of the peninsula in the Atlantic Hurricane Belt renders the region susceptible to powerful storms, called nortes. The vegetation cover of the peninsula becomes denser from north to south as precipitation increases. Top predators like jaguars and pumas, other mammals like wild boars, anteaters, porcupines, and monkeys, a large diversity of avifauna like parrots, macaws, turkeys, and quails, and reptiles like snakes and iguanas, all reside in these peninsular forest habitats.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
The clearance of forest lands for agriculture, urban and tourism development, and roadway and other infrastructure building has led to the destruction of nearly 80% of the vegetation cover of the Yucatán Peninsula. The hunting of wild species by man, and devastating forest fires which are often triggered by human errors, have also contributed to rapid losses of the ecological balance in the peninsula. As per estimates, nearly 1.5 billion neotropical migratory birds rest within the peninsular habitats during their migratory travels. A destruction of the forest cover in the region thus severely affects the migratory cycles of all of these birds.
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