Sunday, May 31, 2009


They only boiled at night. The smoke trail easily seen on a windless day. Tomorrow they would break camp and move the factory again. Ricardo dumped another basket of candelilla into the hot vat of water and acid. The fumes stung his nostrils and his eyes blurred. “Hold it right there,” they heard the voice in the darkness say. “Los Rinches,” Ricardo yelled and the team of four quickened for the river.

For over a hundred years the candelilla plant, a shrubby blue-green spurge with a dense cluster of erect leafless stems has been harvested for wax. Native to the Trans-Pecos and Northern Mexico, attempts at farming the plant has failed. Only the wild candelilla produces commercial quantities of candelilla wax. Smuggling of the wax across the Rio Grande to capture the higher price in this country prevailed for years until cheaper synthetic waxes displaced most of the demand for pure natural candelilla.

Up until the 1970’s, because of over-harvesting in Mexico, illegal wax factories operated in the Big Bend National Park and were the object of raids by park rangers who set out to enforce the illegal gathering of the plant in Texas.

On both sides of the river, the small mobile factories were targets for raiders and law enforcement alike. In 1914 Poncho Villa raided an American camp in Glenn Springs, prompting the US to send a 100,000 soldiers to the region.

Cererros gathered the wild desert plant and loaded their cargo on burros transporting it to candelilleros, the wax makers who boiled the stems usually at a remote cleft in the desert, skimming the wax from the top of the hot acid, cooling it and cutting it into squares for on transport to the dealers located in Presidio, Chihuahua and Alpine.

One of the few large scale candelilla factories operated in Presidio during WWII and produced 25 tons a day.

Candelilla wax consists mainly of hydrocarbons and is still used today when a high quality natural wax is needed. It has a melting point of 184 degrees. In Europe it is used as a glazing agent and food additive. Lipstick and chewing gum manufacturers worldwide pay top dollar for it, importing the product from Mexico, where gathering of the wild plant is still commercially feasible.

Aplomado Flacon

Under a blue sky a white dove glides, its wings fixed and round head arc, the legs stretched out and thin talons split the air as it approaches the branch of the yucca. Then a flash of lead-like color zooms in from above knocking the dove to the ground. A blur hovers then drops to the downed dove and clinches it between its claws rising now in the swirling wind where it joins its mate in the thin air of the Trans-Pecos.

The Aplomado Falcon has returned to west Texas after a long hiatus. 1952 was the last sighting of a mating pair up until the recent revival. Finally listed as an Endangered Species in 1986, few were seen until captured Aplomados from Chihuahua were released in south Texas in the 1990’s. Another substantial release of Aplomados occurred in west Texas on private lands in 2002. Today the Peregrine Fund has documented six mating pairs in the area, most of them in Jeff Davis County.

Aplomado is a Spanish word meaning lead color, but along with the bird’s blue-gray back are splashes of dark orange on its head and belly with yellow rimmed eyes.

Aplomados often hunt in pairs and their long tails make for agile rudders allowing for quick changes in direction. These hunters, who eat both insect and small vertebrae including smaller birds like the dove and the meadowlark need wide open grass land to survive.

Over-grazing and erosion to the land, a by-product of the cattle industry that dominated this part of the world over the past 100 years, changed and reduced the habitat of the aplomado forcing the bird south into the lesser developed region of Chihuahua,Mexico.

But today environmental factors are reversing as Chihuahua becomes more developed, through increased mono-culture farming practices in the Mexican desert and grasslands that deplete water reserves and eliminate habitat. An increased awareness in west Texas led by conservation minded ranchers and other land owners are restoring the great grasslands and providing another chance for wildlife like the Aplomado Falcon.