© Diego Mosquera 2019

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THE AMAZON, THE CRADLE OF LIFE ...

 

The Amazon is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. However, the Amazonian forests, like most of the world's tropical forests, are seriously threatened due to increased pressures from human beings.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Ecuador there are substantially large areas of primary forests that are located within indigenous reserves and national parks (for example, in the Waorani Ethnic Reserve and in the Yasuní National Park), but even these areas with some category of protection are in danger due, primarily, to the oil activity. This activity brings nefarious effects, both direct and indirect. We call direct effects to the obvious effects (people, deforestation, visual and auditory pollution, pollution, spills, etc.) and we talk about indirect effects when we refer to what is behind the oil activity. The main indirect effect is of course the construction of roads and pipelines. When there are roads there are people and when there are people there is more deforestation, destruction and fragmentation of habitats, indiscriminate (and unbridled) hunting and many other impacts. Yes, people are not good for the forest (unless, of course, they are ancestral inhabitants and live in the same way they have lived for thousands of years). Ironically, many of the threats that Yasuni's wildlife face today come from its own inhabitants. The lack of knowledge and the myths and erroneous beliefs about the role of animals in the forest causes serious conflicts that potentially threaten the peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife. Why Yasuní is so important? What does Yasuní have that makes people talk so much about it without even knowing it? I would say that Yasuní has ​​two treasures. One is true. The other, not so much.

 

 

The real treasure is diversity. Since it has been little affected by human activities, the park is home to great predators such as jaguars and pumas and other terrestrial mammals such as tapirs, deer or giant armadillos. There are also at least 10 species of primates, many species of birds and thousands, if not millions, of other organisms. It's worth seeing this in more detail. This region has been documented as one of the most biodiverse on the planet. Of course, no one has ever been able to produce a complete list of all the organisms that live in one place, and the challenge is especially big in the tropics. What this means is that in order to at least try to classify it, we have to analyze what we already know. Let's see the most well-known groups of organisms, which are terrestrial vertebrates. These include amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. And for some context, let's see the following table *:

 

 

 

                                                        Amphibians      Reptiles    Birds         Mammals

                             TIPUTINI              140                  121            550                210

                             ECUADOR            427                 396           1616               380

                             USA                      194                  261            768                428

 

                                                                             * New species are described every day, so the figures in this table have certainly varied


 

Tiputini Biodiversity Station (EBT), has only a few square kilometers (6.5 to be exact) but has a large representation of the main groups of animals. To give you an idea, Ecuador has TWICE as much the number of bird species that have US. and Canada together! . These two giant countries have fewer species of frogs than there are in the Yasuní National Park. In the area of the Station there are at least 135 species of frogs and some species of salamanders and caecilians (very rare amphibians that look like an earthworm). In comparison, the US and Canada together have less than 100 species (among all) and more than half are salamanders.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

As for plants, Yasuní is literally "out of this world". The total number of Yasuní tree species is around 2200. The number of tree species per hectare (one piece of 100m x 100m or if you prefer, 10,000 square meters) is more than 600. For all of North America, they have registered 560 species. That means there are more tree species in an area the size of a soccer field in Yasuní than in all of North America (not including Mexico). If we included all the species of plants other than trees (such as herbs, epiphytes, etc.), we would easily reach more than 1000 species per hectare.

 

Now comes what we can not quantify very well: the arthropods. These constitute 90% of the animal world and are divided into insects (ants, beetles, etc), arachnids (spiders, mites, etc.), crustaceans (crabs, shrimps), chilopoda (centipedes) and mylopods (millipedes). When we talk about arthropods, the numbers get out of hand very quickly. There is some controversy among scientists about the total number of species (or rather, estimates). In any case, in the last decade several studies have given us a good perspective on this subject. It is impossible to know for sure the absolute number of species, but we can have some reasonable estimates. Perhaps the most reliable number spoken of, referring to Yasuní, is around 100,000 species per hectare. Some recent publications on the entomofauna (ie insect fauna) of North America suggest a similar number for the US and Canada together -once again-.  

 

 

 ©Diego Mosquera

In an area of ​​a soccer field in Yasuni there are more species than in the two countries combined. On a regional scale, most entomologists suggest that the total number should be more than one million! A million bugs, different from each other! It is not difficult to imagine this if there are 43 different species of ants in a single Yasuní tree. In a single tree there are more species of ants than in the whole United Kingdom! For those interested, I recommend this article by Bass et al, "Global conservation significance of Ecuador's Yasuní National Park".

Why is this biodiversity so important? Well, for many reasons apart from the most important, which are ecological. These range from economic, cultural, emotional, ethical or even religious reasons. I recommend you watching this incredible animation that explains very well what biodiversity is and why it is important. Something that is incredible for many people, whether nationals or foreigns, is that in this place, recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, there is also large-scale extraction of resources. Yasuní is recognized as a National Park by the Ecuadorian government but oil extraction is allowed, not now, but for a long time. There are very serious pollution problems, illegal deforestation, rampant hunting, wildlife trafficking, etc. and all this is overlooked. So far, the potential value of the diversity of this small area has not received any real attention, while the value of oil reserves is hardly ignored by the governments in power. Here is a good chronicle by Scott Wallace of National Geographic about Yasuní and the new road that reaches the heart of the park.

Waorani People (Photo credit: Unknown)

Something very, very important. Yasuní is also home to one of the last groups of isolated Indigenous left on the planet. A couple of groups within the Waorani nation have chosen to live in voluntary isolation. These groups are the Tagaeri (actually, today their existence is in doubt) and the Taromenane. In practice, this means that they have no voice on their own and the impact on their culture is very vulnerable to external interests. The large oil reserves that have below their feet are an irresistible temptation for governments because they mean fast money. Unfortunately, the development of the area where they live and the extraction of oil in their ancestral lands will be the end for them and their culture. It's that easy. A tragic loss for humanity.

 

Now, to try to understand and mitigate the impacts of human beings on tropical forests, we first need to understand how plant and animal communities work. We need to know where they are (distribution) and how many they are (abundance), among many other things, in order to establish patterns and know how these vary over time. This information must be obtained before the impacts occur, or data should on unaltered areas that can be compared with areas that have suffered a certain level of impact be used.

Although there is some data available on some species in the Amazon, in general there is very little or no basic information on patterns of abundance, activity or use of different habitats and seasonal and annual variations in these patterns for most species. From here arises the idea of, taking advantage of technology, to start a study to answer these questions and from here comes the "Proyecto Camaras".

 

What better place to do this research than the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (EBT). Located in the center of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve (YBR), one of the areas with the highest concentration of species on the planet,  TBS is home to a wide variety of species, including populations of umbrella species (by protecting a direct or indirectly, others are protected), such as the jaguar, the puma or the harpy eagle, making it an appropriate place for comparative studies that evaluate impacts produced by human activities. The YBR is also home to indigenous groups (Waorani and Kichwa) who depend on forest resources for much of their subsistence.


 

Tiputini Biodiversity Station (EBT) is located in the province of Orellana, Ecuador, about 280 km southeast of Quito, in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. It has 650 Hectares and was founded in 1994 by Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in a primary forest area within the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve (YBR), which includes more than 2 million Hectares. The Station and its surrounding areas contain a wide variety of habitats that include terra firme (non-flooding forest), varzea (seasonally flooded forests) and other wetlands. It rains a lot (for something called rainforest), being the time between April and early August the time with the highest amount of rain and between November and February the time with less rain. By the way, you can read a great chronicle about Tiputini written by its Founding Director Kelly Swing.

 

TBS from the air

Photo by Diego Mosquera

Tiputini Station has not been affected much by human activities (to date, at least) and thanks to this it houses a large number of animals that are the first to be severely affected by hunting and other human activities. Therefore, TBS is the ideal place for baseline studies that can serve as a comparison for studies in other regions much more affected by human activities (for example, other areas within the same YBR where hunting and oil activities occur). Unfortunately, the areas surrounding TBS itself face threats from indigenous groups (Kichwa, Waorani) that expand their hunting areas and also from oil activities in nearby areas in the near future. The recent increase in oil exploration activities in the region and the construction of roads increase the need to generate data on the current distribution and patterns of species abundance. The data we have obtained clearly demonstrate the value of the area in terms of conservation and help generate valid arguments to stop or at least limit the "development" within Yasuni National Park.

The need to obtain data on distribution and patterns is illustrated by studies at the Yasuni Station (ECY) -from Universidad Catolica-, located approximately 40 km upstream of the TBS in an area of intensive hunting by Waorani populations , particularly along the Maxus road. In this area it is very difficult to see large animals and five species of large birds, the Greater Tinamou (Tinamus major), Salvin's currassaw (Mitu salvini), Spix's guan (Penelope jaquacu), Common pipping guan (Pipile cumanensis), and grey-winged trumpeters (Psophia crepitans) that constitute around 35% of the bird biomass in the area and have become extremely rare due to the unbridled hunting by the Waorani. Yes, where there is hunting there are no animals. It's that simple. For more information on this topic, you can review this interesting article by Esteban Suárez.

Maxus Road.  Photo by Diego Mosquera

Some thoughts...

 

Well, many people will say: "Im sorry about Yasuni being destroyed, but what fault do I have?" "This is how the world works, right?"

 

The truth is that it is difficult to say what should be done and what should not be done. If we do not build roads, how do we get the oil? I'm going to stop using my car so Yasuní does not get destroyed? I will sacrifice my comfortable life for the animals and the forest? Im sorry that all those plants and animals will disappear, but how does that affects me?

 

We can begin by understanding that everything we do in our day-to-day lives has something to do with the destruction of forests and Yasuní. If we begin to relate things, we will realize that every action in our lives has consequences. We can start by consuming less, stop using the car and use more the bicycle, help protect the habitat of wild animals, support the institutions that protect (but really do) the environment and join valid causes to protect forests and animals. We simply need to understand that our life depends on the lives of others and that we are not here to decide who has the right to live and who does not. The success of human beings as a species resides in the fact that many can reason. We can use that gift for good, to respect all the life forms of our planet. It is difficult to change, but not impossible. Once Kafka said: "In your fight against the rest of the world I suggest you to take the side of the world." I'd rather not listen to Kafka this time and rather put myself on the side of what really matters.

* Special thanks to Kelly Swing for the data and her invaluable knowledge about Yasuní!