Santa Lucia: a Gem amongst Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Reserves (Photos)

October 29th, 2014

Photo Essay and Commentary By: Etienne Littlefair

The time is 6:30 am, a faint glimmer of light is just breaking the horizon revealing gnarled epiphyte laden trees still dripping from the rains that had passed through earlier in the morning. In the distance the piercing call of a Wattled Guan cuts through the morning air. I think to myself how lucky I am, as the remnant cloud cover seems to evaporate away leaving a crisp, still morning. Perfect conditions for viewing the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek that I had torn myself away from the comfort of my cabana and hiked through the forest in the hope of witnessing. The first sign of Cock-of-the-Rock manifests as a rustling of wings, the shake of a branch and then a startlingly loud call from just above the foliage blind concealing me from the lek site. Tense with excitement, I patiently wait whilst the sun continues its ascent, all the while more birds flock to the scene and enter the fray, a song and dance where male Cock-of-the-Rock compete for the right to mate.

A male Cock-of-the-Rock astride his mossy perch.

This early experience during my stay at Santa Lucia was to set the scene for three weeks of immense joy and wonder inspired by the natural world. In my time at Santa Lucia I conducted herpetofauna surveys as part of a team of ecologists from various universities working with Operation Wallacea, a UK based conservation charity. This opportunity gave me many insights into Ecuadorean life, and hammered home the need to protect remaining primary forest habitats.

Santa Lucia is a cloud forest reserve situated in the Ecuadorean province of Pichincha, close to the small town, Nanegal. The reserve is owned and run by 20 families within the local community whose economy was historically based on agricultural produce, particularly sugar cane. Following a government act granting legal protection to the forest in 1988, the local people had to adapt their land use in order to maintain their livelihood and income. In the late 90’s the construction of an eco-lodge situated on a high panoramic ridge began. The mission statement of Santa Lucia is ‘to create jobs and other benefits by means of a well run ecotourism business which allows us to conserve the forest and which respects the values of cooperative members and those of the community.’

My first view of the lodge upon arrival, the lodge itself was constructed using materials from the forest, and much of the excellent food served at mealtimes is grown at the lodge.

The excellent vegetable patch, panoramic veranda and forested backdrop.

The lodge today is set up to cater for all manner of eco-tourists, those who wish to spend day and night prowling the forests in search of elusive species, and those who wish to relax and soak in the scenery. As well as catering for tourists, the lodge has a purpose built field laboratory and facilities for lecturing making it a fantastic base to conduct field courses and research forest ecology.

The stunning views from the lodge showcase the beauty and fragility of the Andean cloud forests within an increasingly human dominated landscape.

The reserve spans a wide altitudinal band from around 1500m to 2450m above sea level. The location and altitude of the reserve makes Santa Lucia a key area for Spectacled bears, a species classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Santa Lucia is part of an initiative to form a ‘bear corridor’ facilitating seasonal movement of Spectacled bears from lower cloud forest areas into the higher páramo zone. A long term and on going study conducted by Dr Mika Peck of Sussex University aims to recognise individual bears within the reserve using facial markings discerned from camera trap images. This work allows population estimates to be made.

Spectacled bear. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Threats to Spectacled bears include habitat degradation and direct persecution by landowners. Bears will occasionally venture into agricultural areas and feed on crops, which leads to conflict. Sadly in some areas bears are shot purely for sport. It is hoped that establishment of the bear movement corridor may help to alleviate human bear conflict. 18 additional species of medium to large mammal have been caught on camera within the reserve including such oddities as the Andean Wolf.

Puma. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Jaguarundi. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

The staff of Santa Lucia are passionate naturalists, a fact made evident by the level of knowledge and skill displayed in the field. The reserve manager, Noe () is a particularly knowledgeable ornithologist. A highlight for any birder is the presence of Andean cock-of-the-rock, of all birds, amongst the most charismatic and sought after species inhabiting Andean cloud forests. There are also around 12 species of hummingbird present including the dramatic Booted racquet-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph. In total 405 bird species have been recorded in and around the reserve.

Whilst the birds and the large mammals are perhaps more evident and certainly better known within the reserve, the reptiles and amphibians are certainly their equal in beauty and mystery.  They also fulfill many important roles in the ecology of the cloud forest. At Santa Lucia I identified 13 species of amphibian including the Emerald Glassfrog (Espadarana prosoblepon), the bizarre Pinocchio rainfrog (Pristimantis appendiculatus) the endangered Goblin Rainfrog (Pristimantis sobetes) and perhaps most significantly Eugenia’s rainfrog (Pristimantis eugenia). Eugenia’s Rainfrog being a species closely associated with bromeliads and known from only a handful of cloud forest sites within an altitudinal range of around 300m.

Pinocchio rainfrog – (Pristimantis appendiculatus)

Goblin rainfrog – (Pristimantis sobetes)

Eugenia’s rainfrog – (Pristimantis eugenia)

Emerald glassfrog – (Espadarana prosoblepon)

I identified 13 species of reptile within the reserve. Some highlights included the Elegant Snail Sucker (Dipsas elegans) a species endemic to the Western Ecuadorean Andes, the Giant groundsnake (Atractus gigas) a very rare, and likely Ecuadorean endemic snake first described in 2006. Also present and fairly abundant are at least two species of Anole, the Gem anole (Anolis gemmosus) and the larger Equatorial anole (Anolis aequitorialis).

Elegant snail-sucker – (Dipsas elegans)

Giant groundsnake – (Atractus gigas)

Gem anole – (Anolis gemmosus) dewlap close up

Gem anole in situ – (Anolis gemmosus)

Equatorial anole displaying its impressive dewlap – (Anolis aequitorialis)

For me, this final image of a fast flowing stream, a prominent feature in the Santa Lucia landscape, reveals something of the character and mystery of the reserve.

With continued investment from both tourists and research groups such as Operation Wallacea and Sussex University, gladly, the local community, the forest and the wildlife of Santa Lucia are likely to prosper long into the future. The reserve is one of the most successful and promising examples of sustainable community based conservation that I have had the pleasure of visiting and contributing to. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia for anyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.

Visit the Santa Lucia website to find out more.

 

 

Reporter’s Journal: A story sans words

October 10th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives photographer Dominic Bracco II tries to capture the aquaculture scene at Liangzi Lake.  A local fishfarmer attempts to capture his own view.  Dominic’s photos will appear with Erik Vance’s reporting on the demand for sustainable fisheries products in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

Reporter’s Journal: It isn’t a beluga

September 30th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives Fellow Erik Vance gets up close and personal with a finless porpoise housed at Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, China.  Vance and his colleague, photographer Dominic Bracco II, are reporting on the market for sustainable fisheries in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

An armadillo the size of a golf ball

September 26th, 2014

Rica just after birth. She was born the mere size of a golf ball. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Meet Rica, the baby three-banded armadillo.  Rica is a tiny new arrival at the Edinburgh Zoo born on August 24th and weighing in at just 81g or roughly the size of a golf ball.  She was born to proud parents Rio and Rodar who only arrived at the zoo in March of 2014.

“This is the first birth of any armadillo species at Edinburgh Zoo and it is amazing how quickly little Rica is growing up! She is just amazing to watch; always full of energy and scurrying about her surroundings like a perfectly formed miniature of a fully grown three banded armadillo,”  Gareth Bennett, Senior Presentations Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said in a statement. “For her first few weeks she could not quite roll up into a perfect ball because of her huge claws and softer, smaller shell, but she has now grown into her shell and can quickly pack herself into the tightly sealed ball which adult three banded armadillos are known for.”

Little Rica, along with her parents, is certainly an ambassador for some very noble conservation work supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in the Brazilian Pantanal. The Giant Armadillo Project, lead by conservation biologist Dr Arnaud Desbiez, aims to establish the first long-term ecological study of giant armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal wetland.  Mongabay has covered the work of Dr. Desbiez and The Giant Armadillo Project in the past, including a touching piece on the caring maternal nature of the species and the first photos of a baby giant armadillo.

Both the three-banded and giant armadillo are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with ongoing exploitation and habitat loss and degradation as reasons for their decline.

Showing her true size. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Getting closer on her roll. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Rica and her mom. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

 

Reporter’s Journal: Bomb Harvest

August 6th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

Porters sort and tally a week’s worth of landings from a bomb fishing crew before carrying the catch to the docks in Makassar, Indonesia. Each plastic basket is worth Rp. 100,000 ($8). The full tally for this boat was Rp. 18,800,000 or $1404. The porters get paid a percentage for shuttling the catch to shore and selling the fish to wholesale distributors in the city.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: A Wood & Glass View

July 31st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

Wood and glass goggles used by traditional divers throughout Sulawesi. Though produced near-exclusively by the Bajau sea gypsies, “traditional” goggles are commonly used, regardless of ethnic group, when spear-fishing, cyanide fishing or collecting sea cucumbers, groupers or fish killed with bombs that are detonated underwater. However rubber recreational dive masks are becoming more prevalent.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Times are getting dark

July 29th, 2014

By Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Ruxandra Guidi. Photo by Roberto Guerra.

Photo copyright (c) 2014 SRI Fellow Roberto Guerra.

This is the season of hurricanes and heavy storms. But the archipelago of Kuna Yala, located south of the hurricane belt, is typically spared the damage and strong winds that hit islands further north in the Caribbean, year after year. In recent years, however, rains have forced the people living in these islands — an estimated 30,000 — to start making drastic changes to their way of life.

The first time we visited the island of Usdupu in October of 2009, the water came down daily, flooding the narrow dirt paths that connect all the thatched roof homes. Kids played in the brown water half-naked, without a worry in the world. But some of their parents spoke to us about being unable to cook with charcoal on the floor, as is their tradition, due to the persistent flooding. Others showed us how they were using cement debris and even trash to create landfill on the edges of the island, which is on sea level.

But then, we also noticed other, more profound ways, in which the flooding seemed to be affecting the Kuna.

One of the traditional songs performed by their wise elders, or sahilas, described their collection of islands as “coconuts resting firmly on the sand” that would never disappear, regardless of the weather. Yet starting in the Fall of 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas had began singing a new song. “Why are our mothers crying?” the lyrics went. “It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?”

Changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and man-made climate change are three new modern-day concerns that the Kuna have had to grapple with. Sahilas, men, women, and young people alike have attended information workshops focused on these issues, and the  Congreso General Kuna, the indigenous territory’s highest authority, tackles things like adaptation and mitigation on a regular basis.

This July, we’ll be returning to some of these islands to find out more about the challenges faced by the Kuna. As it turns out, the well-preserved mainland forest — that’s less than a mile away from these islands — may be an important part of the solution.

 

Reporter’s Journal: Infant Shrimp

July 2nd, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A technician checks on week-old shrimp larvae or nauplius, at the world’s largest shrimp and mollusk broodstock center in Bugbug, Indonesia. The center hopes to become a major supplier inexpensive and healthy “parent” shrimp to Indonesia’s domestic shrimp farming industry, to reduce reliance on pricier and occasionally disease-ridden imports from abroad. Indonesia is one of a handful of shrimp-producing countries unaffected by the outbreak of Early Mortality Syndrome, which has decimated farmed shrimp in top-producing countries like Thailand, China and Vietnam over the last two years.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Fishermans’ Wives

June 27th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye

Fishermens’ wives negotiate a price for freshly caught sardines in Negara, a town on the shores of the Bali Strait. The strait is about to become Indonesia’s first region to be managed under an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

The allure of the Amazon: real or imagined?

May 19th, 2014

Commentary by Nick Werber

Photo by Nick Werber.

What is it about the Amazon that fires the imagination? For as long as I can recall it has been a symbol for the Earth as it wants to be; a flourishing paradise perhaps, a place of explosive variegation, the jungle in full bloom.

Like the untamed areas outside of the cities in Brave New World, The Heart of Darkness and The Lost World, the jungle has formed an archetype for all that is natural and untouched by man. It offers us adventure and escape, as far removed from tarmacked roads and rigidly planned towns as one can imagine.

Alan Watts, the philosopher, talked of the chaos of nature, the absence of straight lines, the negation of geometrical form, the forest is “squiggly” as he might have termed it. To some this knotted mass is anathema, it offends the neat dissection of their reason, to others it is a liberation from a tyrannical mind, hell-bent on order and destruction. Through the wilderness they seek the dissolution of the ego, transcendentalists for a new age. Despite a century or more of western exploration the jungle remains tenebrous, unknowable. A thousand Victorian explorers are replaced each generation with people seeking out something, a new tale to tell, the discovery of a new tribe perhaps.

Photo by Nick Werber.

Where once we looked at native forest dwellers as quaint but primitive, there is now a new movement, looking to them for insights and hints on ways to live. Have we got it right? We ask. Our culture is not so sure of itself as it once was. In the jungle too lies hope: new medicines and new species. Scientists revere the forest for its fecundity, for every new discovery we find there is much, much more to learn. Its vastness promotes humility and yet for all its scale it is delicate nonetheless. Logging, mining and agriculture are tumorous.

“We know this” we tell ourselves: it is the stuff of a hundred lachrymose news programs, images of burned out forests branded in our minds; we have become inured and so we get on with our lives, it being just one more thing to worry about…

I dreamt of the Amazon as a child. I heard about its beauty and its imminent destruction and wanted to do something about it…but what can an 11 year old do? So, I dreamed some more…. When I actually arrived it was vastly different to the images I had seen on the news. In Manu I can see no grand scale farming, no sweeping clearances, just flecks of damage, like sun spots on an otherwise unblemished face. And yet I know that much worse is happening. In Huaypetue there is a gold mine so sprawling it can be seen from space; Hunt Oil’s unctuous presence has undermined native communities land rights; and the completion of the Pan American highway, stretching from east coast Brazil through the Madre de Dios region, threatens to enable Peru to enact a scale of destruction comparable with its neighbor.

But for all that I can do nothing but film and write. As a journalist I do not make policy or conduct scientific research. And yet I appreciate the beauty of the forest and can only communicate my reverence in the hope that others may offer change.

Red bromeliads (Racinaea) in Manu cloud forest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.com

After just a few weeks in the jungle, I had forgotten what it was like to wake up without the sound of Oropendulas dropping their calls from palm tops or a night spent without chirruping cicadas, balmy heat and fireflies flickering in the darkness. Here, for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way streaking across the night sky, and each morning watched trees held in relief against a fuchsia dawn.

Don’t get me wrong. It is not all pleasant, far from it. Trails turn to mush at the slightest sign of rain and the insects are relentless. Walking at midday seems like wading through boiling sap, my shirt turns into a sodden rag, my backpack a sponge for sweat. Still, I count myself lucky. A dream fulfilled does not always live up to the dream, but it can get pretty close, and in life I suppose that is as much as we can hope for.

Phoebis philea and Anteos menippe butterflies in large group feeding on minerals in mud in Manu. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com