Conserving the Green Heart of the Forest

By |2019-01-22T14:25:10+00:00September 25th, 2017|Forests, In-Depth, Latin America|0 Comments

The scientists joining forces with local champions to  protect a hidden natural treasure in the remote Chocó region of northwest Ecuador.

Tesoro Escondido (Hidden Treasure) is a remote ‘island’ of lush, tropical rainforest in the province of Esmeraldas in northwest Ecuador, a gruelling day’s travel from the capital, Quito. Surrounded on all sides by oil palm plantations, pasture and crop land, the pristine forest that remains is a prime target for loggers. Although this is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, where every visit by scientists and researchers reveals something new, Tesoro Escondido faces an uncertain future, threatened by powerful logging interests and indiscriminate land clearance.

But there is hope for Tesoro. The work of conservation biologists together with local people has led to the creation of a 2000-hectare reserve. The growing momentum to protect this exceptional place shows that conservation is about more than just science.

A hidden treasure

Tesoro Escondido is one of the most wildlife-rich and diverse forest habitats on Earth. Even amongst ‘biodiversity hotspots’ this extraordinary place stands out. Its riotous flora and breathtaking fauna have only just begun to be fully understood and catalogued. Research into species diversity and abundance, whether plant, mammal, amphibian, insect or any other, is starting to reveal an ecological variety and intactness which exists in very few other places on the planet.

Yet its inaccessibility to all but the most determined loggers and small-scale farmers meant that for a long time it was off the map for conservationists, and there was little recognition of its incredible diversity.

Tesoro Escondido is one small part of the Chocó region of northwest Ecuador, which has lost an astonishing amount of its original forest cover: it is thought that there may be as little as 5% remaining. For decades, settlers have come from across Ecuador, keen to exploit the land for small-scale agriculture – cacao, oil palm and other crops. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, prospective farmers cleared the land to prove ownership and demonstrate that land was being cultivated. To add to the pressures from small-scale agriculture, logging companies have been buying up large swathes of forest in and around Tesoro Escondido. Access roads for logging, if built, will have a catastrophic impact on one of the last remaining fragments of primary forest in a country which has one of the highest deforestation rates in South America.

Tesoro Escondido is one of the wettest and most biodiverse places on Earth

Conservation champions

Dr Mika Peck, a Conservation Biologist from the University of Sussex, calls this place ‘a hotspot within a hotspot’ for biodiversity.

“There are 300 species of tree per hectare, so almost every other tree is a different species. Compare that to the UK which has a total of around 30 species!”

Having first come to Ecuador in 1995 with a Royal Geographical Society expedition, Dr Peck knew that the forests on the Western slopes of the Andes were incredibly diverse. The magic of what he had seen in Ecuador on that first expedition never left him, so 10 years later, he decided to return.

Looking for a research focus, he contacted Diego Tirira, Ecuador’s leading expert on mammals, who told him that there was a population of Brown-headed spider monkeys (Ateles fusciceps fusciceps) in the region, but their numbers were in steep decline. Research needed to be done to understand more about the species before it was too late. Together they applied for and were awarded a DEFRA Darwin Initiative grant for £250k for a 3-year project focused on primate conservation, and in particular, on the Brown-headed spider monkey. This project, known as PrimeNet, consisted of mapping primate populations around Cotocachi-Cayapas, an area to the east of Tesoro Escondido.

 Their research eventually brought them to Tesoro Escondido, where much of the small population of monkeys seemed to be concentrated.

Dr Citlalli Morelos-Juarez began working in Tesoro Escondido in 2011 after applying to do a PhD with Dr Peck at the University of Sussex. Initially coming for one year to study the Brown-headed spider monkey, she immersed herself in the community, going out everyday to track the Critically Endangered primates come rain or shine (the Chocó is one of the wettest regions of the planet).

Being in such a remote and isolated location meant that she was reliant on the help and support of local people to carry out her work. Living with a local family, building close friendships and dependencies with many local people in the area, her enthusiasm and love of the forest began to rub off. This ‘anthropological immersion’ – being totally embedded in and dependent on a small community – was the bridge between scientific research being gathered by Citlalli and others, and the action and local support needed to conserve the forest.

Tesoro Escondido’s most famous resident  

 Arguably Tesoro’s most famous resident, and certainly one of its most endangered, Ateles fusciceps fusciceps – the Brown-headed spider monkey – can claim some of the credit for this region’s growing reputation as a treasure trove of diversity. In total, there are thought to be around 250 individuals remaining (a recent population reduction of 80%). Their range in the wider Chocó region has been systematically reduced by habitat loss and hunting, but this small pocket of remaining forest is home to a significant population of those that remain – perhaps around 150.

The focus of research has been to understand more about the role of this key species in the forest: how do they move about it? What is their role in maintaining the diversity of tree species and what does their presence tell us about the health of the wider forest ecosystem?