Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador

Amazon Giant, Yasuni National Park, Ecuador
There’s an old Cree Indian prophecy that goes "Only after the last tree has been cut down... Only after the last river has been poisoned… Only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten." I find these words clever yet profoundly insightful, and more meaningful today than ever. Across the globe, vital ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate, a rate matched only by the speed with which the species inhabiting those systems are falling to extinction. This is particularly true in the Neotropics, where an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals are struggling with the catastrophic consequences of widespread deforestation and pollution. Many of the forests’ secrets elude ecologists, secrets whose answers will be essential if we are to protect the awesome biodiversity they contain. I study Neotropical butterfly ecology, with the hope that I may contribute to a better understanding of these wonderful creatures, and help conserve them in an uncertain future. Follow me during my work and adventures throughout Latin America here!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Just another day in the jungle...

It’s almost cliché, the recounting of that first tropical rainforest experience; how, upon stepping into the steamy dark tangle, one is instantly enthralled by the sounds, the smells, the intense heat and humidity. Yes, with the rainforest it is love at first sight, and there isn’t a true tropical naturalist on Earth that hasn’t told the same story. I’ll be no exception, because for me, my first time in a tropical rainforest was indeed a sort of eureka moment, for lack of a better term. I remember it vividly. Even the simple, or subtle things - like the way the philodendrons seemed to grab for the canopy, or how the lichens covered the tree trunks - fascinated me. From that moment on, I couldn’t spend enough time in the jungle.
But the senses can become trained, and while these moments of intense wonder grow fewer and farther in between with the passage of time, they do still occur – and I had one this morning. I was trying desperately to throw a stone, with string attached, over a liana high in the forest canopy, in order to suspend one of my butterfly traps. I descended a  small ridge to where my stone had fallen, and hacked right through a wasp nest with my machete, getting stung on the eyelid in the process, among several other places. Two more tries, no luck. But then, I nailed it! And just as I began to savor this mini-victory, a pair of scarlet macaws flew raucously overhead. I caught a quick glimpse of them through the leaves, gaudy with suits of brilliant red, yellow, and blue feathers, and with a boisterous call to match. My eye still throbbing from my wasp attack, and the sound of the macaws fading into the distance, there I was – in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, machete in hand, living my childhood dream. Yes, I thought, it’s great to be in the rainforest. It was one of those eureka moments, and I enjoyed it, however fleeting it might have been.

If they hadn't stung me on the eye, I might have felt bad for wrecking their house...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Yasuni National Park

Today I spent my first day at the Catholic University’s Yasuní Scientific Research Station in Yasuní National Park, after a hectic week of leaving Sacha Lodge for Quito in the Andes, and then back down to the Amazon basin. During my one month stay at Sacha, I nearly doubled my total count of butterflies during my month-long stay. Interestingly, I found that the species that were most common in both my traps and hand-net were quite different from those that I found in Jatun Sacha and Yarina, despite the three sites’ fairly close proximity to one another and their similar habitats. This can be due to a wide variety of factors. A species’ abundance changes throughout the year, in response to anything from host plant flowering to temperature and moisture cycles; this is even true in the relatively aseasonal western Amazon forests. However, different abundances can also be due simply to either local or more widespread distributional patterns; that is, perhaps certain species are more abundant in one place simply because their host plant is found there, or they were heavily parasitized in one place and not the other. Sometimes, historical or biogeographical causes might be responsible. The potential reasons underlying these observations are practically limitless, underscoring the difficulty ecologists face when trying to tease out patterns in abundance and distribution. For this reason, I am visiting as many sites in eastern Ecuador as possible, in order get the most robust picture of butterfly abundance possible.

Sacha Lodge itself was a wonderful place to spend a month. Situated right on Laguna Pilchicocha, close to the Rio Napo, and surrounded by water philodendrons and floating mats of grass, the setting is absolutely spectacular. The theme at the lodge is luxury, luxury, luxury, and guests are pampered in every way during their 4 or 5 day stay. Excursions include visits to a wooden tower built around a massive kapok tree, a 300 meter canopy walkway, trails through the rainforest, and canals to observe wildlife – monkeys, anacondas, and of course, loads of butterflies are just some of the things one might see (I saw all these and more). Naturally, I was quite lucky to stay at such an amazing place. In exchange for my stay, I helped a bit with their butterfly farm; current levels of production are relatively low, and I provided some advice how to increase efficiency and thus output. I also guided tourists again for a few days, again enjoying very much my time with my guests, a friendly group from Alberta, Canada.

Laguna Pilchicocha, near the Rio Napo

Sacha Lodge

Wildlife found in the laguna: hoatzins, or stinky turkeys

Hamadryas arinome, seen from the wooden Kapok tower

Yasuní National Park is a vast reserve in the northeastern corner of Ecuador, in the lowlands of western Amazonia. The park is a complex mixture of pristine tropical rainforest, oil fields, and indigenous lands. Both Kichwa and Waoarani indians live in and around the park, and unfortunately, the discovery of oil here has brought some extreme and very rapid changes. Repsol, which is, from what I’ve been told, an American oil company, built roads and oil platforms; they also provide the local Waoarani with everything they need – transportation, food, housing. One of the most important results of this situation has been a population explosion. In addition, a culture drastically different from the majority of other Ecuadorians (among other factors) has meant that the Waoarani have had a particularly difficult time adjusting to the enormous change imposed upon them. One of the most important questions to ask is what will happen to these people when the oil wells run dry, and the oil company goes packing? Will colonists invade and clear the forest for unsustainable farming and grazing, as is happening elsewhere throughout huge portions of the Amazon? Or will the Waoarani take over as stewards of their own land? We’ll see soon enough.