If there was an Adventure Scale, cycling 6,000 miles down the spine of the Andes on a bicycle made of bamboo would be pretty close to the top mark. But for Dr Kate Rawles, whose past endeavours have included cycling from Texas to Alaska and sailing through the North Atlantic Gyre, the scale has shifted.
Each of Kate’s adventures has more purpose than pure exploration and her current mission cycling down the South American continent is driven by biodiversity; she is using her journey to find out as much as she can about what is happening to it, why it matters and what is being done to protect it. Currently crossing the border to Bolivia, Kate has checked in with World Land Trust (WLT) to write about her experience visiting one of our projects in Ecuador.
‘Look, behind you!’ Armando whispered, urgently. We’d just driven deep into the reserve on a road that got rougher and rougher, and stopped to look at the building that used to house birds waiting for release into the wild.
The aviary is now empty. But across the clearing, high in a tree, sat two of the largest, rarest parrots in the world: Great Green Macaws. The birds sat close together, constantly interacting, touching each other’s beaks. It was hugely moving to see them. They were as green as the leaves and looked so much like a piece of the forest. They have come from the forest, evolved from the forest, a feathery, conscious part of the forest…
I was visiting the Cerro Blanco reserve as part of The Life Cycle: my journey from Colombia to Cape Horn on a bamboo bicycle that I built myself. The aim of the journey (which is still underway!) is to use the adventure to help raise awareness and inspire action on biodiversity loss; one of our most critical – but relatively little publicised and understood – environmental challenges. Following the spine of the Andes, the longest mountain chain in the world, I am cycling solo, and visiting all sorts of biodiversity-related projects and people on the way. Particularly projects that offer positive solutions – and this was certainly one of those.
The Cerro Blanco reserve, run by Fundación Pro-Bosque and supported by WLT, sits right on the edge of Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. It protects one of the last remaining Ecuadorian Dry Forests, a critically endangered and hugely valuable habitat. An astonishing array of plants and animals live within the reserve’s 6,000 hectares: 54 mammals including five species of big cat; 219 bird species, eight of them globally threatened; amphibians; reptiles; insects; vascular plants…. But you don’t need the numbers to know this is an important place. Later, walking to a viewpoint that offered a huge vista of primary forest, I was amazed at the feeling of vibrancy, vitality and wildness. Even at noon. Even so close to the city. These forests are so, so precious.
In long conversations with the brilliant and innovative director, Eric Horstman, I learned something of the challenges and dilemmas of managing a reserve on the edge of an ever-growing city, in a country with terrible poverty levels. “What would you do, if you caught someone hunting in the reserve but you knew he was hunting for food for his family? Or building a bamboo shack in order to claim squatting rights and evade homelessness a little longer?” Eric asked me. The rangers (like Armando, my macaw guide) are key here, and constantly negotiating good relations with the communities that crowd up to the edge of the reserve is just one aspect of their work.
This was one of the most impactful aspects of my visit here. It wasn’t just the astonishing power of the forest, with its feathery (and non-feathery) residents. It wasn’t just the knowledge I gained about the biodiversity that is, incredibly and wonderfully, still here because of this reserve, nor learning about the thousands of native trees grown in their nursery as part of the forest regeneration programme. It was also the realisation that city edge reserves, however ‘unsexy’ they are compared to the vast Amazon, for example, are absolutely critical as places where city-dwelling people can come back to the forest.
Urban reserves give people the opportunity to walk, to camp, to relearn what lives here and why it matters, to remember how forest ecosystems affect our lives and improve our well-being. To support this and encourage visitors, Cerro Blanco has numerous, beautiful trails, a campsite and an array of educational and recreational opportunities.
In an era when over 50 per cent of the world’s population live in cities, and when more and more of us are increasingly disconnected from our own habitats – disconnected from the knowledge, felt as well as understood, that nature is not a luxury, but key to our survival – the importance of this is hard to overstate.
But there is more to it than nature’s benefits to us, of course. Nature is a community of trees, shrubs, grasses, insects, amphibians, mammals, birds, microorganisms; all life forms as entitled to be here as we are. If you are ever lucky enough to see a wild macaw in a tropical dry forest, I am sure you will see what I mean. But the same message can be heard from sparrows chirping in a town hedgerow or a blackbird singing from a roadside telegraph pole.
I’m a long way south of Cerro Blanco now, and still pedalling. But, amongst all the people and places and projects I’ve been lucky enough to meet, this one remains a highlight.
WLT have been working with partner Fundación Pro-Bosque since 2006, initially funding forest restoration through the Plant a Tree programme, moving forward to help extend Cerro Blanco through land purchase and now also funding ranger Armando Manzaba’s salary through the Keepers of the Wild programme.
Kate’s journey continues! If you would like to find out more about The Life Cycle project and follow her progress, have a look at her website, Outdoor Philosophy, or check out her social media updates on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.