Following his recent visit to the Ecuadorian Andes, Dominic Mitchell, Managing Editor of Birdwatch magazine and BirdGuides.com, reflects on some of the unique and iconic species he encountered and the pressing need to preserve their habitats.
The view from Antisana on the eastern slope of the Andes is literally breathtaking. At 13,000 feet the air is thin and it pays to walk slowly, but when we arrived at the reserve news of a Spectacled Bear in the area had the opposite effect. This spectacular site, managed by the World Land Trust’s Ecuadorian partner Fundación Jocotoco, is also home to the nationally endangered Andean Condor. An encounter with either of these iconic species would have been memorable enough, but luck was on our side and we enjoyed prolonged views of both, not to mention Giant Hummingbird, Ecuadorian Hillstar and other upland specialities.
I was on a fact-finding trip organised by Neblina Forest in association with Fundación Jocotoco, and the itinerary included Tapichalaca Reserve in the south of the country, where this particular conservation success story began. Here, our host Xavier Muñoz led the way to a small clearing in the forest to meet local guide Franco. Armed with a can of worms and a few gentle words of encouragement, Franco successfully enticed one of the world’s rarest birds, Jocotoco Antpitta, into view. This shy species was discovered as recently as 1997, and it was realisation of the need to protect its habitat, and that of other rare and endangered species across the country, that saw the creation of Fundación Jocotoco. Two decades on, the antpitta’s forest is protected and birders from around the world now visit the area, helping provide jobs and income for local people – a model example of sustainable ecotourism.
For its size, Ecuador’s biodiversity is unmatched. Occupying just 0.2 per cent of the planet’s landmass, it is home to 16 per cent of all the world’s bird species (more than 1,700 in total), eight per cent of mammals and amphibians, and five per cent of reptiles. Its rich tropical ecosystems include extensive tracts of lowland Amazonian rainforest in the east and montane Andean cloud forest along the country’s central spine. Crucially, a government-administered network of protected areas covers some 20 per cent of the country, and other reserves owned or managed by NGOs and local communities conserve additional land and species.
Despite this, there are significant threats. Flying over the foothills of the Andes back to Quito, I could see total deforestation in some areas and the impact of large-scale agriculture and timber extraction was obvious. Other damaging environmental threats include oil drilling, mining and water pollution, as well as major infrastructure projects.
One such plan could see a new road destroy forest which connects Antisana and nearby Sumaco Galeras National Park to Narupa Reserve, a 2,800 acre protected area managed by Fundación Jocotoco. If built, it will increase access for agriculture and development, facilitate logging and cause lasting damage, triggering appeals for funds to extend Narupa Reserve, as the local government have agreed to cancel the plans if enough land is designated for conservation.
Having seen the hard work of local conservationists on the ground in Ecuador, I know how important this is. My own visit ended with an encounter with another newly discovered species, Olinguito. This nocturnal mammal was described as recently as 2013, and its range and numbers are not yet known. How can we allow critical forest ecosystems to be destroyed by development when we don’t even know all the riches they contain? There are surely more new species to be discovered in Ecuador, as long as we can prevent these uniquely rich habitats from disappearing.
Narupa Reserve protects the tropical forest habitat of the Amazonian Andes and is managed by WLT partner Fundación Jocotoco. In Spring 2018, supporters of World Land Trust’s Amazonian Andes appeal raised £165,000 for the purchase and protection of 400 acres, to extend this reserve and save this important habitat from a road that would have been built between Narupa and neighbouring protected areas, isolating important populations of threatened species.