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Conservation and Environment in Peru: Monthly Updates

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Monthly Update - May 2008

The donkey on its way to its new home

May has been a month of great excitement with the implementation of our first initiative at the Ese'eja community of Palma Real, a visit from an old friend of Taricaya, Mauricio Ugarte, the commencement of our first in depth botanical investigation and some breathtaking wildlife sightings around the reserve.

The project with the Palma Real community was very rewarding for us as we were finally able to break the ice and gain the confidence of the natives who have been so wary of outside help after some bad experiences in the past. Other NGO's have offered the people of the community several projects designed to improve their standard of living over the years but not one has ever seen the initiative through to its completion. After several meetings over the last few weeks it was time to take our donkey and specially designed cart down river where the locals and volunteers had already prepared an enclosure and hut for the donkey's accommodation. After the successful installation of the donkey and the cart it was time for a demonstration and so some of the kids from the school jumped in the back and the donkey pulled its first load around the settlement's football pitch! The following week the work began in earnest as all the volunteers took the hour trip down to the community and along with the children and some other community members a huge chain was formed and the first area of the community was swept for rubbish. It was quite astonishing the amount of rubbish we collected and the locals themselves realised that they had a lot of potential health hazards just lying around their homes. The work now passes to them to maintain their community clean but the dedication of the volunteers in scorching conditions impressed further on them that we are serious about our work and that when we come to implement other programs in the future that we will not back out and leave them stranded. I have mentioned this project a lot over the last few months but I cannot over emphasise the importance of opening the door to working with the largest native settlement in the area and we can now seriously consider working with them on projects on a greater scale in the future. Such ideas include working with the community members responsible for the illegal gathering of the freshwater turtle eggs (Podocnemis unifilis) and a successful plan for agro-forestry in the community's allotted lands.

Test run for donkey and trailer with the community children

Back at Taricaya it was a busy month also with 18 volunteers arriving this month and as usual there was plenty to do around the reserve. After the interested reception of our first publication last year, Mauricio and I have been working on further data analysis from our bird monitoring project and he came to visit and report on his recent travels in the US and also northern Peru. The initial paper has now been published in several different journals in the States and was well-received at the Peruvian Ornithological Conference in Piura last month. So it was with many ideas that Mauricio came to visit and whilst he was here we took advantage of his knowledge to concentrate on our bird list for Taricaya. I am very pleased to report that we were able to add 25 new species to our list bringing the current total to 386 species. Some of the additions include the Yellow-backed tanager (Hemithraupis flavicollis), Grey-breasted martin (Progne chalybea), Guira tanager (Hemithraupis guira), Chestnut-vented conebill (Coniorostrum speciosum) and Lemon-chested greenlet (Hylophilus thoracicus). As our list continues to grow we draw ever closer to a world record for an area of 500 hectares or less. Obviously as you draw nearer to the total it becomes harder to find new species but whether we reach that figure or not over the coming years Taricaya has already caused a stir in the relevant field of ornithology and our next mist netting locations will target some of the zones of the reserve where we have yet to dedicate much time or energy. The next challenge will then be to design a system whereby we can get our nets up into the mid-canopy and start to sample the birds that we have trouble seeing through the tree cover whilst walking the trails.

Just been caught!

In conjunction with the bird monitoring study we were happy to welcome Daniel Medina, also from Arequipa, who has started our first plant inventory for the reserve. This is a long term project that requires the specialist knowledge of a trained botanist and Daniel was with us for over two weeks and his first zones of study were the transects that Mauricio and I used for the initial phase of our bird research. A complete study of the forest's structure will help us analyse our current data further by trying to correlate local bird communities with specific forest types. This data will help us discover the reasons for local migrations within the reserve and will give us a good idea of where to put the nets to capture species from different micro-habitats. In addition to this useful information Daniel is hoping to draw up an extensive list of the different plant species in the reserve. It will be a long project but after his initial visit Daniel is very excited about the potential diversity of the reserve. With over 20,000 plant species in the Peruvian Amazon he certainly has his work cut out and he is confident that Taricaya will throw up some surprises of its own. In just his first visit we were surprised to encounter three of the four known species of cactus found in the rainforests of Peru. Daniel was surprised also by the abundance of plants not normally found at this altitude and this further reinforces the theory that the Taricaya reserve is a transition zone between the open pampas grasslands on the Peru-Bolivia border and the Cordillera (foothills) of the Andes. We initially suspected this to be the case after the bird study with the presence of species not usually found in tropical forests at this height above sea-level. The presence of these different plants would explain how such species are able to survive and piques the interest further into what other secrets we have yet to find in the reserve. Daniel will return later in the year with a preliminary list of the plant species he has already found and eager to find more with an idea to publishing the findings of his initial research next year.

Crowding around the coral snake!

Elsewhere we had some truly fantastic sightings around the reserve. On the mammal front we had sightings of two indicator species- a Brazilian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and a jaguar (Pantera onca). The tapir was seen coming down the river bank before striking out across the river. It was just two hundred metres from the lodge and a great sign of how the confidence of the wildlife has returned as we strive to protect their habitats. The jaguar sighting was a little tenser as we all split into groups one evening for a frog hunt and in good spirits Richard led his group up Quebrada trail. After about 20 minutes there was a thud and a large set of green eyes appeared on the trail in front of them. The situation was handled excellently and the volunteers slowly retreated down the trail whilst Richard kept his light shining on the cat. A wild jaguar will never attack people if not provoked and the calmness Richard showed was exactly the reaction necessary as I had explained to all staff should such situations arise. The cat waited a few seconds before getting bored and then wandered off back into the jungle. Obviously there were a few startled volunteers after the encounter but after the adrenalin wore off they realised just how lucky they had been to see such a majestic creature in its natural environment. There was never any danger to the group if they behaved accordingly and I am just jealous that I was not there to see it myself!! A great moment for Taricaya as we have not seen a wild jaguar for several years now (just racks previously) and the presence of this top predator reinforces that the ecosystem is healthy and thriving.

Community children help in the clean up

There was also some excitement after the sightings of two of the most poisonous snakes in the Amazon within a couple of days of each other. The first one was one afternoon as I was working in the creek near the dam. A volunteer shouted "Wow, look at that pretty snake!".... as soon as I heard this I thought it might well be one of the coral snake species found in the area and I dashed up the bank to where it had last been seen. Now whilst the coral snake has fatal venom it is not an aggressive species and so I started to search in the long reeds. I caught a glance of its tail and quickly grabbed it before it disappeared into the undergrowth. Whilst these snakes are unlikely to attack I was keen to remove it from the camp area and release it back in the reserve. After what must have appeared a comical dance avoiding the snake's head I managed to immobilise it and capture it. This is something that requires experience and I would not have been so keen should the snake have been one of the more aggressive species but it was truly beautiful and large for this particular species and I was unwilling to kill it as a potential threat. After capture we were able to identify it as Micrurus spix and then it was released far away from the lodge. Volunteers are told never to get close to any of the snakes they might come across and so it was great for them to see such a magnificent species up close. The second sighting was on one of our daily observation walks and the lucky group came across a huge bushmaster (Corallus sp.) on one of the trials. Retreat was the order of the day and the snake then moved on as the group chose another route! Such encounters are rare and such snakes found around the lodge are quickly eliminated or captured as they tend to be more aggressive. Nonetheless the size of the individual suggest good feeding and yet another indicator of the wellbeing of the forest in the reserve.

As you can gather May has been full of excitement, hard work and a bit of relaxation as the volunteers took an overnight trip to Lake Sandoval where they saw giant otters, monkeys and large caiman in addition to the abundance of herons and other water-edge dwelling bird species. June promises more of the same including the building of the artificial beach for the turtle project. So until then....

Stuart Timson
Conservation Director
Projects Abroad
29th May, 2008

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