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Conservation and Environment in Peru: Monthly Updates

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Wild baby spider monkey

As we reached the busiest time of year in the jungle with all beds taken at Taricaya it was no surprise that we got a huge amount done in the last few weeks. As the rains disappeared and water levels dropped, the rainforest becomes a very harsh environment for so many of its residents. Water becomes scarcer, competition fiercer and animals must travel greater distances just to find enough food to survive. This is good news for us though as animals on the move are easier to spot and we have had some great sightings on the trails and recorded by the sensor cameras. Elsewhere we completed the new puma enclosure, built a new observation platform, started the turtle project, visited Palm Real and much more…!

Before I discuss any of the above I must report on one of the most satisfying experiences of my 15 years in the Amazon rainforest. Most of you will know that we have been working tirelessly over recent years to successfully reintroduce wild animals back into their natural habitat. We have had some amazing successes and great rewards from this hard work. Last year when we had our first successful captive birth in the form of a young male tapir (Tapirus terrestris) we had reached a pinnacle of our work. What we saw this month took us to new heights!

Burying the eggs!

Whilst deep in the reserve monitoring our third release group of black spider monkeys (Ateles chamek) we were amazed when our second group of six monkeys, released 18 months ago, moved down out of the canopy and began to interact with the newcomers- albeit tentatively. We had tracked the third group using unique radio frequencies from their individual collars but the second group did not have any collars for tracking so this was the first we had seen or heard of them in over 9 months when they headed deep into the national park and away from any human contact. To our astonishment and joy not only was the group intact but it was one more than when we last saw it! The first ever recorded wild birth of black spider monkeys that have been released and rehabilitated. This news is simply mind blowing. It means that all our work; from nurturing abandoned babies by hand; reintegrating them with other members of the species in the rescue centre; transferring them to a pre-release enclosure and establishing a group dynamic prior to release has proved the right formula. Our released troops of spider monkeys are not only surviving but are demonstrating that given time and protection they could well become a common sight in areas of the Amazon where their distinctive calls have long been absent. Fantastic!

Enough on the release program for now. It is the time of year when we dust off the tents, clean out the buckets and start camping downriver on our designated island. Every year, since 2005, the Peruvian government has awarded us custody of a large island where it is our responsibility to prevent illegal poaching of the coveted eggs of the freshwater turtle known locally as the “Taricaya”. Podocnemis uniflis is the most widespread freshwater turtle in South America found in Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela….and, of course, Peru! Over the years we have perfected nest collecting techniques, designs for the artificial beaches and fine-tuned the data we must record. To date we have released over 7000 baby turtles back into the wild and the specific codes that we mark on their shells have enabled us to identify some individuals as many as 6 years after release. Turtles in general have many specific criteria which add up to ideal egg-laying conditions. The “Taricaya” is no exception and would appear to be even fussier about what constitutes the right time to come ashore and lay their eggs. Sand temperature and texture, water levels, lunar cycles, air temperature and humidity- all of these factors appear to influence whether a female is happy enough to dig her nest. Whilst we have perfected our collection methods and have assured survival rates from our artificial beaches as high as 85% we cannot control if and when the females will appear.

Off on  River Heath expedition

This year has been very frustrating as we have been struck by some very cold weather spells (friajes) which have discouraged females from laying their eggs. We lost almost 10 days to one of these “friajes” where the temperature dropped to 8°C. This is freakishly cold for the jungle and seems to have pushed the season right back. Normally the laying season ends late August but we are still monitoring the beaches and collecting eggs and to date we have 32 nests successfully relocated in Taricaya. I just hope that the females that have yet to come ashore do so later as opposed to aborting their clutches in the rivers which is a common response should conditions not meet their requirements.

An exciting addition to our turtle project this year was an agreement signed with The Bahuaja-Sonene National Park on the Peruvian side of the Bolivian border. This huge jungle area is limited by the beautiful Heath River which acts as a natural border between the two countries. For many generations the Ese-eja natives from the Sonene and Palma Real communities have extracted tens of thousands of Taricaya eggs from the Heath River. Whilst this is technically illegal it is very hard to enforce on native communities who lay claims to the land before such things as national parks ever existed. For many years the park rangers have been forced to turn a blind eye as boat loads of eggs are moved down the Heath and then up to \Puerto Maldonado for sale. We have tried looking for a solution to this problem but to no avail, until this year! We were approached by the school director from Palm Real who asked us if we would like to work with them based on our pilot turtle project from 3 years ago. Naturally, we agreed. This time however we decided that we must get more involved in the collection phase and get a physical presence in the national park. This way we could ensure that all the eggs were collected properly and looked after so as to be fertile when finally relocated into the artificial beaches. After many meetings and signing of agreements I am proud to report that we sent a pilot research team up the Heath river to collect 72 turtle nests for relocation to Palma Real and the Taricaya.

The team consisted of two Ese-eja natives from Palma Real, two park rangers, a boat driver, two volunteers from Taricaya and our turtle expert Daniel Neira. They spent four days following this beautiful river, camping on its banks and collecting the required number of nests. Whilst 72 nests might not appear a huge number in the grand scheme of things the fact that we coordinated an expedition to involve the Parks service and native communities working in tandem is a great achievement and sets a precedent for years to come. The community will be rewarded when the eggs hatch and when we release the young turtles back into their rivers we hope the visual impact will trigger an even more positive response next year. More to follow on this in the coming months…

Collecting eggs on the Heath River

Back at Taricaya we were hard at work building a new enclosure for our young puma (Puma concolor). The six month old male is already weighing close to 30 kilos and we needed to build a larger more secure cage. The baking sun and sweat flies were a constant nuisance but with so many volunteers we were able to rotate the work duties and the beautiful 10x6x3 enclosure will be ready for use in the first few days of September. It is immensely satisfying building something from nothing and I must thank all the volunteers and staff for completing the task in such short time. Next month we must start remodelling our small cat enclosures as the elements have taken their toll and we do not want any unauthorised releases on our hands!

Our second farm plot downriver from the reserve is starting to produce bananas as we were able to get stuck in and clean out all the weeds that were strangling the long established banana trees. This abandoned farm was once very productive before being abandoned for many years and as such we wish to bring it back to life. This will help reduce costs in both our animal and human food budgets and we have already started planting other species in an attempt to create a successful poly-culture similar to that which we have established for many years with our original pilot farm. Whilst working on this plot we noticed a huge variety of different bird species in the area. Many of these species are not common in Taricaya as they are specialists and migrants that prefer open areas and secondary forest. With our bird inventory already surpassing 450 species it is imperative we investigate this type of habitat previously unavailable to us. So, as usual, in no time at all we decided to build an observation platform bang in the middle of the farm. As opposed to using wood we have built a metal structure using poles and bolts, much like scaffolding. The advantage to this is that it is resistant to the heat and humidity and can be dissembled and moved to another area when the trees grow too tall and block our view. I look forward to reporting on some great sightings over the coming months as whilst building it we were graced by low flying blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara ararauna), flocks of parrots and parakeets and an inquisitive yellow-tufted woodpecker (Melanerpes cruentatus).

Our sensor cameras are constantly snapping photos around the reserve and this month we were able to capture 8 species of mammal and 4 species of bird on film. The best sightings were a foraging group of South American coatis (Nasua nasua) and a pair of Spix’s guans (Penelope spixi).

Eggs all ready for journey to Taricaya

Finally I would like to bring you all up to date on our entomology project and its initial findings. Since March this year we have employed a young Spanish entomologist Salvador. He has quickly settled in to the routine of Taricaya and volunteers have quickly taken to the insect walks where they wander the forest collecting any insects they come across using nets and plastic containers. With Insects being the largest group of animals on the planet and the tropical rainforest the world’s most diverse ecosystem one can imagine the difficulty in positively identifying everything you encounter. It is a Herculean task and I would not be at all surprised if we already have something new and bizarre to science awaiting identification. We have some fairly extensive research on butterflies (Lepidoptera) and dung beetles (branch of Coleoptera) but the rest is new territory for us. Salvador has hundreds of specimens awaiting inspection but to date has produced a list which includes 15 Orders and 84 Families of insect with the Hemiptera (bugs) being his most common findings thus far!

I must sign off for now but next time I hope to bring you the final total for our turtle project collection, photos of the completed cages and platforms and all the updates from our on-going research in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon.

Until then…

Stuart Timson
Conservation Director
Projects Abroad
4th September 2013

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