CONSERVATION IN PERU: TARICAYA RESEARCH CENTRE: MONTHLY UPDATE –JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2014
My apologies for the delay in getting you the latest news from the Peruvian Amazon but as you will soon discover 2014 has not been the kindest to us over the last few weeks. However before I talk about the freakish storms and torrential rain I would like to start on a great high and a fantastic way to start the New Year….
Animal Rescue Centre
In the first week of January we became proud parents once again as our female tapir (Tapirus terrestris) gave birth to a beautiful young calf. The baby male was born strong and healthy and as the mother was no longer a novice the youngster was soon suckling fresh milk. His growth has been steady and after just six weeks he is becoming more and more independent.
Elsewhere at the centre we had several new arrivals this month including another Peruvian spider monkey (Ateles chamek) and a baby ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). The former will be kept in quarantine until we can be certain that it does not have any diseases contracted from being near domestic animals in Puerto Maldonado. Once given a clean bill of health it will join one of our captive groups in preparation for release. Our oldest group, referring to the age of the animals not time with us in the centre, is scheduled for release later this year and the troop already numbers six individuals which is great as survival chances improve the larger the release group becomes.
As for the ocelot, release is a long way off as the cub must have been just a few weeks old when we got it. It is so young that we cannot yet sex it as cats are hard to gender until at least 3 months old. Either way this cub was orphaned as the result of a hunting incident. The mother could have been shot by mistake as the hunter was looking for food or she was shot for being near a farm with poultry. Regardless of the reason the outcome is sadly often the same with the death of the young babies without a mother. Fortunately, in this case the cub was given to us almost straightaway and a diet of milk and blended boiled chicken has kept the youngster alive in the critical first few days and its progress is encouraging. A few more weeks in the nursery and we can consider putting it in its own cage outside so that it gets plenty of stimuli from the jungle which will become its home when it is old enough to survive on its own.
Before the rains hit in devastating fashion we had been working hard to complete the carnivore enclosures. Unfortunately, we were unable to finish the task before Mother Nature gave us a mighty surprise and an ecological catastrophe….
When you live and work in tropical rainforests the storms and seasonal downpours are part of everyday life but every once in while nature reminds you of just how unpredictable climates can be. Over ten years ago we suffered some flooding in Taricaya but the month of February has seen flooding the likes of which have not been recorded since 1961 in Madre de Dios. The heavens opened for close to two weeks without respite and the fact that this was happening all over the region meant that the river systems did not have to cope with just local rainstorms but the run-off from all the mountains and tributaries that feed the two rivers, Tambopata and Madre de Dios!
Over the space of three days the river slowly started to burst its banks and we began to worry about the safety of the camp. All our buildings are constructed on stilts to allow for occasional flash flooding and the floor levels are situated at least 50 cm above the seasonal high water mark. We must bear in mind that this is nearly a metre above the banks of the river! So when water started to leak into the rooms we knew that we were in trouble. The volume of water that flowed down from the mountains is incalculable as once the river floods its banks the whole flood plain drops under water. These flood plains can extend several kilometres back from the banks of the river and for water levels to keep rising with the river effectively 10km wide- the amount of water was staggering.
Naturally we had to evacuate and with bold staff members left to look after the camp we loaded everybody into the boats and headed to Puerto Maldonado. It was a traumatic time for all of us and I must thank all our volunteers for their patience during those couple of weeks. We did not just sit back on our heels however as we quickly got to work in town but more on that in minute….
Apart from the inconveniences caused by such serious flooding the long term effects on the ecosystem are devastating. The flood plains of the jungle were effectively underwater for 20 days and this has caused a huge shift in the balance of the ecosystem. Over 70% of the plants found in the secondary forest along rivers will have died during the floods. Members of the Piperacea family were the first to die off followed by many members of the Heliconia family. These plants provide food for a whole range of fauna from insects and arthropods to humming birds and bats. The whole food chain is damaged and even when the water levels dropped, vast quantities of sediment have been left on top of the forest floor. Whilst eventually this sediment will be beneficial for the regeneration of the flora the thick layer prevents seeds from pushing through and delays the recovery process.
Whilst the effects on the forest’s flora are tough the jungle’s fauna suffered even more. Not only were important foodstuffs no longer available but many animals drowned in the floods. With an area of 10km suddenly underwater with no high ground many of the jungle’s ground dwellers perished. We were able to rescue some baby agoutis (Dasyprocta variegata) and pacas (Agouit paca) we found floating on driftwood. These terrestrial rodents were the worst hit and we even fed our own colony of them which had sought safety on a pile of unused scrap wood. In short the jungle and its finely balanced ecosystem has taken a big hit and we must really consider this when thinking about the minor inconveniences we suffered having to move out for a few weeks!
Working in town
Needless to say we kept busy during our enforced absence and we went to work in the local “zoo”. Over the years we have often helped out there and thanks to our help the animals are in much better health. We have given the animals veterinary treatment and helped build new enclosures in the past. This time around we set to painting all the cages and building a new cage for the resident pair of channel-billed toucans (Ramphostos vitrellinus). Everybody worked hard, often in heavy rain, and the owners were very grateful for the help we gave them.
Finally the rains eased and the water levels dropped and it was time to head back to the lodge and assess the damage. We had managed to save all the animals in the rescue centre with the exception of the white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) and tapirs. These animals were able to swim out of their cages and so we had little choice. The peccaries were due for release anyway and so we took them by boat to the back of the reserve and released them on higher ground. The tapirs are much bigger and excellent swimmers and so we let them go near camp. We put a radio collar on the female and by keeping the baby in camp we hope she will return. The two males were also released and we have been able to recapture one of them and the other has been sighted near camp. However our hopes remain on recapturing the female to continue our captive breeding program.
Elsewhere thanks to a lot of hard work we were able to save all the animals in our custody and the babies we rescued were released as soon as the water receded.
The camp itself had suffered some superficial damage but we are quickly fixing that and our volunteers have been faultless in their energy in helping get us back on track. I hope to report on happier news next time as we continue to evaluate the reserve and hope that the water left behind in the swamps and trails starts to drop…
Either way, we have lots to look forward to and plenty of work lined up…
12th March, 2014