Working to save the 'living dead' in the Atlantic Forest, an interview with Antonio Rossano Mendes PontesJeremy Hance
September 23, 2009
Fourth in a series of interviews with participants at the 2009 Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) conference.
Pontes with his students at a lab Christmas confraternization: he is in the center. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
"Absolute misery and indecent salaries for the lowest classes […] prevent them from having access to the very basic daily items, such as animal protein, gas butane for cooking and other purposes, construction materials, and so on," he says.
Despite the massive loss of habitat, the expiration of whole species, continued widespread hunting, and rampant exploitation of existing forests, the region still holds surprises. One of these was the blond capuchin: a Critically Endangered monkey species whose discovery was only announced to the world in 2006 by Pontes, who urged immediate conservation measure for the species.
But that's not all. Since then Pontes and his team have found an unknown porcupine which is actually a new occurrence for the Genus Sphiggurus in that region and is most probably a new species for science. The discovery is the result of cooperation between Pontes, at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, and Dr Yuri Leite, from Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, who is currently conducting DNA analysis. The find was sponsored by Conservation International under its Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. Pontes adds that there are several other mammals that may in fact by new species, but they are not yet ready to unveil.
However these discoveries of new species—already on the brink of extinction and possibly even the 'living dead'—only show us how much we have already lost, according to Pontes, and what we will lose if urgent action isn't taken in the region.
The possible new species of porcupine, Sphiggurus sp., collected with the appropriate licences and subsequently released in the forest. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
He envisions a time when the forest may only contain three mammals: common marmoset, squirrel and sloths. Most primates, porcupines, cats, and all other tantalizing rarities will disappear entirely.
"There are still many mammals living there, begging for a chance to survive—even species that we bet would not be there, such as jaguarundis, ocelots, the blond capuchin, and so on—and they deserve our greatest efforts to provide them with a better life, and possibly a less bleak future," Pontes says
Pontes isn't giving up on the forest. In order to save the species and the ecosystem he says that the first thing which is needed is round the clock patrols to prevent people from hunting animals and cutting down the forest. Next, he says the local population require attention, including sustainable livelihoods and environmental education.
"We can still save the CEPE, but we all have to wish to: local inhabitants, land-owners, politicians, decision-makers in general, and even children. If we provide nature with the minimum it will make the most of it and will reward us with blossoming life," Pontes says, pointing out that with a tiny reforestation project (just 6 hectares) the blond capuchin population—the only recorded in the world—has gone from 30 individuals to 44, nearly a 50 percent bump.
The Critically Endangered blond capuchin. Here: An imposing sentinel adult male staring at Cássia, close to Mingú lake at Usina Salgado mill, State of Pernambuco. Picture by research student Cássia Rodrigues.
When asked about the future of the Pernambuco Endemism Centre in the Atlantic Forest, Pontes concludes that due to such high fragmentation and the loss of so many species there is no 'future', but in fact "the future is today".
"This is most certainly the end of line, a scenario that announces that the [Pernambuco Endemism Centre] is about to vanish," he says. "The future is today."
In a September 2009 interview, Mongabay.com spoke with Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes about his calling as a naturalist and conservationist; his new book; the continued destruction of the Atlantic Forest; possible conservation initiatives; new species, including the blond capuchin and the undescribed porcupine; the little-known olingo; and the future—if there will be one—for the Pernambuco Endemism Centre.
INTERVIEW WITH ANTONIO ROSSANO MENDES PONTES
Mongabay: What is your background?
Pontes carrying out daily surveys of medium-sized mammals in one of our trails. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
In 1994 I got a scholarship from the British Council in Brazil to attend an M.Phil. course at Cambridge University, England, at the Wildlife Research Group, under the supervision of Dr David Chivers, whose first Brazilian student was famous conservationist Marcio Ayres (in 1995 I moved to the Federal University of Pernambuco, my mother University).
In 1996 I got a scholarship from the Brazilian National Research Council to do a Ph.D. in the same place at Cambridge University.
Mongabay: What drew you to working with mammals?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: I was always obsessed with knowing what the animals were doing in the jungle, and with the possibility of being with them without disturbing them. I remember various times when I was still a child and argued with my father because I wanted to get out of the car and go into the forest to see ‘what they were doing’. One day I saw news in a Brazilian magazine about the jaguar project then run by renowned conservationist George Schaller. I fell in love for jaguars and got in touch with George, we exchanged many letters and books, he took me to visit the project in the depths of the Pantanal forests at the age of 15, and I found out my vocation. I have since published the only article in literature on direct observations of jaguars and peccaries.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in the Atlantic Forest?
View of the study transect within Boca da mata, with a natural archway made of lianas. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
During this project I started witnessing the devastating impacts that human beings are inflicting on these absolutely neglected and unprotected forests. I decided that no matter where I would go, I would still do my little bit towards its conservation. I decided that I would not give up after I saw—all in the same place—huge intentional fires (that even destroyed my study area), slash-and-burn agriculture, trapping and slaughter of my beloved common marmosets and other mammals, dogs being sent to attack me, thieves using the forest as hiding place, invasion and cutting of trees by landless peasants, paths into the forest for caws and horses, and, of course, hunting in all its forms. I thought that I had to do something.
Mongabay: You recently wrote a book Amazonia and Other Forests of Brazil that describes your journey in becoming a naturalist and your work with various species throughout the Atlantic Forest, the Amazon, and the Pantanal. What made you decide to write this book?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: It is the materialization of a dream that I had since I first walked into the forests of Brazil and they started unveiling this fascinating world of nature to me. I wanted very dearly to show to the world the life that exists in the forest, how the animals live their ordinary life in such extraordinary ways, how lovely they are, and how magnificent is to be part of this luxuriant world. I also wanted to show to everyone how terribly bad we are treating our forests, their bleak future, and, through my experiences, adventures, life threats, and scientific findings reported in the book, I ultimately hoped to contribute to raise awareness and promote conservation. If I succeed in stimulating curiosity towards nature I will be happy. The book can be found at Blackwell (UK) , ABE (overseas) , among others. It will be available at amazon.com this coming fall.
STUDYING MAMMALS IN ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST ENDANGERED FORESTS
Mongabay: You work in the northeast part of the Atlantic Forest: can you describe for us the state of this area, the Pernambuco Endemism Centre?
The study group of blond capuchin, (Cebus queirozi), feeding/resting in the most exploited of all tree species, the African palm, Elaeis guineensis (the dendê), where they sleep, feed, rest, socialize, among other activities, at Usina Salgado mill, State of Pernambuco. Picture by research student Cássia Rodrigues.
Mongabay: What are the main threats to the region?
A southern tamandua, Tamandua tetradactyla, registered during nocturnal surveys near midnight in forest fragment Xanguazinho. Photo courtesy of Ramon Gadelha.
1. Uncontrollable, widespread, continuous hunting, neglected by the authorities. We have recently conducted research on various forest fragments and found out that hunting occurs in all forest fragments, and we detected more hunting in the forest fragments that have relatively more animals.
2. Forest destruction for various reasons: (2.1.) selective cutting by local people who live below the poverty line, and have no choice but to exploit the forest resources; (2.2.) wood collection for celebrations, such as the 'Saint John' party, when most families in the entire CEPE make fires in front of their houses to celebrate. They either collect the wood themselves, or buy from various dealers on the streets (and this type of forest destruction has been neglected for centuries); (2.3.) to build houses and fences; (2.4) for sugar-cane; (2.5) for pasture; (2.6) for charcoal, just to name but a few.
3. Invasion of the remnants by landless peasants, who nowadays are a huge population, and by rural small settlers who want to extend their subsistence agriculture.
4. Inexistent or – in many cases – inefficient protection of forest fragments by owners of private forests. The forests are protected on paper, and the owners and their families may even intend to protect the forests, but the policy of protecting fragments is inefficient, and therefore, hunting and wood collection is widespread.
5. Isolation of the fragments and the consequent accidents with animals being run over by cars when they try to cross the roads to reach other forest fragments or the matrix of sugar-cane to forage and feed.
Pontes says: "Our dedicated group of field surveyors who together discovered the new porcupine: (clockwise): Field assistant Perereca, field assistant Xibiu (behind the lady), the porcupine discoverers research students Ramon and Éverton, field assistant Mr. Severino, and dedicated environment protection encharged, Miss Evânia". Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
7. Irreversible genetic erosion because the animals have been isolated by hundreds of years: the damage may already have taken place – we just don't know. Just to give you a typical sad example: in one of our study areas we have a single group of blond capuchins that live in a tiny forested area formed by three isolated small forest fragments that together comprises only 47 hectares, which, in some cases, force them to walk on the ground for some 150 meters. Whereas capuchins may use areas of up to 800 hectares in groups of less than 20 animals, this isolated group has nowadays 44 individuals crowded in this tiny area.
8. The most perverse type of loss, which is the loss of the unknown since we are losing species that are unknown to science or we did not know they occurred in the area. Twenty-three species of endemic birds have already been described, as well as one species of reptile, four species of butterflies, two species of gastropods, at least four species of amphibians, and at least 11 species of trees. I myself have shown to the world the critically-endangered blond capuchin, our group is describing a new porcupine [see below for photo], and we are in the way to describe a few more.
Close-up. With only 44 left in the world will these blond capuchins (Cebus queirozi) survive? Picture by research student Cássia Rodrigues.
10. The boom of biofuels (sugar-cane) is a new and immediate threat for the surviving forest fragments, because it is very likely that owners of the private properties which hold most of the remnants will be reluctant to expand and / or reconnecting the forest fragments, and even more reluctant to use part of the sugar-cane fields to do reforestation – little interest in a 'little-profit' activity. The Federal Government is very interested to present Brazilian biofuel as the solution for the petrol crisis, and will be supporting this expanding business in the name of the Brazilian economy.
11. Absolute misery and indecent salaries for the lowest classes which prevent them from having access to the very basic daily items, such as animal protein, gas butane for cooking and other purposes, construction materials, and so on.
Mongabay: What has happened to the large species of this highly fragmented forest?
Tapir in Brazil's Pantanal. A large mammal, the tapir no longer survives in the embattled Atlantic Forest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Additionally, hunting has considerably speeded up the process. Even worse is that this entire catastrophe happened in obscurity, without being noticed or recorded. The large mammals were simply not there when we arrived, although past literature and reports from older local inhabitants refer to them: jaguars, pumas, giant ant-eater, white-lipped peccaries, tapirs, among many others, known and unknown. Being the largest implies a demand for larger areas, larger amounts of food, less abundance, longer birth intervals = lower reproductive rates, and, of course, larger animals provide more meat and more easily seen by hunters.
Mongabay: While working in this hyper-fragmented forest, you have discovered new species. Can you tell us about them?
Close-up of the possible new species of porcupine, Sphiggurus sp., collected with the appropriate licences and subsequently released in the forest. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
1. The blond-capuchin, Cebus queirozi, you can get the full story in the last chapter of my book!
2. A possible new species of porcupine, for which we are just about to submit a description.
3. All the others – which are quite a few, I am afraid you will have to wait!
Mongabay: What conservation efforts are being undertaken to save the Critically Endangered blond capuchin?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: I can only speak in the realm of my own scientific/conservation world: I have taken the very first step that anyone would towards the conservation of any endangered species, which is to understand their natural history, ecology and behavior in order to be able to set priorities. After more than 1,000 hours of direct observations of the group of blond capuchins we managed to understand a great deal of their terribly difficult life and bleak future. We as well managed to contribute to a little improvement, although significant, in their welfare. We were nevertheless unable to publish our findings—which could greatly contribute to their conservation—which I describe in my book.
In the larger scenario you have to ask the concerned authorities/decision makers. I can nevertheless say that my studies suggest that if we want to save this or any other species of medium-sized and large mammal of the CEPE we will have to carry out inventories of as many forest fragments as possible to determine their biological value and therefore, set priorities, re-connect and expand forest fragments, enhance their native food availability by re-introduction of the extinct (fruit) trees, and educate people and raise their livelihood, especially around the forest fragments, so that they are able to respect and protect nature. We have to reconsider the sacrifice of endangered species in hotspots, even more in hotspot’s hotspots such as the CEPE, and ultimately, re-introduce the extinct animal species to their habitat in order to restore the ecological processes. If all this is implemented, we can start thinking about long-term viable populations.
Mongabay: I have to ask what can you tell us about the little-known olingo, even though this is a little off topic since you studied olingos in the Amazon and not in the Atlantic Forest.?
Top: Dr. Roland Kays (NYSM) offers an olingo a banana peace offering as it leaves a live-trap with a radio-collar in Limbo, Panama. Bottom: Close-up of the elusive and little-studied olingo. Photo credit: Marcos Guerra, Smithsonian
They are nocturnal creatures that live in the canopy of most forest types of Roraima, and despite being a carnivore (not a primate or a kinkajou) they eat a great deal of ripe fruit, and despite being said to be solitary animals, I found them both solitary and also in groups of up to 6 individuals, traveling and also feeding together. There was better chances to find them in groups when the nights were brighter—full moon—whereas they were more frequently seen alone when the night was more darker, which suggests that they have evolved to a social life due to protection against predation when they are more susceptible, that is to say, when they can be seen more easily by their predators.
During 1994, when I and my Macuxi indigenous assistant and guide, Antonio, found them, and followed them for 6 months, they were by far the most abundant nocturnal forest dweller, whereas their closest competitors, the night monkey, Aotus trivirgatus, and kinkajou, Potos flavus, were absent. In 1998 when I returned to Maracá for 2 years of field work, olingos had become less abundant, but were still there, at the same time night monkeys were now present in much more significant numbers. During 2006 when I returned again for three months, I could not find olingos, but registered a high abundance of night monkeys, similar to that of olingos during 1994. I still could not find kinkajous. This suggests that just over a decade there was a replacement of olingos by night monkeys in eastern Maracá, although olingos are heavier than night monkeys.
Getting around isn't always easy in the forest: Pontes' car stuck on mud during field surveys at Usina Trapiche mill, Pernambuco. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
Mongabay: If conservation measures aren’t taken immediately what do you think the Atlantic Forest will look like in 25 years?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: The CEPE today has 13,619 forest fragments of up to 10 hectares, which is 70% of all the forests left, and the mean size of the forests within this size class is only 2.8 hectares, all formed by secondary highly modified border-like forests. Only the four already mentioned species of medium-sized mammals can live there (common marmoset, squirrel, sloth and agouti), but in most fragments not even all the four species occur (sometimes only one of them, and sometimes none of them). This is most certainly the end of line, a scenario that announces that the CEPE is about to vanish. The future is today.
CONSERVATION OF THE FOREST
Mongabay: Why is it important to conserve these areas of the Atlantic Forest?
View of the border of the forest fragment boca da mata (94 ha). Pontes and his students found common marmosets, sloths and two species of porcupines living here. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
Mongabay: Do you believe it is simply too late to save this forest and its wildlife?
: Footprint of a crab-eating racoon, Procyon sp. (footprints are a main source of information about the scarce fauna living in the region). Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
Mongabay: If the forest and the species were to be saved what would need to be done?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: If we want to save at least what is left, we have to take urgent action bottom-up. Instead of discussions on highly-elaborated strategies, making alliances at high-levels, and proposing theoretical scenarios that we know we will not be able to implement, we are signing the death sentence of this hotspot. What we have to do to save what is left, and is absolutely urgent, is the simplest of the measures: to install effective 24 hour patrolling posts close to the forest fragments to avoid the most effective way to destroy these forests, selective cutting and hunting. The government has to impose such patrols also on private properties, which most of the fragments are. But the government has failed to do this in an effective manner because it requires investment.
Top: Brazilian big-eyed bat (Chiroderma doriae) from the CEPE. Bottom: Carla Nobre, a research student in a capture-recapture nocturnal survey with mist nets. Photo credit: Carla Clarissa.
Mongabay: Is there support from locals for conservation measures in the area?
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: Local people around the forests are totally unaware of the importance of preserving the forest fragments and the animals. They are hungry and have more immediate things to care about, such as survival. In fact, they hunt to survive and extract forest resources in an unsustainable manner, mainly wood for house purposes (building, cooking, fencing, etc). They show a total lack of knowledge on how to behave towards nature, which is a mere consequence of not having environmental education. In fact they are mostly illiterate and can barely sign their names, and even those that have permanent or temporary jobs live below the poverty line. Children play in their backyards dragging around green iguanas held in a very tight string that will invariably lead to death; with a 'baleadeira' (meaning hitter) made of a y-folk wood stick and elastic used to throw stones and kill birds, lizards; and building traps to catch any unfortunate animal that fall victim, and so on, and see no harm in this. School teachers in the region have very little knowledge, miserable salaries, and therefore teaching is precarious and with little or no mention of environmentally-related issues.
Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes: In my opinion, little effort has been made to save this hotspot’s hotspot, otherwise there would not be just 2% left. In the last decades, nevertheless, the national, and especially the local government has increased considerably the investments in biodiversity, but it is still far from what we would need in order to effectively save this hotspot from vanishing completely. Federal and State government have to create museums in the region devoted to inventories; alternatives towards sustainable use of the biological resources and conservation; permanent environmental education centers where teachers, students, and the society in general could be trained, and especially, teachers that could take education and training to the far and poorer corners of the country where the most needy people live.
We need more professionals in the area, but despite the amount of resources having increased every year, we still have a limited number, for instance, of scholarships for undergraduate students, e.g. although I and most of my colleagues having dozens of students under scientific initiation, we seldom get more than one scholarship every year from the National Research Council (CNPq / PIBIC). We still have a very limited number of post-graduate scholarships, and only a small percentage of the candidates get a place in the post-graduate courses. The same could be said of project proposals, since only a few receive money (e.g. I myself was never compensated with money for my biological inventories notwithstanding my various applications to work in the CEPE, publications and discoveries).
They could also promote the decentralization of knowledge providing incentives for highly-qualified professionals of all fields to go to the far corners of the country, where they could provide training to the locals for a period of time and contribute to local development. This could be an exchange between post-graduate students and the government.
We have The National Environment Office (IBAMA) and also other institutions responsible for the protection of the environment, but the rationale between number of employees and area to be patrolled is ridiculous, which demands the admission of many more guards for protection to be efficient. During daily life in the jungle nothing has changed. The locals continue hunting and collecting wood as their ancestors did centuries ago. The forests continue to shrink to give room to sugar-cane and pasture, and species are disappearing.
Mongabay: What can people do to help?
Two of the forest fragments Pontes and his team used to survey mammals at the Usina Trapiche mill in Pernambuco State, Pernambuco Endemism Centre (the white lines are the exact location of the trails, open in a straight line with the help of a GPS). Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
They must start finding alternative materials to wood, such as steel and concrete, and always demand a certificate of origin of the wood that they buy. Owners of bakeries and pizzerias must stop buying wood to feed their furnaces for cooking and find alternatives.
People should start to change their attitude towards the celebration of the three religious days of June: Saint Anthony, Saint Joseph and Saint Peter, when they build open wood fires in front of every catholic house to celebrate the birth of so-called Saint Baptist. These fires are normally between 1 and 2 meters high, but in some cases could reach up to 20 meters high depending on the enthusiasm and faith of the believer. The wood for this purpose is all taken from the remaining forest, and, of course, illegally.
Parents must prevent their children from using animals when they play (such as trapping, promoting cruelty, and keeping them), and whenever they find them doing so, they should not only free the animal or take it to a care center, but explain to their children the importance of respecting and preserving nature.
Mongabay: How do you stay positive working in an ecosystem where you are literally watching species go locally extinct year by year?
Gervais's fruit-eating bat (Artibeus cinereus) from the CEPE. Photo credit: Carla Clarissa.
To give you a few practical examples: I have managed to establish highly effective bilateral cooperation between our University and some sugar mill landowners through which we advise them on sustainable use of biological resources and conservation of fauna and flora and they provide infra-structure, meals, and even seed money for us to carry out pure and applied scientific research into their properties in the forest fragments that they preserve. They have even started reforestation projects before we started working together. These are the cases of the Usina Salgado, where we found the blond capuchin, Cebus queirozi, and Usina Trapiche, where we found a new porcupine, Sphiggurus sp. nov. As you can realize each of these cooperations resulted in a great contribution to science and conservation.
Mongabay: It is apparent from your book that your faith has been an important part of your journey toward becoming a scientist and conservationist. Can you tell us about this?
Forest fragments. Photo courtesy of Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes.
How can faith and love precisely contribute to daily life in the jungle? I have had some transcendental experiences in the jungle which helped me to overcome great difficulties (and I describe these experiences in the book), but the more real benefits of faith and love for nature are the power and strength that it brings whenever I most need it. Whenever I get to the border of the forest just before starting work (better described as my 'hobby') I am taken by a deep desire to accomplish things and understand nature that makes me fear nothing or no one.
If you would like to reach Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes, please e-mail him: [email protected]
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