Even ten years ago it would have been impossible to imagine: clear-as-day footage of a jaguar plodding through the impenetrable Amazon, or a bicolored-spined porcupine balancing on a branch, or a troop of spider monkeys feeding at a clay lick, or a band of little coatis racing one-by-one from the dense foliage. These are things that even researchers who have spent a lifetime in the Amazon may never see. Now anyone can: scientists at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park have recently begun using camera trap videos to take movies of animals few will ever view in their lifetimes. The videos—following years of photo camera trapping—provide an intimate view of a world increasingly threatened by the oil industry.
“We started with video around 18 months ago and in that period we have been able to record more than 20 species, including top predators like jaguars and pumas,” Diego Mosquera, head of the camera trap program and manager of Tiputini Biodiversity Station which is run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, told mongabay.com. “Certainly, there is still so much to discover.”
The program at Tiputini has been going on for eight years, but for the first six the team focused solely on photographs (55,000 to date). And although Tiputini only covers 6.5 square kilometers—less than one-tenth of a percent of the park’s total—they managed to record over 60 species, including 35 mammals and 27 birds. Mosquera says highlights to the program include panthers, feeding pumas, short-eared dogs and other extremely rare species.
Camera trap video compilation from Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
“We were very happy and surprised to have pictures of a black panther, which is basically a black jaguar. Considering that only around 6 percent of jaguars (Panthera onca) are melanistic, having a picture of a black jaguar is really amazing.”
The team has also taken rare photos of a puma (Puma concolor) eating a deer.
“This was extremely interesting not only because of the picture but also in terms of the information that it provide us,” says Mosquera. In addition to eating, the team also has footage of pumas defecating. But that wasn’t the end of intriguing behavior captured on film.
“We were also very surprised to notice that for some reason peccaries are consistently aware that there is a camera ‘watching’ them. This, unfortunately, leads in many cases to ‘friendly attacks,'” says Mosquera.
The program, which includes John Blake from the University of Florida who aids with data analysis, has also recorded mammals that science knows almost nothing about.
“Most animals are elusive, but I think that, at least in Tiputini, the two species of wild canids are some of the rarest animals in the rainforest. The short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis) and the bush dog (Speothus venaticus) are extremely elusive and hard to see, even having an ‘eye’ on the forest 24 hours a day with the cameras,” notes Mosquera.
Puma with a deer carcass. Photo courtesy of Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
In fact, out of 55,000 photos the program has only managed to take three pictures of bush dogs—or one in over 18,000.
“We need to obtai more information on [short-eared dogs and bush dogs] to understand them better and ultimately have better arguments to protect them,” says Mosquera. But even with all they’ve recorded, Mosquera says there is much more to discover, including species that have yet to show up on camera such as Neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), the grison (Galictis vitatta) and the Amazon weasel (Mustela africana).
“These days many people have lost connection with nature and these images and videos can bring them closer to the magnificent creatures we share our planet with, waking up their curiosity, encouraging them to see wildlife ‘live’ and more importantly, encouraging them to protecting it,” Mosquera says.
While scientists use camera traps for much-improved monitoring of wildlife, Tiputini’s program is especially vital because it provides an inside look at what experts say is probably the most biodiverse place on the planet.
Currently, Yasuní National Park—which is larger than Cyprus—is a world record holder for a number of species groups: 153 amphibian species, over 100 bats, 597 birds, and 3,135 vascular plants. A single hectare in Yasuní contains around 655 tree species–more trees than are found in the U.S. and Canada combined. Even more astounding, scientists have estimated that one hectare in Yasuní may contain more than 100,000 arthropod species. If this is so, it would be the highest number of species per unit found anywhere in the world.
“The Amazon is so complex that even though we know so much, the truth is that we don’t know anything,” says Mosquera. “Unfortunately, it seems that destruction is occurring so fast that we might not have time to see the impacts that these activities have on the wildlife and might lose species we didn’t even have time to ‘discover’.”
Nocturnal curassow (Nothocrax urumutum). Photo courtesy of Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
In fact, each of Yasuní’s innumerable species—and in aggregation, the world’s biggest bloom of life—may be imperiled by oil production. Ecuador currently prohibits oil companies in protected areas. However, there’s a loophole: if the oil exploitation is deemed in Ecuador’s “national interest” then operations may drill in parks and other protected areas. In fact, the oil industry is currently working just 20 kilometers from Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
“But, we just found out that a new road extension is going on to enable access to a smaller [oil] facility and this is just 5 kilometers from us,” says Mosquera. “This is obviously very scary.”
And oil exploitation is set to expand: the park recently made news around the world when an innovative initiative to keep oil out of the park’s most remote sections collapsed. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative would have kept the ITT blocs of Yasuní (Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini) off-limits to oil exploration, if donors and the international community agreed to pay 50 percent of the forgone revenue for the untapped oil fields: amounting to $3.6 billion. The idea was to preserve biodiversity, curb climate change (by keeping fossil fuels in the ground), and safeguard indigenous populations. The funds paid to Ecuador would have gone to a trust fund managed by the UN Development Program and supported a variety of projects including reforestation, renewable energy, and various community initiatives. However, the funds failed to materialize quickly enough for the Ecuadorean government (around $330 million was pledged) and in August, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa announced he was canceling the program and opening up ITT to oil exploitation.
“Oil operations have obvious and immediate impacts (roads, people, pipelines, noise, pollution) but the long term impacts are a huge concern,” Mosquera says. “With roads built, not only the habitat of many species is fragmented avoiding the normal gene flow, but colonization and everything that comes with it is encouraged (deforestation, illegal logging, expansion of the agricultural frontier, overhunting and traffic of wildlife, acculturation of indigenous people, etc.).”
According to him, oil operations in northern Ecuadorean Amazon have already led to an “almost complete destruction of the area.”
Jaguar on the prowl. Photo courtesy of Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
“This could also be the fate of Yasuní, based on what we have seen so far already happening,” Mosquera warns.
In early October, the Ecuadorean congress approved expanding oil drilling in the park, following Correa’s lead. Correa has said operations will start as soon as possible. Still, there may be one final way to keep oil companies out of the remote ITT blocs: a national referendum. If those opposed to drilling in Yasuní can gather signatures from 5 percent of the country’s population (around 680,000 people) than the decision to open Yasuní to oil exploitation would end up in a national referendum. Opinion polls in Ecuador have shown overwhelming support for the Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which could result in those same citizens voting to preserve the park.
“[ Yasuní’s] diversity is the key to our future and has an enormous value that we can’t even calculate, not only in terms of species or genetic resources, but also in terms of ecological processes,” says Mosquera. “Yasuní is a place that has not changed much in the last few millennia and this fact help us understand how the ecosystem works when it doesn’t have human impacts.”
Mosquera believes that the final importance of Tiputini’s camera trap program may not be for science, but for raising public awareness and concern for the wondrous, but rarely-seen wildlife of the deepest Amazon.
“Perhaps the more important part of this technology is that it has an enormous power to educate people at all levels,” he says, adding that, “Yasuní is a treasure not only for Ecuador, but for the whole world.”
Now, the whole world can experience this hidden forest and its shadowy, but very real and very imperiled, inhabitants.
The incredibly rare short-eared dog. Photo courtesy of Tiputini Biodiversity Station.
View from observation tower at Tiputini. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.
Top biodiversity for species groups. Yasuní sits in the small red region, which has peak biodiversity for four groups. Map by Matt Finer, Clinton Jenkins, and Holger Kreft. Click to enlarge.
Over 100 scientists warn Ecuadorian Congress against oil development in Yasuni
(10/03/2013) Over 100 scientists have issued a statement to the Ecuadorian Congress warning that proposed oil development and accompanying roads in Yasuni National Park will degrade its “extraordinary biodiversity.” The statement by a group dubbed the Scientists Concerned for Yasuni outlines in detail how the park is not only likely the most biodiverse ecosystems in the western hemisphere, but in the entire world. Despite this, the Ecuadorian government has recently given the go-ahead to plans to drill for oil in Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) blocs, one of most remote areas in the Amazon rainforest.
The case against Ecuador’s claims of ‘low-impact drilling’ in Yasuní
(09/16/2013) Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa recently announced to the world that he was ending the 6-year initiative aimed at avoiding oil drilling in a critical piece of the Amazon, the ITT Block of Yasuní National Park. In the speech, and the accompanying Decree, the President emphasized that the exploitation will affect less than 1% of the park. In subsequent remarks, President Correa indicated that the impacted area would be less than 0.001%. Thus, the new government pitch: minimum impact, maximum reward. Here, we counter that impacts related to biodiversity, indigenous people in voluntary isolation, and climate change may be severe.
Deforestation surges as Ecuador kills Amazon protection plan
(09/04/2013) Data released this week by Terra-i, a collaborative mapping initiative, shows that deforestation in Ecuador for the first three months of 2013 was pacing more than 300 percent ahead of last year’s rate. The report comes shortly after Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa killed off a proposed plan to prohibit oil drilling in Yasuni National Park in exchange for payments equivalent to half the value of the park’s unexploited oil.
Yasuni could still be spared oil drilling
(08/26/2013) When Ecuadorean President, Rafael Correa, announced on August 15th that he was abandoning an innovative program to spare three blocs of Yasuni National Park from oil drilling, it seemed like the world had tossed away its most biodiverse ecosystem. However, environmental groups and activists quickly responded that there may be another way to keep oil companies out of Yasuni’s Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) blocs: a national referendum.
Ecuador shelves big idea for saving the Amazon
(08/16/2013) The fate of the most biodiverse rainforest on Earth has been decided: it will be drilled for oil.
11,000 barrels of oil spill into the Coca River in the Amazon
(06/12/2013) On May 31st, a landslide ruptured an oil pipeline in Ecuadorean Amazon, sending around 11,000 barrels of oil ( 420,000 gallons) into the Coca River. The oil pollution has since moved into the larger Napo River, which borders Yasuni National Park, and is currently heading downstream into Peru and Brazil. The spill has occurred in a region that is notorious for heavy oil production and decades of contamination, in addition to resistance and lawsuits by indigenous groups.
Is it possible to reduce the impact of oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest?
(05/02/2013) Oil extraction in the Amazon rainforest has been linked to severe environmental degradation — including deforestation and pollution — which in some areas has spurred violent social conflict. Yet a vast extent of the Colombian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Bolivian, and Brazilian Amazon is currently under concession for oil and gas exploration and production. It seems clear that much of this hydrocarbon development is going to proceed whether environmentalists and human rights groups like it or not.
108 million ha of Amazon rainforest up for oil and gas exploration, development
(12/08/2012) Concessions for oil and gas exploration and extraction are proliferating across Amazon countries, reports a comprehensive new atlas of the region.
Want to stop climate change: buy fossil fuel deposits
(06/07/2012) Governments, NGOs, and others fighting climate change should consider buying coal and oil deposits—not to exploit them, but to keep them from being exploited, according to a bold new policy paper in the Journal of Political Economy. Economist Bard Harstad with the Kellogg School of Management argues that climate coalitions could quickly slash carbon emissions by purchasing and conserving marginal fossil fuel deposits, a strategy that would solve the current problem of carbon leakage, i.e. when cutting emissions in one place pushes others to burn more elsewhere. Given that carbon emissions rose to a new record last year—31.6 gigatons—and carbon has hit 400 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere for the first time in at least 800,000 years, Harstad’s analysis comes at a time when scientists are warning that urgent and bold action is needed to mitigate global climate change before it becomes irreversible.
Pictures of Yasuni, Ecuador’s rainforest gem
(04/27/2012) In late 2010, mongabay.com reporter Jeremy Hance traveled to Yasuni National Park, arguably the most biodiverse place on the planet and home to a unique initiative to save a rainforest by asking the international community to pay to keep oil in the ground. Researchers have found more tree species in a single hectare in Yasuni National Park than in all of the U.S. and Canada combined. Yasuni also contains the highest biodiversity of reptiles and amphibians in the world with 271 species. But insects trump them all: entomologist Terry Erwin has estimated that a single hectare of rainforest in Yasuni may contain as many as 100,000 unique insect species.