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Could camera trap videos galvanize the world to protect Yasuni from oil drilling?

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 “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.

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