The number of shihuahuaco trees cut down in recent years is huge. A recent study carried out by a group of scientists for Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (Serfor) estimated that over a period of a decade, an average of 74 shihuahuacos were felled each day — more than 270,000 trees in that 10-year period.

While figures like this have garnered the attention of the scientific community, the shihuahuaco still hasn’t been included on the list of wild plant species classified as threatened — a list that authorities in Peru should have updated four years ago. A new report obtained by Mongabay Latam finds the species is now critically endangered, and could disappear entirely from at least two regions in the country over the next 10 years at current rates of logging.

The incomplete list

In Peru, shihuahuaco refers to two different species: Dipteryx micrantha and, less frequently, Dipteryx charapilla. There’s no official inventory indicating the distribution of shihuahuaco in the country. But in 2013, through modeling and projection, Peru’s Agency for the Supervision of Forest Resources (Osinfor) established that the trees grow in the regions of Loreto, Ucayali, Madre de Dios, San Martín, Huánuco, Pasco and Junín.

The dearth of knowledge about the species, together with the boom in its extraction and export — especially to China — prompted Serfor, the forestry agency, to ask a group of 99 Peruvian scientists in 2015 to update the official list of species of threatened wild flora.

The group concluded that 705 species of wild flora, including shihuahuaco, should be included on the list. The next step was the official publication of the updates, required by law every four years. But the last time an updated list was published was in 2006.

Mirbel Epiquién, a biologist, was the director of sustainable forest and wildlife management at Serfor at the time. He told Mongabay Latam that both the call for scientists and the methodology used to classify the threat level for species of wild flora were determined by Serfor. He added that, in addition to using IUCN classifications, they also included variables such as climate change and wildlife trade, among others.

The scientists concluded that 61 species should be classified as critically endangered, 87 as endangered, 239 as vulnerable, 256 as near threatened and 62 as data deficient. A total of 124 tree species were on the list, including shihuahuaco, identified as being threatened by “commercial pressure.”

“To get to this point we held several meetings to discuss the data and we sent the information to the Ministry of Agriculture in June 2016,” Epiquién said. The list was pre-published three months later, with a governmental resolution for a 20-day public comment period.

Two years later, the list still hasn’t been published.

Mongabay Latam visited Serfor’s current director of sustainable forest management, Alonso Rizo-Patrón, to ask why the updates hadn’t been made official yet, but he opted to communicate by email.

“In 2016, we decided that more information was needed to support the published list, and, since then, Serfor has been committed to carrying out this task, so that classification is more accurate,” he wrote.

Rizo-Patrón explained the delay by saying that access to the necessary information was taking “longer than expected” and added they were still consulting the literature and expert opinions. “We are confident that in the latter half of this year we will be able to complete this process,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of 75 Peruvian scientists has urged the government, in a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture, to comply with the obligation to publish the updated list of threatened wild plant species. They also expressed their specific concern for the shihuahuaco and asked that the conservation of the species be guaranteed. The scientists’ request fell on deaf ears.

Now, three years since the threat assessment was first commissioned, Mongabay Latam has obtained a scientific report, compiled at the end of 2017 at Serfor’s request, that paints a very different scenario for the shihuahuaco.

A bleak prognosis

In October 2017, a group of scientists, among them botanists and biologists, were called on once again to carry out a classification of threatened species of wild flora.

The experts based this new study on Serfor’s annual directories of timber extraction, as well as two reports compiled by Osinfor, the forest resources supervisory agency. Those reports included the 2013 modeling of the shihuahuaco’s distribution to determine its presence in the Peruvian jungle and illegal extraction figures — both to get a better idea about the current situation and the future of the species.

The diagnosis produced more worrying results than those from 2015: according to the species classification index submitted to Serfor, the shihuahuaco is currently critically endangered, the most severe threat level on the IUCN Red List. The report obtained by Mongabay Latam also warns that at current rates of extraction, the tree could disappear from at least two regions of the country.

The same index states that between 2000 and 2015, nearly 3 million cubic meters (106 million cubic feet) of wood was extracted. That’s more than 300,000 shihuahuaco trees with a diameter of more than 55 centimeters (22 inches) each.

The trees are typically logged when they measure a minimum 51 centimeters (20 inches) in diameter, putting them in the range of 250 to 300 years old. The report estimates that over the 10-year period from 2006 to 2015, an average of 74 trees were extracted daily.

Extrapolating from these figures, the scientists were able to make a projection about the fate of the shihuahuaco trees. They estimated that by 2025, 88 percent of shihuahuaco trees in the Ucayali region will have disappeared; in Loreto and San Martín, the species will have been wiped out. In Madre de Dios, 57 percent or 100 percent of the trees will have been lost, depending on the density of trees per hectare. In the rest of the country, 85 percent of the trees will have been extracted.

This scenario is based on what little research currently exists about the species. Mongabay Latam contacted some of the scientists named in the report, but they declined to be interviewed.

Julia Urrunaga, director of the Peru program at the U.K.-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), says that even if there are only indications, based on scientific studies, that a species is threatened, the government has a duty to adopt safeguards.

“Insufficient studies do not prevent the state from taking action before it obtains the necessary data to guarantee the survival of the species,” she said.

That’s the same kind of precautionary principle enshrined in Peru’s General Environmental Law. The law states that in cases where there is a risk of serious or irreversible damage, “A lack of absolute certainty should not be used as a reason to delay the adoption of effective and efficient measures to prevent degradation.”

Ernesto Ráez Luna, an ecologist and biologist, said the threat level to the shihuahuaco had already been demonstrated twice by the scientific community.

“When there is a sign of danger, we cannot choose to continue degrading the species so that its survival depends on what is left in protected natural areas,” he said.

Ráez called for a round table to be held between Serfor, businesses and an expert panel to develop a corroboration methodology to assess the state of the shihuahuaco and guarantee its conservation. The objective, he said, is for the shihuahuaco not to go the same way as cedar or mahogany, trees that were heavily extracted in the past and are now very rare.

shihuahuaco tree is preserved as a symbol of biodiversity in the Madreacre forest concession, in the district of Iñapari, Madre de Dios region. Image by Vanessa Romo/Mongabay Latam.
A shihuahuaco tree is preserved as a symbol of biodiversity in the Madreacre forest concession, in the district of Iñapari, Madre de Dios region. Image by Vanessa Romo/Mongabay Latam.

‘Not vulnerable’

Peru’s Exporters Association (ADEX) opposes the inclusion of forest species in both Serfor’s list of threatened species and the CITES Red List, for which the shihuahuaco was nominated in 2016. Erick Fischer, vice president of the association’s committee for timber industries, said the shihuahuaco was an “abundant … long-lived species” in Peru. “No forest species is truly threatened by the industry,” he added.

Fischer instead pointed to “invasive agriculture and illegal logging” as the activities most damaging to forests. He cited a report compiled by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that said 50 percent of Peru’s timber trade is illegal and 85 percent of the production is destined for the local market.

Fischer said the small proportion of timber for export showed that the impact of the forestry industry was minimal, and that to consider the inclusion of the shihuahuaco in CITES would only make the export process more bureaucratic.

Ráez questioned this take on the state of the shihuahuaco.

“It has not been proven that the extraction of this tree is being carried out in a sustainable way, given that it is a species with a long lifespan,” he said. Trees felled at the typical age of 250 to 300 years will have produced new seeds, he said, but for those seedlings in turn to grow to the same size to be cut would take another three centuries — and not all seedlings survive that long.

A harpy eagle nesting in a shihuahuaco tree. Image courtesy of Antonio Fernandini.
A harpy eagle nesting in a shihuahuaco tree. Image courtesy of Antonio Fernandini.

“I’m not against protection measures if the species is genuinely overexploited — that would be a crime — but the shihuahuaco is not vulnerable,” Fischer said.

Another closed door

The CITES list is another path to safeguarding the shihuahuaco that has been blocked. At the end of April 2016, the national working group that evaluates proposals for the CITES list and is coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment, adopted the inclusion of the shihuahuaco. This would have obliged any individual or company seeking to export the species to first obtain a certificate of origin and an export permit.

The report to be presented to CITES indicated that the inclusion of the shihuahuaco on the international list would help ensure the legal origin of the product, monitor trade patterns, and protect the species’ national status.

But the shihuahuaco was ultimately left off the list presented by Peru to the CITES global meeting in 2016.

Asked what happened to the proposal, José Álvarez, who is now the environment ministry’s head of biodiversity, told Mongabay Latam that the CITES secretary had said Peru should first include the species on the domestic national list of threatened wildlife. In short, Peru’s failure to update its own threatened-species list meant it couldn’t nominate those same species for inclusion in the global list.

Connection to the trees

Tatiana Espinosa, a forest engineer, wakes up every morning to the endless roar of wood-processing machines in the Las Piedras basin, in Madre de Dios.

For eight years, Espinosa has led a conservation project here. She said that what differentiated the 916 hectares (2,260 hectares) of forest that she oversaw from other concessions processing timber was the river, Las Piedras.

“The situation is very difficult for me, because I have a connection with these thousand-year-old trees,” Espinosa said. She added she hoped, along with most forest engineers, biologists and botanists who have studied and lived alongside the shihuahuaco, that a solution could soon be found.

Banner image of a shihuahuaco tree by Gianella Espinosa/Arbio Perú.


Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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