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Science in Yasuni Sheds Light on Impacts of Oil Development in Amazon In 1993, Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Boston University administrators asked me to suggest possible sites for a new biological field station somewhere in Ecuador's eastern rainforests.
Instantly, I was fantasizing about all the wondrous things that we could do and see at such facilities, if the location were chosen wisely. Immediately, a rush of all the unique scientific and educational opportunities inundated my brain. Wow! Just imagine what would come along with a never before explored site in a truly intact piece of western Amazonian wilderness. Being a bit of a worrier, a moment later, the initial fantasy was elbowed aside by preoccupations. That "IF" quickly grew exponentially into a list of many practical and logistical considerations. And when I say "considerations," I mean "complications"; when I say "many," I mean "big. in the beginning, if you truly expect to attract visitors of any kind, the place must provide great opportunities to view animals. And nobody cares about insects and spiders they want the big stuff. If you don't have something to offer in this realm, most people simply won't bother to come. If you don't have visitors, the money dries up and the whole thing falls apart. And if it's to be successful over any time at all, it has to be reasonably accessible. Yeah, I know, that part is more than a bit of fantasy. Nature lovers everywhere will tell you that these two characteristics are in their very essence, mutually exclusive. Wild fauna and accessibility? No way, can't be done. If people, any people, have access, they have impacts; the greater the access, the greater the impacts. But what's more exciting than a good challenge, right? All photos by Kelly Swing unless noted Aerial view of northern Yasun along the Tiputini River just west of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the lowlands of eastern Ecuador. How to find a balance? In my opinion, for this endeavor to be worthwhile, we simply had to be far from population centers, developmental and agricultural frontiers, hunting pandora charms 2013 activities and timber harvest. But we certainly didn't want to encroach upon any lands that rightfully belong to indigenous peoples. Above all, we wanted to be good neighbors to everyone in the region without actually having neighbors. To put it simply, we wanted to be able to study and teach about nature itself, not human impacts on nature. Some pragmatic scientists are quick to point out that this is the real fantasy; science should in fact be studying impacts to provide solutions to real problems as opposed to dwelling on a situation that barely exists any longer and has even less likelihood to exist in the future. Well, I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel yet. And besides, I think we should have a legitimate zero point with which to compare our impacts as well. Entrance point to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, run by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Another huge concern: oil deposits are scattered all over eastern Ecuador and since the 1970s, the country's economy has depended heavily upon the extraction of Amazon crude. Historical fact 1: If there's oil around, someone, sooner or later, will come for it. Historical fact 2: No matter where in the world, places that underwent oil extraction before widespread environmental awareness and the implementation of modern technologies have suffered indelible consequences. Hence, we also wanted to stay as far away from oil as possible. Oil operation in Amazonian Ecuador. OK, we had to sacrifice on the accessibility side a hair. I ended up choosing a site that's a challenge but you can get there from the capital city of Quito in 8 hours on the north bank of the Tiputini River, along the north central border of the Yasun National Park. A couple of years earlier, in 1991, a canoeing/camping trip along this same river made it stand out forever in my mind as a paradise for viewing fauna. On one of the first days, I'll never forget taking the dugout a short distance up a right bank tributary, the Tivacuno, where we were soon delighted by the appearance of a giant otter family. While completely enthralled by these chatterboxes 10 feet ahead of the canoe, from the back of the boat, our cook said, "Wouldn't you rather see something big?" pointing over her shoulder at a 500 pound tapir curiously swimming toward us! Amazon tapir swimming near our boat. Travelers who go to Africa on safari typically judge the quality of their visit on the "Big Five." Such a short list doesn't really exist for visitors to Amazonia; anyone who comes here has to recognize that getting a glimpse of the various classic symbols of the Neotropics requires everything from having a guide with magical powers to putting in some time previous to the trip working on your karma. Rainforest provides serious cover; savannah not so much. I tend to think that's precisely why it's so gratifying even when experiences are fleeting. Seeing any or several of these following species in the wild should be considered a stunning success: jaguar, tapir, giant otter, giant anteater, ocelot, capybara, spider monkey, woolly monkey, anaconda, harpy eagle, curassow, pink river dolphin, scarlet macaw, sloth, giant armadillo, roseate spoonbill, boa constrictor, fer de lance, vampire bat, white lipped peccary, toucans, bushmaster, and the Amazon's equivalents of the unicorn, the bush dog, short eared dog, black jaguar, and silky anteater. I'll go on into the realm of the aquatic with the black caiman, electric eel, and ocellated stingray, piranhas, peacock bass, tiger striped flathead catfish, the arapaima, and finally a real oddity showing up from inside the forest about nightfall, skimming the water's surface to gaff small fish, bulldog bats. Among the invertebrate world, trophy sightings include electric blue Morpho butterflies, bird eating tarantulas, giant earthworms, peanut headed bugs (or any of their bizarre wax bug relatives), giant leaf mantis, army ants, leaf cutter ants, bullet ants, camou katydids, bearded weevil, elephant beetle, rhinoceros beetle, Hercules beetle, giant stick insects, harlequin beetle, and the white witch (a huge moth). All these, beginning to end, are present in the Yasun, part of a contingent estimated at as much as one million total species (mostly insects) or about 1/10th of all life on the entire planet Earth! Face of the harlequin beetle, Acrocinus longimanus, one of the invertebrate prize sightings. Being situated very near the Equator and blessed with abundant rainfall (annually receiving right around 10 feet of precipitation) in ecologically stable western Amazonia, near the Andean foothills has provided the conditions that produced all this biodiversity. The question now is how this particular patch has managed to survive into this century. An area once equally as diverse, just to the north, cheap pandora bracelets for sale has been converted horizon to horizon into a cut over land of oil wells, dusty gravel roads, scattered bamboo huts, open pastures full of introduced elephant grass and practically devoid of its original copious dose of biota. The difference is that outsiders, in their lust for oil dollars, ran roughshod over that region while they were terrified to venture south of the Napo. Yasun is the traditional territory of the Waorani,"the fiercest tribe in all Amazonia," according to their own completely justified description, a nation of warriors that repelled all intruders with deadly barrages of serrated palm wood spears, until quite recently. Their own densities were always low so their impacts at the landscape level were minimal over thousands of years. Thanks to the Waorani for having kept most outsiders out for so long, and for giving us one last chance to document life at its pinnacle of diversity. Currently, a wave of acculturation is quickly converting these guardians into their own worst enemies in relation to the traditional resource base. Bush meat markets have turned their hunting skills into money makers and in some parts, they are watch charm for pandora bracelet now depleting the abundant game of their forefathers faster than it can be replenished through natural cycles. A traditional Waorani warrior, Oa Tega, demonstrating his skill with the blowgun, a sophisticated piece of ancient Amazonian technology, used primarily to hunt canopy specialists, ranging from birds to monkeys. Because there are so many kinds of life in this exuberant ecosystem, seeing any particular one tends to be a challenge. There's a phrase that sounds just plain stupid when you first hear it, but it's absolutely applicable. "It's rare to be common and common to be rare." A few things can indeed be seen all the time, but most are only seen now and again, and many are truly once in a lifetime sightings. From my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, I made my way to Amazonia for the first time in 1979; I've lived permanently in Ecuador since 1990 and chose the land for the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in 1994. After all that time, I still can't go for more than a few minutes at TBS without seeing something I've never seen before and knowing that in most cases, I'll never see again. At this point, I'll admit that new sightings are mostly small creatures, primarily among the insects and spiders, but I have yet to see in the wild several mammals from the list in that earlier paragraph, including the giant armadillo, bush dog, melanistic jaguar, and silky anteater. But they're out there, and knowing that is extremely exciting there's always a chance. How do I know? The giant digs of giant armadillos are seen every day. And naturally,while I wasn't around, an individual visited our camp every night for a week while I was tending to chores in other parts of the country and lots of good hearted students have since made special efforts to show me their pictures posing within feet of this behemoth, and with their cabins in the background. Both the bush dog and black panther have been captured by our camera traps. Now and again, one of our scientists happens upon these canines out in areas rarely tread by humans. A few months ago, while seeking photographs for a book we just published (Yasun, Tiputini and the Web of Life), Pete Oxford spent an hour and a half within 8 or 10 yards of a magnificent black jaguar right out on the riverbank, less than half a mile upstream from our camp. A couple of primatologists, Sara Alvarez and Laura Abondano, tell the tale of their study subjects knocking something loose from the canopy (as often happens when spider monkeys hurl their 20 pound bodies from tree to tree) and having fall literally at their feet, the diminutive silky anteater, a fluffy straw colored ball of fur complete with a baby on its back! In case you're also a worrier, mother and child were fine; soon after the tumble, they were back up in a tree, the mother feasting on termites. A giant armadillo captured by our ongoing camera trap project. Of course, we treasure those experiences and recognize that these stories say something important about the quality and condition of the Yasun in general, but we're not here just to rack up trophy sightings of charismatic megafauna and other rare beasties. With the founding of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station were established official pandora charms sale three pillars of our raison d'tre: scientific research, environmental education, and ecosystem conservation. We'd learn as much as possible, share the harvested information amply and try to have a lasting positive impact on the region's nature as well as its people. Our purpose, albeit admittedly presumptuous given the scope that would come to be clearer over time, would be to find out everything possible about the most complex ecosystem anywhere. Once again, nothing gets your juices flowing like someone telling you something can't be done. Because of where we are, documenting biodiversity/developing species inventory lists was always a priority. Explaining the extreme concentration of species is a corollary part of the story. Saving it forever is the ultimate goal. Why are these listings so important? Do we really need to know precisely how many of everything there are? Well, if you sincerely intend to attain that ultimate goal, it becomes quite necessary to have a list and a number so that your success or failure can be measured in a realistic way.
If we don't know where we're starting, then it's quite easy to say, "We're doing a great job; no one can point out one single species that's been lost." Basically, sports fans, we need to keep score. If we don't, well, we all know what it's like to play any game "just for fun," don't we.
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