text and photography: Walter H. Wust / BAM
Not even an hour has passed since we left the cold and gray Lima and the 38°C of Pucallpa greets us as we descend the stairs of the plane. The humid air of the region comforts those of us who are used to visiting the Amazon, but stuns those who are visiting this tropical city for the first time. The air arrives laden with an intense smell of smoke that worries us. We know the reason: we are at the peak of the dry season and the jungle sky cannot hide the gray curtain produced by the thousands of hectares burned every year.
There is no time to lose. Corbidi’s multidisciplinary team, composed of half a dozen researchers, is preparing to enter the locality of Quinillal, one of the checkpoints maintained by Bosques Amazónicos BAM to ensure the conservation of this section of jungle located at the mouth of the Manantay River; perhaps the most valuable portion of forest in the proximity of Pucallpa.
Armed with binoculars, recorders, directional microphones, Sherman traps, mist nets and a paraphernalia of gear, the scientists enter the camp with high expectations. This time they will visit the area during the dry season, which in addition to greatly facilitating access, will allow them to enter areas that remained flooded during the rainy season, when the previous evaluation was carried out.
On board several all-terrain vehicles, the team covers in just one hour the stretch that previously took half a day of knee-deep water, in a grueling hike that required up to 4 hours under the intense tropical sun. Flocks of noisy parakeets swirling among the aguaje palms and the song of partridges welcome the team to the camp, set up to accommodate the visitors for a week of intense field work.
The afternoon after the arrival brought several surprises. The first could not have been more auspicious: the team of ornithologists spotted a puma high in a tree while searching for mixed flocks of birds, a rare finding that confirms the presence of the top predators in the area. The second was as serious as it was surprising: a fire set by nearby farmers was advancing dangerously, reaching the very edge of BAM’s protected property. The company’s workers, assisted by the scientists, spent hours fighting to keep the fire from spreading. They finally managed to prevent the flames from reaching the camp, but close by the spectacle was terrible and overwhelming.
The jungle goes up in smoke in Ucayali. The great diversity of species that this region holds is threatened by the growing expansion of agricultural areas, extensive cattle ranching and urban growth. A study by MINAM (2020) reports that between 2001 and 2018, the department of Ucayali has lost 384,474 ha of forest, with Coronel Portillo and Padre Abad being the provinces with the greatest extent of tree cover loss.
The Quinillal sector that protects Bosques Amazónicos in the department of Ucayali has an ecosystem of low terraces, with a relatively flat and floodable topography and a water level in the rainy season that exceeds 1.20 m above the ground. However, with the arrival of the dry months, even the flooded forests give way to the onslaught of fire.
Aniceto Daza, forestry technician in charge of establishing the permanent plot in Quinillal, comments:
“This forest area is located a few kilometers from the city of Pucallpa. For many years, there has been effective control of entry to this area, which has prevented the destruction of unique environments. Given urban expansion, many similar forest areas have been destroyed in the past. In that sense, Quinillal represents a valuable sample of nature practically intact and close at hand”.
The work of the botanists is vital and acts as the spearhead of the expedition, as it allows characterizing the composition of the forest and identifying the dominant habitats and species in each place.
Daza adds: “There is an abundance of species that are a source of food for the wildlife; there are those of the Inga genus (wild pacaes) whose fruits are a favorite food for primates and arboreal animals, as well as for a great diversity of birds. Likewise, the Zygia and Parkia trees, whose nectar is food for groups of specialized bats. The fire-resistant palms (Astrocaryum, Attalea, Euterpe) are also considered key species in the perspective of primate and bird feeding, along with species of the Sapotaceae and Moraceae families. Finally, species of the genus Sapium are known as parrot food, and this genus is present in significant numbers. Quinillal has all the characteristics to constitute an appropriate wildlife refuge“.
Carlos Reynel, director of the Herbarium of the Universidad Nacional Agraria – La Molina and in charge of the botanical team, is very excited about the potential of the project: “The establishment of the first permanent plot or arboretum in Quinillal is of special importance, as its monitoring over time will produce useful scientific information on taxonomy, floristics, plant-animal interactions and forest dynamics. This can lay the groundwork for establishing the site as a nucleus of international and multidisciplinary scientific research. For example, one species within the plot is possibly new to science (Lafoensia sp., family Lythraceae) and merits monitoring to obtain complete botanical specimens.
I meet Thomas Valqui and Jorge Novoa in a forest clearing about a kilometer from the camp. They have come here to check a set of mist nets that their assistant, Walter Vargas, has precisely placed using poles in the ground held in place with stakes. “The mist nets work like fishing nets at sea; because of the thinness of the threads and their black color, the birds don’t see them and are trapped when they fly across the site,” says Valqui.
As director of Corbidi and head of the scientific team, he is in charge of the ornithological evaluation in Quinillal. His extensive field experience ensures a thorough record of the birds in the area, which is complemented by recordings and captures in the nets that we’ve come to review.
“The evaluations carried out in Quinillal allowed us to record a total of 286 bird species distributed in 22 orders and 52 families. This represents almost 15% of the birds of Peru in just 12 kilometers traveled. Of these, 63% were present in both seasons. This indicates that at least 182 species inhabit these forests throughout the year”.
A small, brightly colored bird has fallen into the net. It is a banded-tailed skipper (Pipra fasciicauda), a species that – although frequent – is very difficult to observe. There are some 24 species of jumpers in the Peruvian rainforest. All have brightly colored plumage and perform elaborate courtship dances to attract females, as the famous “gallito de las rocas”or “cock-of-the-rock” does.
As he walks along scrutinizing the tree canopy, Valqui adds, “The bird composition is interesting because of the biogeographic position of the site. It is important to mention that Quinillal is located at the intersection of two large biogeographic regions, which increases the possibility of finding birds from both zones in the same place. In addition, we have also found species classified as threatened according to national legislation and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)”.
“This is an area that has not been studied much in Peru, so it is a zone of great interest for more detailed studies of some species. In that sense, it is a good place to establish long-term evaluations and, why not, a biological station.” He adds: “At the same time, the diversity found and some species in particular are of high value for exploring opportunities in the growing birdwatching tourism industry. Considering the proximity to Pucallpa, Quinillal may represent an excellent place to develop birdwatching programs, either as short or long visits, both for domestic and international tourism”.
Another group working at Quinillal concentrates on attracting insects with the help of colored traps and butterfly traps. This is Akira Wong Sato, a research associate in Corbidi’s plant ecology division. Sitting on a fallen log, he opens his backpack and pulls out a butter paper envelope neatly folded into a triangle. He carefully shows me the wings of a Morpho helenor butterfly with metallic shades. “It is a species subject to high capture pressure, as its wings are used for handicrafts. Here, however, it has turned out to be very abundant”.
During the assessment, Akira and his assistant, biologist Patricia Manrique, were able to identify a total of 276 insect species through various trapping methods. “Many of these insects fulfill irreplaceable functions for the ecosystem, such as pollination and pest control,” adds Wong, while observing the erratic flight of a bumblebee on the vegetation.
The night is the kingdom of herpetologists; that is, experts in the study of reptiles and amphibians. Luis Alberto García Ayachi is a research associate in Corbidi’s herpetology division. Every day, when the rest fall asleep in their tents, he goes out to walk the trails full of waders, flashlight in hand, in search of frogs, geckos and snakes of all kinds… a job he is passionate about and that for others would sound like the worst of tortures.
I take advantage of his presence to photograph some of the creatures he has caught in his nocturnal wanderings. I am fascinated by a small caiman, barely 40 cm long and with shiny armor, known as a gully lizard or dirin dirin (Paleosuchus trigonatus). It lives in small watercourses in the interior of the Amazon forest. “It is usually quite aggressive despite its size. Its body, with strong armor and sharp teeth, is a perfect adaptation for hunting fish,” he says, speaking of a lifelong friend.
“The diversity found in the Quinillal sector reaches a total of 57 species, distributed among 26 amphibians and 31 reptiles, which represent about a third of the total number of species known for the Ucayali department; a very interesting number given the proximity to the city of Pucallpa.”
“Among the new records there are two species with threat categories that should be prioritized for conservation: the caiman Paleosuchus trigonatus under the Near Threatened (NT) category (MINAGRI 2014) and the turtle Chelonoides denticulatus under the Vulnerable (VU) category (IUCN 2021)”.
We walk next to the areas that were burned a few hours ago, right on the boundary between the forests that BAM protects and the neighboring agricultural areas. Garcia Ayachi stops and shows me the scorched skin of a small lizard that failed to escape the fire. “Amphibian and reptile populations are threatened due to uncontrolled burning and deforestation in the vicinity of Quinillal. Protecting this area is vital for the conservation and continuity of the local fauna,” he says. And he is quite right.
The night is also “the office” of the mastozoologists or mammal specialists, led by Javier Barrio Guede, associate researcher at Corbidi. Equipped with various types of traps and vanilla-scented lures, they identify the areas where wildlife passes through and recognize tracks and traces. They also work with mist nets, which capture bats (one of the most numerous groups in tropical forests).
“Based on the observed trend of records, we estimate the presence of at least 55 species of mammals in Quinillal. Of note is the finding of 5 species of monkeys, 9 species of bats and observations of endangered species such as the flag ant-eater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and the rare yaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi).”
Guede points to a large footprint in the fresh mud. “We have found traces of large mammal species that usually disappear quickly from areas near Amazonian cities. One of them is the tapir or sachavaca (Tapirus terrestris), a species considered threatened and under the category of Vulnerable, both in the Peruvian Red List of Species and in the IUCN Red List of Species.”
“In addition to small primate species, such as the friar monkey or huasita (Saimiri bolivianus), the red stump (Plecturocebus discolor) and the common pichico (Leonthocebus weddelli), medium-sized primate species such as the howler monkey or cotomono (Alouatta seniculus) and the black machin (Sapajus apella) were also recorded, the latter suffer intense hunting pressure and their meat is illegally trafficked. Primates are also wanted for the illegal pet trade”.
The day is coming to an end. The mosquitoes remind us that it is time to return to camp to rest and prepare the samples for the lab. We walk back, while Javier gives us a final comment: “This area has very good potential to be considered a conservation area. This will be vital in protecting the fauna species that use these forests as a refuge”.
At BAM we are aligned precisely with this objective. Currently, the forests protected by the company are in the process of being categorized as the Campo Verde Private Conservation Area. The legal protection of almost 20,000 hectares will support the conservation efforts that Bosques Amazónicos has been developing for more than a decade. A promising future for this piece of green forest on the border of Pucallpa.
Text and photographs: Walter H. Wust / BAM