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CONSERVATION IN PERU: TARICAYA RESEARCH CENTRE: MONTHLY UPDATE –JULY/AUGUST 2014
What a busy summer we have had this year. Once again the lodge was packed to capacity for several weeks and with over 40 volunteers on site we were able to get huge amounts of work done. We have made some great advances in all of our on-going projects and even had time to start a pioneering research project with caiman (the South American alligators). As usual, my dilemma is knowing where to start as there is so much to report on!
Those of you who have been following our conservation efforts over the years know that July and August see us undertaking the collection phase of our turtle project. We work with a freshwater species of turtle known as the “Taricaya” (Podocnemis unifilis) which is threatened by the poaching of its eggs, hunting for food and accidental deaths in fishing nets. The dry season is a tough time for all the people that rely on the rainforest and its resources to survive. River levels are too low for the transportation of timber; animals are spread out across the forest in search of food and the Brazil nut production ceases until the next rains come. The eggs of the turtle are a good nutritional foodstuff for the locals and if it were just those living in the jungle using this natural resource then the threat would be manageable. However, the eggs are considered a delicacy in Peru and they are illegally sold in markets all over the country at a good price. This encourages their extraction from the river banks and fishermen, native communities and farmers fiercely search out the nests during this time.
We have been doing our bit for the conservation of this animal for many years and once again the government has given us the necessary permits to exclusively patrol and monitor a large river island, Playa Alta, about 20 minutes downriver from Taricaya. Having previously readied the artificial beaches it was time to head out every night and camp on the beaches waiting for the female turtles to haul themselves up the beach and lay their eggs. With the help of our Eseéja guide and experienced staff we stated to await the first nests of the season. This soon became frustrating as Mother Nature intervened and cold weather spells, “friajes”, and unseasonal rains made laying conditions unsuitable and many females headed back into the river without laying their eggs. Still our patience and perseverance was rewarded and to this date we have collected over 30 turtle nests but I suspect the delay in the season due to the climate will mean that some individuals will continue laying into September and I have extended the project for at least another week or until the rains and cold start again signalling the end of the laying.
Biometric data has been collected from each nest including sand temperature, GPS location, depth of nest, number of eggs, weight of eggs and size. All this information is essential as turtle eggs can be influenced by environmental factors, especially temperature, and we want to ensure that our artificial beaches reflect the natural conditions selected by the mothers as closely as possible. Now we must wait for the eggs to hatch when we will mark all the babies and release them back in the Madre de Dios river from which their mothers hail.
The large numbers at the lodge meant that we could work on several projects simultaneously and this month we have been working hard on our bird and bat studies. Our registers for the reserve in both cases are quite spectacular and with so many species recorded it is always going to be difficult to find new species for the area. With this in mind we have altered the bias of our bat studies and have been patrolling the reserve looking for the roosting/nesting sites of our bat species. To help us out, we welcomed back our bat expert Hugo Zamora and over the course of two weeks he wandered all over the reserve with keen groups of volunteers looking for the tell-tale signs of sleeping bats.
Bats are incredibly resourceful animals and can nest in tree hollows, old termite nests and some even fashion their own nests from large Heliconia leaves. These “tent-making” bats are truly remarkable and they build new nests every day to sleep and hide from predators. Hugo and his team identified and GPS marked over 30 active nesting sites and such high numbers in a relatively small area further testifies to the remarkable diversity found at Taricaya.
Whilst Hugo was out patrolling and hanging his nets at night Mauricio Ugarte joined us again as we hung up our mists nets to continue our bird banding and research project. Rachel Kilby and I follow a strict rotation with our mist netting and we have ringed over a thousand birds at Taricaya but it is always nice to welcome Mauricio back as he is a true specialist and can identify huge numbers of birds by and song alone. However, our joint efforts over the last 10 years has led to the compilation of a bird list in excess of 450 species and I believed that even he would struggle to find new species with so many already recorded. It was a challenge duly accepted and in just a fortnight with us I am proud to say that our new list totals a staggering 457 species! This is almost one species per hectare and closes on a world record diversity for number of bird species found in an area of 500 hectares or less.
New sightings included a White-shouldered antshrike (Thamnophilus aethiops), Green honeycreeper (Cholorophanes spiza) and Òrange-headed tanager (Thlypopsis sordida). We have photos of over 65% of the species and the project is the culmination of over 13 years of fieldwork in often unforgiving conditions. Fantastic!
Our resident veterinarian, Carmen, has been studying the caiman of the area for her thesis degree and over recent months we have helped her catch and sample close to 50 individuals. The study species are the black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) and Spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodylus). We have hauled large caiman into the canoe and she has withdrawn blood to be sampled to sex the individuals and to check for disease and levels of mercury in the blood. Mercury is an unfortunate pollutant resulting from gold mining and it is an on-going concern for all conservationists as levels continue to rise in the rivers. The fish that live in the waters will have lower concentrations but as we climb the food chain the concentrations can become more dangerous and the concern is that top fish predators such as caiman and otters are being slowly poisoned.
The samples are in Lima but we decided to perform a pioneering bit of research utilising our honed skills for capturing large crocs! There has never been a case of fixing a tracking device on a caiman in Peru and so we decided to capture a large female and surgically attach the sensor from one of our radio collars. Very little is known about the life history of these beautiful animals. Are they territorial? When do they start nesting? How much do they incubate their eggs? and so much more…..After a long night hunting for the right individual- a female over 15kg and therefore guaranteed to breed- we finally caught the one we needed, a magnificent female spectacled caiman. Her data was collected and the transmitter surgically implanted in the thick fat layers on the side of her neck. A great success!
Since that night we have been out on the river at the crack of dawn with GPS and volunteers have had a truly unique experience as we follow the life of our new friend! I believe that the data we will collect will be pioneering and another example of the extraordinary work we undertake at Taricaya. We continue to push boundaries and never give up as we continue to fight to learn more the most diverse ecosystem on the planet…the Amazon rainforest. The more we learn the better equipped we are to pioneer and manage its conservation!
I look forward to bringing you more news next time as we finish the jaguar enclosure, care for our turtle nests and start this year’s liberation of the magnificent Peruvian spider monkey (Ateles chamek). Our fourth release group in undergoing their final health checks and in September/October they will be released and our task of monitoring them begin in earnest as we venture deep into the adjoining National Park tracking them and recording data on their behaviour and acclimatisation.
1st September, 2014