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CONSERVATION IN PERU: TARICAYA RESEARCH CENTRE: MONTHLY UPDATE – JULY/AUGUST 2016
As many countries enter the long summer vacations at Taricaya we prepared for our busy season with many helping hands arriving in the form of our 2 week special volunteers. With over 50 volunteers arriving in the last few weeks there has been lots happening. We have started the patrol phase of the turtle project, welcomed bird, insect and fish experts to continue our biodiversity research, rebuilt our turtle enclosure and finally united two of our spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus). This, in addition to our on-going projects and maintenance, has had the camp buzzing and the jungle filled with volunteers enjoying its wonders for the first time…
El Niño is having a huge effect on the weather in our region of Peru and this has meant one of the driest “dry” seasons in memory. Not a drop of rain for over two months has meant that the river levels are close to an all-time low. The sheer size of the rivers means that they will never dry out but nonetheless the lack of water is a concern not just for river levels but the plants and animals of the forest. That said the turtles (Podocnemis unifilis) are unaffected by such problems in this their nesting season and the lack of rain means that sand temperatures remain high and close to the 33oC that we believe to be their optimum laying conditions based on our previous data.
One of the most frequently asked questions by our volunteers is how do we know if the turtle project is making a real difference? It is a valid point and after 10 years of operating we are really starting to see some results. Our first success was a few years ago when we started to see our marked turtles in the river surveys we undertake during this time of year. With all the females heading to the rivers to lay their eggs we have been monitoring numbers in the area around our protected island. They are increasing every year- a good sign! The second study we performed was a DNA analysis on the baby hatchlings from our artificial beaches. There had been unproven papers disclaiming the validity of artificial beaches as the sand temperatures do not reflect natural conditions leading to the birth of more males due to cooler conditions. We have sent samples from 2013 and 2014 to Lima and found that in a sample size of 20 babies 40% were indeed females. We are in the process of adding to this data from 2015 and this year to publish and disprove that theory.
However this year we were finally able to get the conclusive evidence we have been waiting for. Two separate females with the distinctive Taricaya code photographed laying eggs on the turtle beach we protect. Amazing! We seldom see the turtles actually laying as we try not to disturb them and wait until very early morning to remove the nests that we locate the night before. However, by chance, we came across two separate females from Taricaya nesting. These turtles must be at least 5 or 6 years old which means that our project has been successful long before we started accumulating more specific data. How many other nests have been laid by our own turtles? We will never know but this fantastic sighting confirms we are making a difference and have been for over a decade!!
Spectacled Bear Project
Most of you will be familiar with our ongoing project, partnering with Animal Defenders International, in the rescue of three magnificent bears amongst other animals. These bears have been slowly adjusting to a new life with open spaces, natural stimuli, improved diet and perhaps most importantly, company! Whilst spectacled bears are not overly social animals in the wild their territories overlap and they will often come into contact with other individuals especially in the breeding season. This month we wanted to introduce our younger female, Sabina, to her future suitor, Lucho. They have been in visual contact for over 3 months in adjoining enclosures but the doors had never been opened before. We were prepared with sleeping darts just in case but our extensive behavioural study suggested that they would not be needed. Better to err on the side of caution though just in case!
As it turned out, what was a huge occasion for everybody on the project was a bit of an anticlimax. They seemed to be equally unconcerned with each other’s presence and carried on wandering around as if the other did not exist. This is actually a good result as the worst case scenario would have been open aggression. Since their union six weeks ago there has been the odd stand-off but no blows exchanged and I have often headed out to their enclosures first thing in the cooler mornings and seen them sitting together calling and feeding on fresh shoots. A magnificent sight and one that holds hope of a bright future and a possible mating next year in the breeding season.
It seems that I am always updating you on our biodiversity research and as our longest standing project this is not surprising. However, this month is perhaps our most exciting ever in the field of ornithology. As of July 2016 we are able to boast a bird list of 478 species. This means that we have identified a species of bird for every hectare in the reserve (476 ha). With millions of study hours on platforms, trails, playbacks and mist nets we have finally reached this magical number. The continent’s highest canopy walkway and the first official bird banding station in Peru are all major achievements that have helped us reach this fantastic number.
The beautiful amethyst woodstar hummingbird (Callifphlox amethystine) was the last addition and number 478 as we saw it twice at our farm plot. We can now claim to protect close to 5% of all known bird species on the planet. The unique nature of the habitats within our reserve and its ongoing protection whilst other areas succumb to deforestation means that Taricaya is a welcome refuge for resident species and those migrants looking for a safe haven on their way north or south.
Ichthyology is the study of fish and at Taricaya we have natural resources in the creek, river and seasonal swamps ideal for starting some new research. The Amazon basin holds nearly 65% of the planet’s fresh water and there are more species of fish, over 2000, than in the entire Atlantic Ocean. The volume of the Amazon River is more than 11 times that of the Mississippi and daily its delta pushes enough fresh water into the Atlantic to serve the needs of New York for nine years! In short, there is plenty to investigate and we welcomed some new friends from the Natural History Museum in Arequipa keen on documenting and publishing information on the fish of Taricaya.
Whenever we embark on something new it is exciting and staff and volunteers headed up the creek with nets and rods to start sampling shallow rapids and deep pools. Everybody was keen to see what was caught! Personally I was amazed by the fish we found, the subtle colour variations and size differences were surprising as the murky nature of the water leads one to think that what is found there must be fairly dull and boring. Quite the opposite and as our first week of sampling came to a close we had caught piranhas, small catfish of the genus Corydoras, armoured catfish (“carachamas”) and many more yet to be identified. I look forward to their laboratory research back in Arequipa as they try to identify everything caught and another visit later in the year.
In conclusion it has been a highly successful couple of months. With so many helping hands we have been able to accomplish vast amounts and as we continue to monitor the beaches I look forward to bringing you our annual total of nests and eggs for the turtle project next month. We shall be rebuilding our parrot enclosure and building a spectacular new suspension bridge across the creek in anticipation of the upcoming wet season. Until then….
1st September 2016