The Ecuadorian Andes is one of the world's most exceptional biodiversity hotspots due to its extraordinarily high number of endemic plants and vertebrates. However, the maintenance of this diversity depends on the continued existence of representative areas of healthy natural ecosystems. Earthwatch's Climate Change, Canopies, and Wildlife project is striving to understand and conserve the species living within and between protected areas in western Ecuador.
The distribution of Ecuadorian forest ecosystems and their associated species has dramatically reduced over the last few decades due to both habitat loss and hunting, with future climate change likely to add increasing pressure. The primary forests of north-western Ecuador now tend to be restricted to protected forests in relatively inaccessible mountainous terrain and remaining species living there are effectively limited to these areas. Their survival depends on whether current protected areas can support and protect large enough populations, especially in the face of predicted climate change.
Areas considered the greatest hope for conservation of habitat and large vertebrates include the community-run Santa Lucia Cloud Forest Reserve and contiguous reserves that form a large forest block. Earthwatch scientists are engaged in ongoing work to establish a habitat corridor to link the protected mountain forest south of Santa Lucia to the Cotocachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve in the north, to provide larger species such as big cats with the extended territories needed for dispersal and long-term survival.
The project, which started two years ago, is focusing on the southern section of this envisaged corridor and aims to develop, test and employ novel research methods for surveying and monitoring endangered species of "charismatic" mammals, birds and their habitats. The main goal is to provide information regarding current species conservation status in line with the requirements of the Convention of Biological Diversity1 and to provide reserve managers with accurate scientific data to underpin habitat and species action plans.
Why protect "charismatic" species?
The status of ecosystems can be monitored by studying indicator species that provide some insight into how the pressures confronting a habitat are affecting its survival and other species within it. These indicator species are usually "charismatic" species such as large mammals whose habitat and ecological requirements make them good bio-indicators of forest status because of their heightened susceptibility to habitat destruction, fragmentation and hunting. They also act as "umbrella species" which, if protected, ensure the conservation of countless other species of flora and fauna.
The indicator species this project focuses on include birds, with more than 390 species recorded in the reserve, reptiles and amphibians, larger animals such as the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) which is Vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List, and five carnivorous felines that inhabit forests in the region including the puma (Puma concolor) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis).
Most of the larger mammals and many of the bird species that form the focus of this project are considered at risk of extinction by the IUCN Red list, so it is urgently necessary to gather information on their status to determine whether the current reserve network is capable of sustaining populations in the long term.
How can Ecuadorian biodiversity be conserved?
The Climate Change, Canopies, and Wildlife project is testing and comparing a number of standard and innovative research techniques that make use of technological advancements to assess the current status of a number of keystone groups of mammals, birds and their habitats in northwest Ecuador. For example, by developing innovative remote-sensing habitat assessment methods, the project aims to develop ‘aerial taxonomy keys' which would enable identification of tree species. Canopy captured by aerial satellite images provides information on tree diversity; camera traps are being used to create an inventory of mammal species; 46 dataloggers are currently installed to record temperature and humidity for climate change assessment purposes; and reptile and bird surveys are also being carried out throughout the season.
These methods will be rolled out within a number of reserves in the long-term, providing a standardized protocol for monitoring the efficacy of reserves in protecting habitat and species. This level of ecological information and landscape dynamics is currently lacking for tropical forests and is critical for reserve management and national biodiversity planning.
A significant amount of work is underway to help develop a truly sustainable economy in the region around and immediately north of Santa Lucia. Throughout the upcoming 2010 season, Earthwatch volunteers will provide information on carbon storage and biodiversity of cloud forest environments and assess and review methods used and metrics developed in 2008-2009 to integrate results within an ecosystem services framework.
Moreover, the Earthwatch project aims to establish centers of excellence in Ecuador for training for local people in field ecological techniques and extend the monitoring network to other reserves throughout Ecuador. These would guarantee the economic survival of the reserves and protect the species within them.
Find out how you can volunteer on Climate Change, Canopies, and Wildlife.
1 The Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) highlights the urgent need for countries to develop monitoring systems to assess the status of species under threat. Information generated by the project is critical in ensuring Ecuador maintains its obligations under the CBD.
Text by Aina Pascual Cuadras.