Top CSF biologists lost...and found!
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Top CSF Biologists Lost...and Found!

Dear <<First Name>>,

Randy here, writing to give you an update on one of our research projects in Ecuador, one that gave us a little scare a couple weeks ago.

Three of our crack biologists have been working for several weeks on tapir distribution in some of Ecuador’s most inhospitable and remote forests on the coastal side of the Andes. Being the well-prepared, seasoned researchers that they are, we were deeply concerned when they didn’t show up two Mondays ago as had been planned. Our initial worries escalated as the week wore on, with no sign of the missing team. Finally, on Friday, we called out for help from the police and fire department rescue teams, and began to organize a search.  But, as the rescue teams arrived at the jump off point, the first of the missing group stumbled into the village, hungry, dehydrated, but with the wonderful news that the rest of the group was on its way.

Read on for the whole story…

Carlos Urgiles is a young biologist who has worked with us for several years on projects ranging from monitoring fauna at Zábalo to camera trap expeditions in Rio Cofanes and other territories. He is part of ICCA (Institute for Environmental Conservation and Training in English), CSF’s sister organization that by its charter is able to handle more direct research and scientific activities, and is able to work outside of Cofan territories. ICCA’s most recent research effort was to map and try to understand the dynamics of habitat usage of the endangered mountain tapir (Tapirus pinchaque).

The mountain tapir lives in highland páramo habitats in Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru, and fewer than 2,000 individuals are thought to survive in the wild. We have healthy populations in Cofan territories and their adjacent neighboring reserves, but to truly establish mechanisms that will allow this rare animal to survive, we need to know more about its range, food and especially its use of what is known as the “altitudinal gradient,” a fancy name for whether it needs resources from both the top and the bottom of the mountain to be able to survive. We spent over a year in field work—I helped with the set-up in a couple of areas, including our Ccuttopoe region of the Rio Cofanes Territory—and discovered this tapir prefers high temperate forests along the mountain’s edge and indeed, needs nature reserves that will preserve its ability to ascend and descend the mountainside to feed. The successful results include loads of pictures of not only the tapir but of dozens of other animals of these secluded regions. 

Mountain tapir seen by ICCA team in the field in Rio Cofanes Territory
Mountain tapir seen by ICCA team in the field in Rio Cofanes Territory

So it was only natural that we be asked to take on another study, this time not a question tapir movements and habits, but whether any tapirs exist! For a long time, the Central American Tapir (Tapirus baiirdi) has been listed as occupying the Choco-Manabí forests on the Pacific coast side of the Andes. When scientists here in Ecuador began investigating, however, it began to appear that either this tapir had never extended into Ecuador, or that it had been eradicated so effectively from the area that no recent registries appear. Ecofondo, a conservation entity that handles funds generated by the petroleum pipelines, asked us to use the techniques we’ve developed during the Mountain Tapir study to enter the Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas, the last large, intact patch of coastal forest in Ecuador, and penetrate to the very heart of the reserve, where hunting, domestic animal diseases and other impacts are almost non-existent, and find out if there really are any Central American Tapirs in Ecuador. 

Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi- Cayapas. Courtesy of

Reserva Ecológica Cotacachi-Cayapas. Courtesy of

I have to admit I was envious when Carlos began making plans with me. To see this last wild area of a habitat that has been almost completely destroyed—lumber companies, oil palm plantations, colonization, mining and other threats have done away with over 90% of what used to be forest in the 1970s—would be absolutely marvelous. Unfortunately, I’ve got lots of other stuff to do, and besides, I’m no spring chicken anymore (there, why was that so hard to admit?). So I helped plan, gave lots of advice and sent Carlos, his assistant Freddy, and another biologist off to set up 40 camera traps in some of the wildest and most inhospitable forest on Earth.

Where, oh where, have the biologists gone?

Fast-forward to Monday, the day they were supposed to return. I sent Carlos Menendez, our secretary and all-around do-a-bit-of-everything man, up to the remote community in our 4x4 pickup to wait for them. But at 4 p.m., Carlos called me to say there was no sign of the group. Reluctantly, I told him to come on back—a five-hour drive through muddy roads along treacherous mountainsides—and to leave word with a local driver to bring the group to a hotel if they showed up. 

Tuesday came—and went. We rationalized. It was raining heavily. The group could have run into problems with placing the cameras (each camera is separated by almost a kilometer, so it takes a lot of leg work in rough conditions to place a full grid). Maybe they had to wait for a river to go down to cross, or…

Wednesday came—and went. We began to get calls from the families of the three local farmers who had gone along as guides and helpers. Carlos’ and Freddy’s families began to worry. We still hoped nothing serious had occurred, but we, too, began to wonder what would come next.

Thursday came—and went. If the team had been in Cofan territories, things would have been fairly simple. We would have sent in a patrol of Cofan rangers—tracking experts and familiar with the area—with radios, and extra food and equipment to begin the search. But here we were in an area where we barely knew the local communities, and where the largely mestizo populations was minimally capable in deep forest conditions. We had no radio coverage nor background knowledge of the risks and traps.

We were forced to call in the authorities. 

Friday was spent organizing. We called local rescue teams from both the police and the fire department— the group most highly trained in rescue procedures in Ecuador. The fact that the biologist group comprised six people made it unlikely that all members of the team would be incapacitated, but there were at least a few possibilities that we had to take into consideration, including rampaging rivers washing away a camp, a major landslide or a terribly virulent infection.

By afternoon, the rescue party was on its way, complete with satellite phones, government radios, medicine and ropes. It was an impressive display of competence on the part of the local authorities, although we all had doubts of how effective they’d be once they got into the real rain forest.

But before the party could step into the forest, the first of the biologists stumbled back into civilization. 

“The others are about an hour behind me,” he gasped as he glugged down a bottle of Gatorade. “We took the wrong trail on our way back, and it took us an extra three days…” Quickly, some of the rescue team went to meet the stragglers, with plenty of food and liquid, and soon, everyone was in the village, telling their story. Nothing epic, just a trail that was supposed to be easier and safer that turned out to be three days longer—incessant rain, cold, all the food used up, but otherwise everything ok. 

What about the tapir?

The trulCentral American tapir—Tapirus bairdii. Courtesy Frans Lanting Studioy disappointing news is that there were no signs of Tapirus baiirdi. The camera traps were left in place just in case, but despite having run into plenty of wildlife, if this tapir was ever a part of these forests, it seems that it no longer lives here. While there is a possibility that this tapir never made it this far south, records from the 1800s suggest that it did live in what is now the Ecuadorian coast, and its local extinction just adds another chapter to mankind’s unwitting destruction of our natural heritage. The most likely culprit is hoof-and-mouth disease, or some other similar epidemic resulting from proximity to livestock. We are used to blaming over-hunting and habitat destruction for the decimation of wild populations. We often forget, however, that our impact can be felt in multitudes of even less obvious ways. 

We have been aware for about a year now that an outbreak of canine distemper in Zábalo coincides with a total absence of the once ubiquitous tayra—a large, weasel-like animal that raids papayas and bananas and used to be a common sight at the village. Along with it, the troops of coati-mundi—a mammal related to the raccoon—have disappeared, probably also affected by distemper, and suddenly, one of their favorite foods—the scorpion—is all over the place (I’ve gotten nailed twice in the last six months).

Even city lights can disrupt the natural world. Several bird species specializing in insects are now absent from otherwise healthy habitats near the oil fields and towns of Sucumbíos. Nesting areas are intact, the forest patches look good, but no birds—did the gas burn-offs and high-intensity lamps at the oil wells kill all their insect food? Very possibly, says the ornithologist community. Yes, definitely, say the entomologists. 

So, we are tremendously relieved that Carlos and his team made it out in one piece and with no major difficulties, even though they scared us pretty badly! The news they bring is, bluntly, not good, and only serves to emphasize the importance of what we—including all of you who support us—are doing as we protect, manage and conserve our Cofan territories in all their richness.

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