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Ellie Saltmarsh in Peru

Report by Ellie Saltmarsh
Recipient of the YET Everest Award

I recently joined a scientific research expedition with the organisation Operation Wallacea. They collect scientific data inside the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, an area of flooded rainforest in Loreto, Peru. The purpose of these data, as well as being used to produce dissertations and articles, is to provide a basis for a sustainable management plan for the area. The data are given to a local people, the Cocama, who use it to set quotas for their hunting, as well as highlighting the targets for conservation.

In recent years, a potential threat has been identified in the form of climate change period. The flooded forest experiences seasonal variation in water levels; during the wet season, terrestrial animals are confined to small levees, while aquatic animals thrive. Recent periods of intensive high flooding have severely impacted populations of terrestrial mammals such as the tapir and peccary, many of which are important sources of bush meat. The long-term datasets produced by OpWall and the other researchers there can be used to track these changes, aiding in conservation of those species threatened, and perhaps allowing predictions of future trends.

We were based on an old ship from the time of the rubber boom, the Rio Amazonas. Each day included 2 to 3 surveys, usually in the morning and the afternoon, with some in the early morning or at night according to the species’ active times. The main animals of interest included fish, dolphins, wading birds, caiman, macaws, understory birds, frogs, and primates. Most of these are species with resource value, or indicator species, which can give information on the state and quality of the habitat. Methods included mostly aquatic-based point counts or transects, or terrestrial transects, and could be used to estimate abundance or density in an area. For several larger species, such as jaguar and harpy eagles, we indicated nearly presence or absence. I particularly enjoyed mist netting, wading birds, and the terrestrial transect.

Mist netting involved spreading light nets in the understory and regularly checking for trapped birds. They would be measured and ringed; the proportions of recaptures (already ringed birds) could be used to give an estimate of population sizes. During the wading birds survey, we made a transect by boat slowly along a riverbank, noting any species of wading bird (kingfisher, heron etc.), giving a report on abundance. Terrestrial transects searched for primates and game birds. This involves working a transect in the forest, noting any of the target species, their group size, and their behaviour. Using an analysis of their distance from the transect, this could be used to produce a density estimate. While seeing the animals was amazing, I also appreciated the chance to see some of the amazing features of the forest (though the mosquitoes were a nuisance, to say the least).

I think my favourite thing about the expedition, and the whole operation, is how it was run in collaboration with the locals.  Members of the Cocama tribe acted as our guides, and when we visited one of their villages, they explained how the data had recently been used to guide hunting away from over exploited areas and species. Historically, the area had suffered huge conflict when managed by protectionists, who insisted on evicting the indigenous tribes. It is now used as an example of the success of co-management schemes in Peru.

Overall, the expedition was an incredible chance to experience a world wholly different to our own, while being able to help conserve it. As a child, it had always been my dream to be able to help to save the rainforest, and this gave me an idea of the methods and management that could be used to achieve those dreams. The experience will be very useful in later life in allowing me to decide how to proceed with my career.

 

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