Hey everyone! So, as you may have noticed, I entered the forest in Ecuador and promptly lost internet! Just one of the many difficulties of trying to do fieldwork and blog about it at the same time. I know it’s been a long time, but in the spirit of “evolutionary biology in real time” I would like to share with you a couple of companion posts that I wrote on April 15th. I think it will be better to show what was going on in my head at that time a couple of weeks into my stay at the Tiputini Biodivesity Station rather than try to sum it all up in hindsight.
Without further ado:
April 15th, 2015. Ecuador.
Hi all, sorry it’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to write anything. I have to admit, I’m getting pretty worn down- this stuff is hard not only physically but emotionally as well. Things have been up and down, but I’ve been trying to keep everything in perspective, and writing these posts is definitely something that helps me do that.
I’ll get to all of that in a companion post coming soon- the first thing you definitely should know is that Ecuador is beautiful, and the place I find myself currently, the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, is an incredible and very special place.
Getting here was a little exciting, but turned out fine. This place is really out there- it’s in a remote patch of forest far in the east of Ecuador in the Orellana province, part of the watershed of the Amazon River. To get here I first took a plane from Quito to a town called Coca, and then a boat for a few hours to an oil company outpost. The clearing, the concrete and the fencing provide a sharp contrast to the surrounding forest, reminiscent of Jurassic Park. From there (after having our passports checked and going through a metal detector… creepy), we went overland in a truck/bus thing for a couple hours cutting off a big bend in the river, and then into another boat up the smaller Tiputini River for another few hours, arriving at the station around 6pm, having started out at my hostel at 5:30 that morning. All these logistical details (including what time I should be at the airport) were actually completely unknown to me up until the day before my putative departure, when I finally got ahold of the administrative person in charge of these things on her cell phone. I hate being a classically over-excited type-A gringo, but at less than 24 hours to go, I was starting to get a little nervous. As I said, everything turned out fine- I ended up being able to go to the airport and meet up with the station director and a group of students he happened to be leading to the station for a field trip, so I didn’t even have to worry about navigating all these various steps on my own.
The design of the station itself is really cool. It’s barely carved out of the forest such that the foliage closes in on all sides, and there is very little open space. It’s just a few structures and cabins connected by trails and wooden boardwalks, giving it the sort of magical feel of the Lost Boys’ tree-house home in the movie “Hook,” the one with Robin Williams as Peter Pan.
The forest here is absolutely unbelievable. Take the La Selva reserve and crank the dial up to 11. The reserve area here is officially known to be the most biodiverse patch of anything on the entire planet.
By the numbers, this small region, including the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (TBS) and the associated Yasuni Biosphere Reserve contains:
~600 tree species per hectare, or every 100 square meters. For reference, the entire US and Canada combined contains ~560 species of trees.
>2000 tree species in the region
>1500 species of herbaceous plants per hectare
~100,000 species of insects per hectare (also about the same as can be found in all of North America)
~1,000,000 species of insects in the region
~370 species of fish
~150 species of frogs
~120 species of reptiles
~600 species of birds (of which I have so far seen only a paltry number)
~200 species of mammal (half of which are bats)
80% of these species don’t have scientific names yet!
The numbers don’t lie, you can feel the intensity and exuberance of the life all around you. It’s a biologist’s paradise- I have already seen eight of then TEN possible species of primates that live here: White-bellied Spider Monkeys (Ateles belzebuth), Red Howlers (Alouatta seniculus), Common Squirrel Monkeys (Saimiri sciureus), Lowland Woolly Monkeys (Lagothrix poeppigii), Dusky Titi Monkeys (Callicebus discolor) – this common name to me sounds like some sort of pirate insult-, Equatorial Saki Monkeys (Pithecia aequatorialis), White-fronted Capuchins (Cebus albifrons), and Golden-mantled Tamarins (Saguinus tripartitus). If I see the last two, Owl Monkeys (Aotus vociferans) and Pygmy Marmosets (Cebuella pygmaea), I’ll let you know! Also, based on camera trap data, there are at least two-dozen jaguars roaming around, and tons of tapirs, anteaters, armadillos, and a zillion other things I have yet to encounter. Some other highlights for me so far include an anaconda (!), red deer, tayra, and grey-winged trumpeter.
On the flip side, it often feels like instead of 100,000 species of insect per hectare, it’s 100,000 species of insect per Sam. Remember bullet ants? Well forget about them (don’t worry, they’re still around), it’s time to meet Phoneutria spiders!!! Commonly known as Banana Spiders, Wandering Spiders, or, my personal favorite, Matacaballo (horse killer!!), these big-as-your-hand members of the genus Phoneutria are aggressive hunters and venomous on the level of a serious snake bite. While wimpy bullet ants just hurt a ton, they say a bite from a wandering spider could actually kill you if you fail to receive medical attention. And, as if this weren’t enough, apparently the venom is not only extremely painful but has the disagreeable side effect of causing an uncontrollable erection in the victim. (This may require some fact-checking.) However, like bullet ants, these guys are distressingly numerous. I’ve only seen two so far, and have avoided them without incident. Although I will say that the first one I saw because it suddenly pounced on a katydid sitting on a leaf not far from my face- I just about jumped right out of my skin! The video below is of a Banana Spider in the lab building. There was also one in the bathroom…
I don’t think it’s possible for tourists to really come here specifically, but if you are interested in coming to see all the amazingness for yourself, the park at Yasuni accepts visitors and nearby eco-tourism lodges at the Napo Wildlife Center or the Sacha Lodge are a fantastic way to experience the environs of the remote Napo region of Amazonia.
The incredible intact forest here and it’s wildlife have been preserved so well up to the present through no accident. We have the indigenous semi-nomadic Waorani people to thank for this, for this region around the Tiputini River has been their home for millennia, and remains so even now. The reason the forest here remained untouched for so long is due to their proud, highly territorial and sometimes violent disposition: traditionally, they will kill absolutely anyone who enters their land. They were very serious about this, and to some extent still are, and so the early European settlers of South America gave them a wide berth. There are still two small Waorani tribes that are as yet “uncontacted,” and to this day will kill any trespasser on sight. I write “uncontacted” in quotes, because it is more of a voluntary isolation: while they have never had direct dealings with outsiders, they have friends and relatives in other Waorani communities that have, so they are aware that an “outside” world exists. They’ve basically decided that based on what they’ve seen and heard they would prefer to be left alone and continue to live in their traditional ways.
The reason anyone ultimately decided to barge in here at all was oil prospecting in the ‘70’s. The national oil company managed to strike deals with the Waorani leaders, promising things like electricity and blue jeans. Largely they’ve made good on their offers, but it’s kind of a catch-22. No one realized the noise, pollution, and destruction that would come along with the rights to the extraction of oil. Equally bad or worse in the eyes of the Waorani, many of them are growing frustrated with their lack of opportunity for self-determination that comes with the oil company’s control of the region and their growing reliance on the oil company for their livelihoods as they lose their old ways and begin using fuel for boats, electricity for TV’s, and gain increasing access to such things like alcohol and cocaine.
There are some stories of Waorani villagers felling trees to block the few roadways and then demanding money or goods on pain of death from the people that come through. Sometimes it seems comical: apparently a previous station manager was told by some Waorani men to hand over five thousand dollars immediately, or they would kill him on the spot. He said he didn’t have five thousand dollars, but he did have a couple of tasty sandwiches. After considering for a moment, the men decided that was fair and let him pass. Kind of funny, but they really were serious about killing him- those were probably the most valuable sandwiches ever prepared, the most priceless mayonnaise ever spread! These things really do happen from time to time, and mostly the demands of the villagers are met. Unfortunately, these episodes seem to me representative of the precarious and ultimately unstable balance struck between the oil company, the government, and the Waorani. I worry that the more frustrated and disenfranchised the villagers become, the more little things they will do to lash out, and the more excuse the government will feel like they have to get rid of them for good. Already several Waorani men have been imprisoned for demonstrating, demanding that oil drilling cease, or for crimes such as stealing from oil company installations or sabotage. This kind of slow, insidious death of a people is heart-breaking, but as a US citizen, perhaps equally heartbreaking is the feeling that I’ve seen it all happen before.
The station prides itself on being a source of advocacy for the Waorani. Just as an example, they sponsor (through the Universidad San Fransisco de Quito, their parent institution) a full-ride scholarship for Waorani students so that they have the opportunity to deal with outsiders on an equal footing. In general, people involved with TBS try to interact positively with their neighbors. They donate filtered water and some food and fuel, and buy their food for the kitchen from the local communities. The station in fact employs several Waorani men as general staff and guides. Because of all this, I have had the opportunity to have some very friendly interactions with a few Waorani folks, and I now know how to say hi and introduce myself in “Wao,” their language. It wasn’t so long ago the only phrase in Wao anyone bothered to learn was “please don’t kill me.”
In spite of the advocacy work being done by TBS and affiliates, this place is at serious risk of seeing the loss of unique and ancient cultural and well as biological treasures. The station itself, built specifically to study and help defend biodiversity, is no exception. When the founding director chose the land for TBS in 1994, it was intentionally made to be outside of any ancestral homelands, established parks, or oil concessions. A few years ago, however, the oil company renewed its agreement with the government, and in the new deal a new concession called “oil block 14” was created that encompasses the station and the reserve area. If the oil company decided to, they could legally flatten the whole area first thing tomorrow, or sink a well right next to the lab. So far they haven’t, but already there are plans to open a new road just 5k from here.