Saving threatened plants & birds in the Andes of Ecuador

  Jocotoco Antpitta
Jocotoco Antpitta

NIGEL SIMPSON was one of the founders of the Fundación Jocotoco, set up to protect remarkable habitat in plant-rich Ecuador. The original aim was to save the rainforest home of a threatened bird, but soon they realized they had found a plant paradise as well. Here he outlines what has been achieved so far – in one of the richest and most threatened areas for plants on Earth.

In November 1997 the ornithologist Robert Ridgely, author of The Birds of Ecuador, was with four friends on a mule trail on the eastern slope of the Andes in the far south of Ecuador. They were recording bird song when Ridgely heard a sound that was completely unknown to him. It was the call of a remarkable bird, a large antpitta (right) that had never been described scientifically. Local people called it Jocotoco after its call – they could hear it calling from the undergrowth, but had never seen it as it was so furtive, living in dense thickets of mossy bamboo (Chusquea). Ornithologists later named it the Jocotoco Antpitta, with the scientific name of Grallaria ridgelyi.

Ridgely knew the bird must be critically endangered and that the forest could disappear within months. Six weeks later, he and I set out on an expedition to survey the site in detail. We decided to try and buy the land as a nature reserve. With our Ecuadorian colleagues we began the process of establishing Fundación Jocotoco to conserve the habitat of this and other threatened species. By September 1998, the Fundación had purchased the mountainside at Cerro Tapichalaca, which was home to most of the known population of this bird, and our first reserve was underway.

map of Ecuador

The aim of Fundación Jocotoco is to create a series of at least ten privately managed habitat reserves covering about 30,000 ha in the Andes and western Ecuador. We chose the locations to protect the many threatened bird species not found inside the network of national parks, along with all their associated fauna and flora. In its first six years, the Fundación has created six reserves covering about 8000 ha; astonishingly these are home to nearly 40 of the 90 Red Data Book bird species of mainland Ecuador. Habitat zones represented range from Andean páramo at 4000 m, to hot and very wet lowland Choco rainforest at 150 m. To raise its profile with the public and to increase its base for financial support, Jocotoco became a partner of World Land Trust, a conservation charity in the UK that has made its name by raising funds to buy land in the tropics for environmental conservation.

That first reserve at Cerro Tapichalaca is now the largest at about 3750 ha. It is close to the border with Peru, and at the extreme western edge of the Amazon basin. Today it still holds almost the entire known world population of the Jocotoco Antpitta – only about 15 pairs. Ecological studies at this and other reserves have started, not only to decide strategies to protect the threatened remnant populations of the special birds, but also to establish inventories of other taxa. This process is well underway for plants (including orchids), reptiles and amphibians. The data so far suggests that the reserve at Tapichalaca is proportionately even more important as a refuge for globally threatened frogs (with a spectacular new species of tree frog), and plants, than it is for threatened birds.

A proliferation of plants

Probably nowhere else on our planet is there such a proliferation of land species, and especially restricted range species (‘endemics’), than in the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru. This area has been called the Tropical Andes Hotspot. But with a relatively high human population density, and a long history of agricultural development, less than 20% of the original habitat survives. Deforestation continues throughout the region, and inevitably there is an exceptional concentration of globally threatened species. It is clearly a region of the very highest priority for conservation action, and the next ten years are going to be crucial for the survival of many of the species found there.

Ecuador is a small country – about the size of the UK – but has almost every conceivable type of climate and habitat. Not only can we see the amazing transition from windswept Andean páramo to lowland Amazon forest in less than 50 km, but the western Pacific lowlands change from very wet Choco rainforest in the north to arid Tumbesian semi-desert in the south. Based on numbers of known species per unit area, Ecuador is in a league all of its own – 1600 birds (about twice as many as in each of the continents of North America, Europe or Australia!), 430 known frogs and about 18,000 known plant species of which nearly 4000 are orchids. About 4000 plants are endemic, and over 80% of these are classified as globally threatened.

  Lorena Endara and Lou Jost
Lorena Endara, who is responsible for the Orchidaceae section of the Red Data Book of Plants of Ecuador, with botanist Lou Jost at Yanacocha.

The 2000 Red Data Book of Plants of Ecuador lists about 130 species found in what is now the Jocotoco Cerro Tapichalaca Reserve. Many of these were first recorded in the early 1980s, when the highway from Loja to Zumba was built, and the forest was still almost pristine. An additional 100 or so more widespread RDB species are also predicted to be there – in fact some have already been found. Sixty of the 130 are orchids, and half of these have not been recorded anywhere else. To put this in perspective, only Podocarpus National Park, which is immediately to the north of Tapichalaca and several times larger, has more RDB species recorded (211). The next highest count in a nationally protected area on the mainland is 102 plant species, at Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, which covers 403,000 ha.

Why is Tapichalaca such a special place for plants? Part of the reason could be the extreme wetness of the area. It has a higher than average rainfall for what is a very wet part of the world; over 5 m a year have been recorded at the visitors lodge. The terrain is very steep, with a weak friable quartzite ‘rock’, which in combination with the heavy rains leads to frequent landslides, and a vegetation cover that seems in almost continuous flux.

Most of the reserve is upper montane forest laden with moss and epiphytes, and typically has a canopy of c. 15–20 m. These windswept wet and misty ridges, some descending rapidly from 3300 to 1800 m, are ideal epiphytic orchid habitat, and at latitude 4†S are entirely frost-free. The site can be thought of as entirely forest edge!

Geographically, Tapichalaca is at two biological crossroads. The barrier formed by the Continental Divide of the Andes in this area is about as easy as it gets, which may facilitate the interchange of Pacific slope and Amazon basin species. (It has long been a crossing point for humans too, as the oldest human cultural remains in the Amazon have been found some 10 km south of the reserve). And in a north-south context, this region enjoys an overlap between the Central American/Colombian fauna and flora, with those typical of the southern neotropics in Peru and Bolivia. The large number of endemic plants is recognized in the designation of the ‘Huancabamba Region’ as a Centre of Plant Diversity (SA32) in IUCN and WWF’s Centres of Plant Diversity volumes. Tapichalaca, and another Fundación Jocotoco reserve at Utuana, further west on the Pacific slope of the same part of the Andes, are within the northern part of this region.

A montage of Lepanthes & Maxillaria orchids
Lepanthes exogena, known so far only from Tapichalaca. The genus has c.240 endemic species in Ecuador. A species of Maxillaria (Orchidaceae), close to M. striata, at 2000 m in Tapichalaca. The rare orchid Lepanthes erepsis, so far known only from the Tapichalaca Reserve and its surroundings.

Most of the large timber trees were removed from Tapichalaca long ago, including most of the Podocarpus of significant size, and about a quarter of the land acquired for the reserve had been partially cleared and used for cow-pasture. But almost all of this is now regenerating naturally and rapidly with a wide variety of shrubs. And some Podocarpus seedlings have also appeared. Additionally, the Fundación is replanting some areas with young trees. Recently, fire has been the greatest threat: huge fires from lower down on the dry west side of the divide have swept over the summits into the Amazon side during brief dry and sunny periods. One conflagration about 20 years ago reached the summits of the reserve, and the gaunt, blackened stumps are still visible today. Four years ago another fire crossed the divide and burnt some of Podocarpus Park, but stopped short of Tapichalaca. The reserve is now sufficiently large that the threat of fires starting within the boundaries has been essentially removed. From its boundary with Podocarpus Park the reserve now protects both sides of the highway for 14 km travelling south towards Valladolid.

Surveying the site

So far most of the survey and exploration has focussed on the temperate zone forest, where the Jocotoco Antpitta lives. Pablo Lozano, an Ecuadorian botanist from Loja Herbarium, has studied plant regeneration on the numerous landslides for his PhD thesis. Lou Jost, a scientist from the USA who now lives in Ecuador and has done outstanding work on the orchids of the highlands of Ecuador, is co-ordinating a detailed study of orchids at Tapichalaca, and also in the cloud forest at the Buenaventura reserve to the west. As a result of these studies, so far about 15 new plant species have been found and await description, mostly orchids. It is interesting to speculate on how many orchid species will eventually be found in Tapichalaca: at least 500 seems a reasonable estimate.

The highland páramo in the reserve has not been botanically surveyed in any detail yet, but in 2003 Niels Krabbe cut and marked a trail to assess the bird life. He found a peaceful paradise, with Puya plants grazed by Spectacled Bears, and a maze of Mountain Tapir trails. His assistant, Joanne Heathcote, caught a brief glimpse of a tapir with young when the mists parted, but perhaps the best find of all was a beautiful lake at 3400 m with elfin forest on its shore.

World Land Trust

The World Land Trust was formed in 1989, initially to help acquire 110,000 acres of forests in Belize. Since then it has gone on to form partnerships with NGOs and raise funds to buy critical habitats in many other parts of the world – including a coral island in the Philippines and a 16,000 acre ranch in the coast steppe of Patagonia. A key part of the Trust’s philosophy is always working through a local NGO, empowering them with financial and technical assistance, but not managing them.

The Trust would welcome donations to the Christopher Parsons Memorial Reserve at Tapichalaca. To make a donation or otherwise participate in their work, please see their website or get in touch with them at The World Land Trust, Blyth House, Bridge Street, Halesworth, Suffolk IP19 8AB, UK.

Six of the founding trustees of the Fundación Jocotoco
Six of the founding trustees of the Fundación at the inauguration of the Tapichalaca reserve. (From right) Francisco Sornoza, Lelis Navarete, Paul Greenfield, Robert Ridgely, Nigel Simpson and Xavier Muñoz. On the left are drivers Edwin and Luis.

Part of the reserve from the mountain summit on the divide and extending down the mountain ridge for about 5 km towards the town of Valladolid has been dedicated to the memory of the late Christopher Parsons. He was the Head of the BBC Natural History Unit, producer of that great television series Life on Earth and more recently a Trustee of the World Land Trust. His memorial appeal was launched by his friend and colleague, Sir David Attenborough, at a World Land Trust reception held at the Linnean Society of London in 2003. Sir David spoke eloquently about Chris’s contributions to environmental awareness worldwide. The money raised was used to purchase this land – where life on earth is truly at its most prolific. Following the success of the appeal, London’s Rainforest Café has been raising funds to buy more land in the same area.

The Fundación now employs 15 people from the local communities as salaried Park Guards at its reserves, four of them based at Tapichalaca. Three of the reserves so far have facilities for research workers and visitors. The lodge at Tapichalaca is the most elaborate, with excellent facilities for visitors. Income from a modest number of visitors means the reserve management is now self-sustaining. A similar level of sustainability has been achieved at the Yanacocha reserve, on Pichincha volcano. Being only a short drive from downtown Quito, this is a popular spot for day visits with pleasant high-altitude walks, and spectacular scenery, plants and hummingbirds. The income from visitors benefits local people, through the employment of park guards and improvements to local infrastructure such as roads, trail construction and water supplies.

Despite its ornithological origins, Fundación Jocotoco is delighted to find itself custodian of such botanical treasures, and will ensure they are conserved for the benefit of future generations.

Dr Nigel Simpson is a chemist who has worked in ophthalmic science. He is a Trustee of Fundación Jocotoco and the World Land Trust, and works on habitat conservation mainly in the Neotropics but also in the UK and elsewhere.

For more information on the Fundación Jocotoco, visit the relevant pages on the World Land Trust website.

Reprinted from Plant Talk No 37 (August 2004)

Photograph credits: Nigel Simpson (Tapichalaca, top; Lorena Endara & Lou Jost, centre right; Maxillaria orchid in central panel; founding trustees, bottom right); Lou Jost (two outer orchids in central panel); © VIREO–Doug Wechsler (Jocotoco Antpitta, top right).

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Fundación Jocotoco, Ecuador

Six privately managed habitat reserves protecting threatened species (from N to S)

Río Canandé (c. 1100 ha – target 10,000 ha). Hot, wet Choco tropical rainforest at 150–450 m altitude in the western foothills.

Yanacocha (c. 1000 ha – target 1500 ha). Polylepis high altitude forest at 3500–4000 m on Pichincha volcano, and home to the only known world population of the Black-breasted Puffleg Hummingbird.

Yunguilla (c. 80 ha – target 200 ha). Humid scrub at ca 2000 m in inter-Andean central valley, and home to the only known population in the world of the Pale-headed Brush-Finch.

Buenaventura (c. 1300 ha – target 5000 ha). Humid cloud forest on the Pacific slope of the Andes at 400–1100 m. Home to the richest endemic and threatened avifauna in SW Ecuador.

Utuana (c. 80 ha – target 200 ha). Humid transitional, mainly evergreen forest on the west slope of the Andes at 2000–2500 m.

Tapichalaca (c. 3750 ha – target 10,000 ha). Very wet, mainly temperate montane forest, with páramo above and sub-tropical forest below, 1700–3500 m, at the far west of the Amazon basin.

Other planned reserves (target c. 5000 ha).