Harmonizing the relationship between people, carnivores and the rainforest in Pando, Bolivia

In November 2012 the Rewilding Foundation went on mission to Bolivia to set up shop for a new project with new partners. With a team of members from Aveiro University (Dr. Nuno Negrões from Portugal), Conservation International Bolivia, Centro de Investigación y Preservación de la Amazonia (CIPA) and Universidad Amazonica the Pando (UAP), an area in the district of Pando – in northwestern Bolivia – was explored.

Paving the way for a new project!

The goal here is to effectuate a project aimed at safeguarding a rainforest ecological network, improving the relationship between people and mammalian carnivores like the Jaguar, and protection of tropical forests for biodiversity conservation and climate change counteraction.

The tropical rainforest in the Amazon is disappearing rapidly through deforestation and conversion to pasture for beef cattle and the cultivation of soy. In Pando, this process is lagging behind the alarming situation in for instance just across the border in Brasil, but is proceeding at an accelerating pace. This mainly due to the colonization and forestry policies of the Bolivian government, and largely poverty driven. Photo: E. van Maanen.

The mission was very successful and consisted of visiting two areas in western Pando, a research reserve of CIPA (Tahuamanu Biological Station) and Manuripi Reserve, near the border of Peru and along the Madre de Dios River. The tropical lowland rainforests of Pando are barely studied ecologically, with exception of the Rapid Inventories by the Chicago Field Museum.

Deforestation and exploitation of the rainforest

From the booming settlement of Cobija, the exploration of the rainforest is proceeding according to the ‘classic’ herringbone pattern. A long straight road was cut through the rainforest allowing settlement by poor farmers (legal settlers and squatters) from all over Bolivia and from Brazil. On the land plot scale a farmer and his family occupy a piece of rainforest and remove it by logging and burning, to subsequently cultivate it (mostly with maize) until the nutrient poor soil is exhausted. Then another piece of forest is exploited later in time, as is allowed according to the current forestry and agriculture legislation. However, ambitious landlords tackle the land on a much larger scale, transforming forest into large open grasslands subsequently stocked with large herds of cattle.

Trees are out, cattle comes in! Photo: E. van Maanen.

Tracts of preserved rainforest and former rubber extraction forests owned by landlords (called ‘Barracas’) are now largely used for the gathering of Brazil nuts, nowadays economically much more important than rubber exploitation. The giant Brazil nut trees need rainforest climate and certain animals (such as the Agouti) for their durable propagation. Many poor guest workers roam in the Barracas during the mast season early in the year to gather Brazil nuts. Loads of Brasil nuts are processed in Cobija for export.

During our initial exploration of Pando we consulted villagers in the Manuripi Reserve on the Peruvian border about their relationship with large predators like the jaguar, puma and ocelot. We were welcomed and openly received to discuss the issue. Photo: E. van Maanen.

Whilst collecting nuts the workers often shoot and catch a great many wild animals as bush meat, or perhaps partly sell alive on markets in the region or the international black market. Almost nothing is safe and much turns out to be edible, including for example the rare and majestic Harpy eagle. As a result of intense hunting many of the forest parts have become devoid of wildlife and virtually silent (this is called silent of empty forest syndrome), especially when compared to “pristine” tracts of rainforest, such as still exists in eastern Pando. Some species such as monkeys, tapir, peccari and large rodents as the agoutis and pacas play key roles in the rainforest, for instance as seed dispersers and pollinators.

The biological diversity of the forests in Bolivia is impressive. Just a minute sample is shown here and further below. The Madidi rainforest south of Pando, for example, has been nominated as an area with the highest biodiversity on earth. From left to right: Two-striped forest-pitviper (Bothriopsis bilineata), a species of Anolis lizard, a rare Ringed woodpecker (Celeus torquatus) and a kind of tarantula. Photo’s: E. van Maanen.

The Amazon rainforest has however been much influenced by Indian tribes in the past, as large parts were converted into forest gardens and a type of ‘park land’, centuries before the destructive Conquistadors appeared on the South American continent; the Pre-Columbian Era. In clear-cut areas in the region of Acre in Brazil for example, just north of Pando, this can be seen from the remains (geoglyphs) of impressive ancient settlements in the landscape. These transformed areas of forest actually gained biodiversity by a cyclic process of cultivation and abandonment. Hence the native people were apparently able to achieve and sustain a proper stewardship of the rainforest with biological enrichment as a result. This type of traditional land use may be useful as a model for the effectuation of ecologically sustainable use and management of the rainforest, as well as safeguarding a rainforest network in Bolivia for the conservation of biodiversity and for climate change counteraction.

Pando is rich in Primates, including (left) the regionally occuring Brown titi monkey (Callicebus brunneus blonging to the Cupreus clade; pers. comm. Marc van Roosmalen) and (right) the Saddle-back tamarin (Sanguinus fuscicollis weddelli). Photo’s: E. van Maanen.

Skull of a jaguar shot in the Manuripi Reserve as a preventive measure to “protect the children”. Photo: E. van Maanen.

Other animals with an important ecological role in the rainforest are predators such as the Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, the Bush dog and the Harpy eagle. Unfortunately, conflicts between mammalian carnivores, in particular the jaguar and people are on the increase. The big cats incidentally prey on calves and other small farm animals, as people and livestock encroach more and more into their habitat, and because natural prey due to overhunting by settlers and guest workers has declined. Jaguars, when encountered by riflemen, are shot without pardon, or hunted down with dogs by cattle rangers. People fear the big cats, while the jaguar very rarely attacks humans, and then in most cases in defense when cornered. Even within the Manuripi Reserve jaguars are persecuted. This is evident from the first conversations we had with villagers and the remains of jaguars that we examined.

A jaguar has recently slain a calf. We discuss the loss with the owner over the bony remains, who at that time misses another calf. Unlike pumas, jaguars don’t cover their prey.  Photo’s: E. van Maanen.

De jaguar as keystone species

The jaguar is an impressive and very powerful predator. In Bolivia, this big cat occurs in both the ‘normal’ spotted form (“El Tigre”) and as the melanistic or dark brown phase (‘Panthera’). The generally larger and apparently impressive black jaguar is regularly seen by local people in Pando, according to the people we interviewed.

Left to right: Brown agouti (Dasyprocta variegata), Silky short-tailed bat (Carollia brevicauda), Plumbeous kite (Ictinia plumbea), Pendula lobster claw (Heliconia rostrata) and an Idomeneus giant owl (Caligo idomeneus). Photo’s: E. van Maanen.

Starting with a pilot project

A pilot project is first of all set up to investigate the level of conflict between predators and local people, and to subsequently alleviate the conflict through consultation of village people and by way of involving them in a survey of mammalian carnivores and other biodiversity in the region. Workshops will be carried out by international experts in this field, and will involve a training of trainers approach. The Manuripi Reserve lends itself for a variety of practical and logistical reasons as a suitable demonstration and study area for a human-carnivore conflict resolution initiative. We envisage a citizen science and rainforest school project using tools like cameratraps and involving adults and children alike in learning more about the important role of the rainforest for our planet. Education, outreach and adaptive management are central components of the project. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff of CIPA – UAP in Cobija will be instrumental in achieving these objectives.

Ultimately we like to solve the silent forest syndrome problem and instill ways to ecologically use and manage the rainforest, perhaps using the age-old stewardship of the original human inhabitants of the Amazon. Building on the succes and a good evaluation of the pilot project, a more encompassing project will then target the achievement of ecological sustainability, through the improvement of people livelihoods and a commitment from local people and authorities to safeguard the rainforest and its biodiversity.

A search for large carnivores and other species deep in the tropical rainforest of Pando with the nature and survival skilled members of CIPA. Photo: E. van Maanen.

The pilot will also serve as an investigation for the safeguarding of an ecological network, incorporating other remaining forest areas in Bolivia (in the district of Beni and the forest of Madidi), in Peru (Manu) and in Brazil (remaining forest in southwestern Acre).

A visit to the Natural History Museum of CIPA in Cobija. Nuno Negroes having a friendly chat with our possible future project partners. Photo: E. van Maanen.

Despite the strong driving factors for the destruction and degradation of the rainforest such as poverty, the meat industry and the current Bolivian forestry policy aimed at claiming land, the team had a strong feeling that Pando and her amicable and ethnically diverse people lends itself to a gradual but viable process for change to ecologically sustainable use of the rainforest. However, we are acutely aware that this can not be achieved without improving the lives and welfare of the local people, possibly in collaboration with other organizations, which may include companies.

Working in the rainforest is not without dangers. Here our Landcruiser was ditched for a few hours after heavy rainfall that made the muddy road very slippery. We could have ended up in the river. The locals helped us out. Photo: E. van Maanen.

Experiences with the wildlife

During our hikes of several days through the rainforest in western Pando we found the presence of many species. Impressive was the clear presence of the Jaguar, Puma, Margay, Tapir, Sloth, several monkey species and sizeable anacondas. We also saw many species of bird, herpetofauna and entomofauna. For example we recorded more than sixty species of butterfly. A nice comparison, on the excrement of a cow we found more species of butterfly than the number of species that still occur or persist in the Netherlands!

The many faces of Pando! Beside biodiversity Pando also has a great cultural variety.

This project is an initiative of Dr. Nuno Negrões of Aveiro University and Erwin van Maanen of EcoNatura and the Rewilding Foundation.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is a key species in the Amazone rainforest. This powerful cat rarely attacks people, but is regarded with fear and loathing by many, and often hunted mercilessly. Photo: E. van Maanen.

Erwin van Maanen of the Rewilding Foundation under a gigantic Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra).