Conservation photography of the Giant River Otter in the upper Amazon basin

by Bruce Farnsworth


The critically endangered Giant River Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) is restricted to the drainages of the Orinoco and Amazon river basins in South America and among the largest of the aquatic mammals to inhabit these neotropical rainforests.  The giant otter measures approximately 2 meters from snout to the tip of its tail. They have been observed eating caiman and anacondas in Peru, but prefer fish, eating them bones and all.  With keen vision, underwater sensing whiskers and powerful webbed feet, these are formidable semi-aquatic predators.  They are stealthy animals that appear suddenly and often vanish just as quickly.  They are sometimes seen eating their fish or resting on uprooted trees cast against the riverbank.  Individual otters can be recognized by the patterns on their throats.

I joined a Ecuadorian friend and fellow zoologist  in Yasuní National Park who had been studying the local family of giant otters for over a year, but still had not been able to identify each member of the family.  During my second week in the park, I heard the “barking” sound of a single otter near the entrance to a lagoon.  Hoping it might enter the lagoon with the entire family, I took a position near a fallen tree which extended out from the shore.   I anticipated correctly.   The otter photographed above “spyhopped” just long enough to check me out.

The research team was jubilant tot learn that I had successfully photographed the group during their brief topside appearance.  From those images, I  created the series of drawings shown here which allowed the team to confirm the size of the otter family and identify each member.   The ability to identify individual animals is key to tracking movement, surveying habitat use and recording behavioral observations of endangered wildlife.  These are important baseline data from which to assess potential impacts and make conservation recommendations.

Which drawing depicts the spyhopping otter in the photograph?

Culturally-responsive photography in the Añangu community

by Bruce Farnsworth

Jorge Rivadeneyra, elder of the Añangu lowland Quichua community and chief guide for their Napo Wildlife Center ecotourism operation, shows Cristian a bird. The three of us were gathered on the broad sandy beach which is a population playground for the children of the community by the mouth of the Añanguyacu at the Napo river. The Añangu Communal Reserve is located in Yasuní National Park/UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Napo province, Amazonian Ecuador. Model release.

A message from RawRainforest Photography & Educational Tours Director Bruce Farnsworth…

My motivations in founding Raw Rainforest were many.  I want to promote the educational work of respectful photographers and their images, really explore the rainforest in a ways that really reflect it’s diversity and, most of all, give back to those who have hosted my work in the past and advance their community projects and conservation efforts with direct economic support.

For this website, I photographed members of the Añangu lowland Quichua community at their invitation as part of their efforts to promote their community-based tourism venture, the “Napo Wildlife Center”. This work came after five years of continuous residence in the upper Napo river basin that included my masters fieldwork in Environmental Education.  When community members saw some of the photographs on the backscreen of my camera, their comments included “estas fotos muestran el argullo de la gente” (these photos display the pride of the people) and “se nota el modo de vivir autóctono” (you notice the authentic way of life), which was gratifying.

To use the images of Añangu children, I obtained written permission from parents in conversations that were facilitated by an elder of the community. Jorge Rivadeneira introduced me to Bolivar Cerda, another Añangu elder and father of Cristian, the boy pictured here with Jorge and on our home page. The young lady in the canoe on our home page is Cristian’s sister, Katerine Cerda. Jorge explained to me that the Añangu Quichua are concerned for the future, and committed to manage their own resources. He believes the children should be a part of the tourism operation and a part of these photographs.

While working, I am sometimes asked to join in the events around me. So I set my camera down for awhile. When I’m working, I move among the activities I photograph and record “found” moments. Tour participants can be at ease, knowing that their images are not staged or contrived. These are friends, photographed in their own forest, doing what they normally do. No one is paid to pose or asked to “act more native” during our programs at Añangu. This is not Nanuck of the North.

Before Raw Rainforest participants arrive at Añangu, an orientation is provided on what might constitute “culturally-responsive” photography.  I want my guests to know that the Añangu people will recognize your kindness and sincerity, and that language will not be a barrier to a wonderful experience!! We discuss what might constitute environmentally and socially-conscious photography. Your Añangu community guide will let us know which areas are private during out tour, and it’s important to respect that. Some community members might like to look into your viewfinder or the LCD screen of your camera, or even take a turn with the camera. That’s an opportunity for interaction, and we hope you will oblige. Many community members are familiar with the cameras, binoculars and spotting scopes, since community guides and children are involved in their tourism and assist research projects in Yasuní National Park/UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of which their land is part.

I encourage all outdoor photographers to be diligent in their work and obtain written permission when photographing people closely. It elevates our craft, and hopefully will become more the norm.  These are the questions photographers – and all viewers/consumers of  outdoor and cultural photography – should be asking themselves when looking at images such as these.  Did the photographer have permission to make that image? What purpose will it serve? If a photographer can name the individuals in the photograph as I have done here, that should mean – and hopefully does mean – that the photographer declared himself/herself in some way,  initiated a conversation and is truly interested in the individual photographed.   If working honestly, these photographers are transparent and willing to be held accountable for their working methods.  There images should be accompanied by some type of work on behalf of the indigenous community who kindly lent their likeness for the photograph.

The Añangu people are forming their own ideas of what responsible photography should be, and your performance as a guest in the community is very important. We ask participants to take time observing, and participating in, that which they photograph. Spend time away from the viewfinder and go slow. Ask permission before you photograph. Consider giving a set of complimentary prints to the community as a sign of good faith. I have given large archival, fade-resistant prints to Añangu community members who display them inside their family huts. Bolivar Cerda has my photographs of his children proudly hung on his walls. Many photographers promise to send photos, but disappointingly few deliver!

At Raw Rainforest Photogrpahy & Educational Tours, we work proactively to ensure our participants interact with and contribute on a personal level to our host communities.  Respectful photographers can help preserve community-wide support for ecotourism as a sustainable economy. We’ve put up a discussion forum on the RawRainforest Facebook page where you can contribute your ideas on what constitutes “Culturally-responsive photography.”  It’s a concern that is central to my work in the upper Amazon basin.

What’s in a canoe?

by Bruce Farnsworth

I enjoy sharing some of the human stories behind my work and my efforts to illustrate traditional ecological knowledge. My work focuses on biocultural topics.

There is a story of indigenous science in the image below. These lowland Quichua men prefer this local tree known as “canela.” That’s my friend Luis Yumbo at the helm. This group trees (Ocotea spp.) take up a high amount of silica from the soil. That’s the stuff of glass. In turn, the canoes are much more resistant to rotting. That’s value added in an environment that receives upwards of 250 inches of rain a year! Traditional canoe carving involves an entire community and can take from 15 to 30 days.

Keep Ecuador’s Topo River Wild and Free Flowing

by Bruce Farnsworth

It is expected that the Ecuadorian government is still considering the environmental license for the Topo Hydroelectric Project, a project which would devastate a pristine watershed. This will allow the project to begin construction, despite widespread local opposition.

Please help us to voice your concern about the decision to develop the Topo Hydroelectric Project and persuade the President and government decision-makers in Ecuador to maintain the integrity of the Topo River and the Llanganates-Sangay Ecological Corridor. Urge them to consider other alternatives for developing secure and renewable energy for Ecuador, and provide permanent protection for the Topo River to keep it as a wild, free-flowing river for the enjoyment of future generations.

Please forward this message to your friends so that this important iniciative will have more impact.

Kayaker enjoys the wild rivers of Ecuador

Thanks for your help in keeping the Topo River wild and free-flowing!

Spiders are Beautiful!

by Bruce Farnsworth

This spider is known as the Huntsman, and I photographed this it in Yasuní National Park one of my night hikes. Participants in my tours consistently enjoy the discoveries made at night on the trails adjacent to our lodge, when amphibians and other small hunters come out before our cameras.

Measuring about four to five inches in length, it is a strikingly beautiful as it is stealthy. I watched this one for at least a good half hour as it waited for an insect to approach. Then the spider, coated in a velvety track suit of dense orange hairs, pounced on its prey.

Closeups like this are made possible by mounting a bright flashlight onto the strobe with a rubber band or a strap of velcro. In this way, you can focus easily, but more importantly, since the light is attached to the strobe, you have a real-time preview of your lighting results. Personally, I like this Versabrite light made by Pelican because like all of their products, it is waterproof.


Orchid Paradise

by Bruce Farnsworth


In the seldom visited mountains high above Banos, a popular resort community poised between Ecuador’s Amazon and Andean environments, lie spectacular flora seen but not yet known to science, including orchids much like the one I photographed here.  As is the scenario for all too many species, before science can save this flora, like-minded people must secure the land on which they live.  Land acquisition and habitat protection is the priority of a local grassroots conservation coalition headed up by ex-patriot botanist Lou Jost in Ecuador.  To learn more about his efforts, view the EcoMinga Foundation website!  They have been very successful, with financial support from England’s World Land Trust Ecuador program and others, in assembling a reserve in the upper Pastaza watershed.

River Conservation

by Bruce Farnsworth


It’s a small country indeed, but imagine flattening out a crumpled piece of paper, and you begin to appreciate the tremendous land area held in Ecuador.  This Andean nation, whose volcanic spine drops quickly down transitional ranges to Pacific coast and Amazon basin is the most biologically diverse for acre of any country in the world. Cloud forests and wet lowland jungles are fed by a massive rain cycle and melting ice from the towering Antisana and other volcanoes.  The hydrologic resources of Ecuador are now at risk. Speculative surface mining and devastating dam proposals with exaggerated claims of energy output are springing up all over.  Energy development and increased urbanization must address safe drinking water and ecosystem services.

Matt Terry, aka “Mateo”, is a hard-core kayaker with a heart.  Since 1998, he has been scrapping together the Ecuadorian Rivers Institute, a 501(c)(3) based in Colorado but dedicated entirely to preserving the watersheds and wild rivers of Ecuador.  He’s on the inside, living and working in Ecuador.  Since he began kayaking in the region almost 10 years ago, he’s been informally mapping his first descents and inventorying local economies tied to these pristine white-water rivers.  Based in a small office apartment in Tena, capital town of Ecuador’s Napo province, he has succeeded in making river conservation a table item at local, regional and national level meetings. Armed with maps, water samples linked to GPS waypoints, and a degree in microbiology, he injects a sense of humor into meetings as well.  Terry, who once called North Carolina home, carries just enough drawl to accent his popularity.  Bottom line: he’s been successful in eliciting local pride in rivers as a source of fresh water, tranquility and long-term tourism revenue.  Mateo is now attracting international support as he brings campesinos into conversations with regional elected authorities.

This is a multi-faceted story to photograph: as much a social study as a natural history topic.  There are many aspects to watershed protection and river conservation which carry with them provocative images.  In southern Ecuador, there are the effects of mercury poisoning in a rural gold-amalgamation post.  Then there’s Luis, now an injured fisherman who realizes dynamite fishing will not improve his community’s harvest.  As a counterpoint, I’ve shared in the energy of the annual Napo River Festival, which Terry helped organize.  Each year, lowland Quichua and international tourists come together in the annual event to compete in river-based events and celebrate the multiple values of Ecuador’s Napo river region for commerce, culture and conservation.

Wild Cocoa

by Bruce Farnsworth

I photographed this wild cocoa plant (Herrania sp., Family Sterculiaceae) in primary rainforest near Pañacocha lagoon (Pañayacu river drainage) in Ecuador’s Sucumbios Province. I was captivated by the tentacle-like appendages of the petals set against the shadowed forest interior. The extended petals may attact pollinating insects. It is a close relative of the cocoa plant (genus Theobroma) which produces a larger fruit and is cultivated widely in Ecuador for the tangy pulp.

Here’s my Rainforest Conservation Photography Blog!

by Bruce Farnsworth

A29838BfGreetings All,

I’m enjoying the immediacy of this blog already – what a great way to communicate with editors and workshop participants alike!  You know it was only in July 2006 that I fully converted to digital photography.  Blogs are just another part of the new digital technology and online publishing.  I recently attended Photo District New’s “On the Road”seminar in Santa Monica, CA and the use of online marketing tools such as blogs, email blasts and web-galleries was a major focus.  I really like what Brian Storm of Media Storm is doing with video and Final Cut Pro production of stills recorded concurrently with sound.  I am planning a shift in that direction with new conservation photography projects in Ecuador.

I thought this image of a pre-Incan petroglyph might be a fun anchor for the blog premiere.  We could venture to say this was the earliest form of blogging, leaving messages in a single place where others could come and visit. I made this photograph during an expedition with archeologists from Ecuador’s Museo de Arqueologia Weilbauer to document and catalog important rock art sites in the upper Amazon basin before they are lost to vandalism and erosion.

I suppose my next bit of news should be the  fact that I’m nearing completion of the photography tour website – which will be linked to my main website at Recently, my work was published in a special rainforest edition of Germany’s Geo Lino magazine, and in several textbook uses. In addition to the conservation projects I’ll describe in this blog, I am looking at a couple wildlife photography projects in Ecuador.  One recent breakthrough has been the first radio-telemetry study of a very strange and captivating animal of the lowland, terra-firme rainforest.  In the meantime, stay tuned here for conservation updates, workshop information, photo tips and recent publications of my work as I get started blogging.

All the best!


All content is © Bruce Farnsworth and may not be reproduced, displayed or transmitted in electronic and digital media without prior written permission of the author.

The Jatun Sacha Foundation of Ecuador – Empowering Local Communities to Protect their Rainforest

by Bruce Farnsworth

A29670Bf-1For over 20 years, the unsung botanists and agroforestry experts of the Jatun Sacha Foundation field station in Amazonian Ecuador have been using local rainforests as a living laboratory for experimental forestry and restoration. I’ve been creating a series of images in which I hope to convey how Jatun Sacha has built a stronger community as well. Local lowland Quichua have several start-up industries going now, including the manufacture of Panama hats from common understory and forest edge plants such as Heliconia and Bromelia.

A major threat to the forests of the upper Napo river basin are the continued practices of unscrupulous middlemen. Many of them representing foreign interests, drivers from the capital city will drive for hours and right down to the water’s edge. At remote ports like Puente Arajuno and others, this is where local men emerge from the forest, arriving on self-made rafts of endangered hardwoods. The rough-hewn planked are lashed together with rope or vines. The men are paid by the tree, a cut-rate five to 20 dollars depending on the species. All of the resources found within a single tree – nuts, seeds, fibers, flowers, resins, chemicals and habitats for the largely arboreal wildlife of the rainforest, are lost. There just aren’t enough government inspectors to prevent it – or they’re paid to issue fraudulent permits. The endangered hardwoods are positioned in the truck, sandwiched between the planks of more common trees. Tree poaching is big business, and leads to large-scale forest loss.

All the men on the raft want is a paycheck. Jatun Sacha has reduced the illegal harvesting by introducing a new, sustainable economy. In their Seed Purchase Program, local communities get cold hard cash if they collect the seeds of rare and economically valuable trees from the rainforest . Lowland Quichua and mestizos living in the rainforest are in a unique position to quickly harvest the seeds and plant them before forest floor rodents like the agouti and the paca carry them off. Sharing results from their own experimental reforestry plots, the Jatun Sacha specialists host workshops where families can learn how best to create tree nurseries on their own lands.