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?
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.
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.
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 www.brucefarnsworth.com 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.
For 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.