By Eric Horstman
The value of biodiversity in Ecuador is tremendous. About the size of Arizona, Ecuador has made preserving its biodiversity numero uno – and for good reason: As one of 17 mega-diverse countries that, together, harbor between 50 to 65 percent of all the planet’s species, Ecuador comprises many unique habitats; within its borders are portions of the Amazon Rainforest and Andes Mountains, 1,452 miles of South America’s Pacific coastline, and The Galapagos Islands. And the country is home to about 8 percent of all the amphibian species on Earth and 16 percent of the planet’s bird species.
I first came to Ecuador in 1988 as a consultant in environmental education for the Charles Darwin Research Station in The Galapagos Islands. One of my responsibilities during my eight months at the station was to prepare materials to help teach members of the growing human population on four of the archipelago’s 13 islands about how to mitigate their impact on the islands’ delicate ecosystems.
The threat of introduced species was a major concern; everything – from fire ants brought in on fruit shipped from the mainland to rats, cats, dogs, and pigs – was a threat to the islands’ native flora and fauna. I had the opportunity to accompany a group of guides on a trip up to the rim of the active caldera on Fernandina Island and experience life like some of the first hardy explorers and adventures did, with unafraid mockingbirds coming to untie my shoe laces or pull tufts of my hair to line their nests.
I also saw the other side of things. On Pinzón Island, I saw the impact of introduced black rats that were devouring recently hatched, baby saddleback giant tortoises, a species which had not produced hatchlings in the wild for more than a century. I helped hack out trails in the scrubby, spiny underbrush to place rat poison in PVC pipes and collect eggs and hatchling turtles to take back to the Darwin Station, where we reared them before eventually releasing them into the wild once the tortoises were big enough to survive rat attacks.
In 1990, I returned to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was stationed in the capitol, Quito, but spent most of my time in the field. My first project was to prepare management guidelines for a newly created protected forest, Cerro Blanco, which is located about 15 minutes by car from the center of the port city of Guayaquil.
Cerro Blanco, or ¨white hill,” protects 15,000 acres of dry tropical forest with a wet and dry season, depending on the presence of the two offshore oceans. During the wet season, from the end of December to April, the forest is lush and green, with a growing populations of insects – including mosquitoes and biting gnats – that supports many nesting bird species. The dry season is cooler and much drier with no rains and occasional garua fogs, and many of the plants die off and the trees lose their leaves to conserve moisture.
Initially, I spent about two months getting to know the area on foot, guided by Don Pepe, a local guide hired by the cement company on whose land the protected forest had originally been created. (It has since been expanded to include adjacent lands.) Don Pepe and I had many adventures together, encountering the fresh pug marks of a jaguar in the dust of a dirt road that accessed a part of the reserve.
We also camped out with two university student volunteers, one of whom would later become my wife, and listened to the dawn chorus of roars from four different howler monkey groups located in two different ravines. A highlight was seeing my first Great Green Macaws, their long tails extending out behind them as they flew to an Amarillo tree to feed on the spiky seedpods. Unfortunately, as I quickly found out, conservation is not just about beautiful scenery and exotic plants and animals.
Our first ordeal came when we encountered squatters living in the protected forest. These otherwise homeless people cut and cleared the forest to make way for corn fields during the wet season; they made charcoal out of the rare hardwoods of the forest; and they hunted the white tailed deer, collared peccary, agouti, and other animals found there. All this was duly noted in my report, and I spent a lot of time grappling with possible solutions. For my sins – as I half-jokingly like to say – I was asked to return to Cerro Blanco to implement the recommendations I had presented once I completed my three-year stint in the Peace Corps
Early on, I was fortunate to have had Don Perfecto Yagual with me to help hire and train a group of park guards. We began to build and man guard stations at strategic sites in the forest with the help of the Ecuadorian Army and National Police, both of which provided law-enforcement capability when needed. We also moved quickly to start, and later expand, a dry-forest restoration program. Most of the reserve is a mosaic of different vegetation sites in various stages of succession. In abandoned pasturelands, we worked to replace the exotic, invasive Kikuyu grass from Africa by planting native trees that would shade out the encroaching grass.
With the support of the World Land Trust, we were able to expand the dry forest restoration program dramatically beginning in 2007. We planted close to 1,000 trees per 2.5 acres in both pasturelands and secondary scrub vegetation. We used more than 35 native tree species produced in our own tree nursery and have planted, to date, more than 500,000 trees in 1,235 acres, with an overall survival rate of 50 to 65 percent.
All the while, we have also worked extensively in environmental education, focusing on our symbol, the endangered Great Green Macaw, which is an integral part of the critically endangered Ecuadorian dry tropical-forest ecosystem. We still have much to do, but with the continued support of my dedicated Ecuadorian staff and volunteers, as well as the support of Ecuadorian and international institutions, we have strived not to only protect Cerro Blanco but also to link it with adjacent forest remnants in the Cordillera Chongon Colonche by creating a biological corridor.
Eric Horstman is originally from Northern California. In 1988 he first came to Ecuador to work as a consultant in environmental education for the Charles Darwin Research Station in The Galapagos Islands. Eric returned to Ecuador in 1990 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. On completion of his service in 1993 he stayed on to work as director of the newly created Pro-Forest Foundation and has worked since then on behalf of the conservation of the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest and the Ecuadorian Dry Tropical Forest. Eric lives with his wife and son near Cerro Blanco and is also a Buddhist Environmental Chaplain. Submit your story or essay to Buzzworthy Blogs.