Amazon Rainforest Expedition: La Nube – Peru’s Biodiversity Cloud
Play a part in cutting edge wildlife conservation research in a remote, pristine and highly diverse part of the Amazon rainforest. A 21-day (min 10-day for participants) trip to the heart of the Bahuaja Sonene National Park, a wildlife-rich Amazon rainforest wilderness in south-eastern Peru, to re-establish a strong research agenda for this region of the Park and to collect vital wildlife information to help direct conservation efforts in other parts of the Park and in the nearby Tambopata National Reserve.
This expedition aims to reach the La Nube Research Station, located on the Tavara River in the heart of the Bahuaja Sonene National Park in southeastern Peru, and to use it as a base for exploratory research and rapid biodiversity assessment trips to nearby sites requiring further research, including the famous Candamo valley and La Cuchilla plateau. Having helped to refurbish part of the station on arrival, as the structure is in a constant battle with nature and the elements, expedition members will begin sampling mammal, bird, herpetofauna, insect, and fish populations in the 1 km2 monitoring plot originally established by the Cayetano University in the nearby pre-montane cloud forest beside the station. This rapid assessment of species and populations will take 6 days to complete. During this time, long-term climate and river-level monitoring equipment will also be installed. Subsequently the team will head up the Tavara River and turn right onto the Candamo River to sample one site within this unique valley. During the 6 days planned for Candamo, the team will be camping, but no corner will be cut regarding food, as we strongly believe a research army marches on its stomach. Besides we already boast the best expedition cook this side of the Andes. Whilst in Candamo, a reconnaissance team will try and reach a few strategic sites in order to take photos and to determine their suitability for future assessments. On the journey downstream, with one night at La Nube once again to pick up equipment and supplies, the objective will be to spend 6 days sampling in the La Cuchilla plateau area, in order to better understand the faunal changes at the base, on the mid-slopes, and at the top of this plateau – which lies 300 metres above the rest of the lowland forest below. On a clear day from atop the cliff edge of La Cuchilla, it is possible to see across more than 40 km of forest, including the braided Tambopata River to the north, and even as far as the snowy peaks of the Carabaya Range to the south.
Understanding the current state of untouched nature, benchmarking as it’s frequently called, is important if we want to understand how nature is changing over time, whether we should be concerned about the magnitude of change if observed, what factors may be underpinning this change, and whether these factors can be managed in some form. Benchmarking nature within intact, untouched areas of forest also helps us assess the wildlife monitoring results we obtain from forests closer to civilization that may be impacted to varying degrees by human activities, such as ecotourism, Brazil-nut extraction, bush-meat hunting, placer gold-mining, and so forth.
Confirming the existence or continued existence of certain species is also crucial to the expedition. Finding evidence of Spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), Horned Curassow (Pauxi unicornis), Black tinamou (Tinamus osgoodi), and Harlequin toads (Atelopus sp.) will be important. Don’t be surprised if new species or range extensions are subsequently reported once all the data is in and analysed.
Why is the Tavara-Candamo-Cuchilla area so important?
In 2000, Peru’s Channel 4 aired a ground-breaking three-part nature documentary that mesmerized Peruvian society for days and put Tambopata firmly on the map. Simply titled, Candamo: The Last Uninhabited Jungle (La Ultima Selva sin Hombres), the series became a national TV phenomenon overnight – feeding people’s growing urge to view, understand, and appreciate the wild corners of Peru, the precise reaction that the series’ funders (Backus & Johnston, Wildlife Conservation Society) and Director, Daniel Winitzky, wanted to generate. The series follows the trials and tribulations of the efforts of three Ese-eja natives (Melo, Manuco, and Mishaja), from the Infierno Community on the Tambopata River, to reach their ancestral home in the Candamo Valley, the spiritual and wildlife-rich heart of what is now the Bahuaja Sonene National Park. On their journey of discovery to a jungle rarely visited by humans, peppered with memorable close-encounters with innumerable species from anacondas to tapir, native bush-craft in action, humorous scenes typical of any expedition to this part of the world, and periodically annotated with the thoughts and memories of the few biologists who have been lucky enough to study the forests at that time, they find that Candamo is still pure but under threat – from oil and gas exploration.
The series significantly spurred the expansion of the Bahuaja Sonene National Park to its current 1.1 million hectares, underlining the importance of media-heavy campaigns in biodiversity conservation strategies, and made Melo, Manuco, Mishaja, and Tambopata famous. Although parts of the Candamo Valley suffered some scarring from oil and gas prospecting in the late 1990s, the area has since recovered and has recouped its mythical untouched wilderness status, mainly due to it being immensely difficult to access. The Candamo area was also threatened briefly in 2007, when Lima-based bureaucrats tried unsuccessfully to degazette the Candamo area, again to allow oil and gas exploration, but the proposal was cut down by massive public discontent in Peru and even pressure from US-based politicians, on the back of a conservation-ecotourism group led campaign. The continued protection of the Candamo Valley in particular, and the Bahuaja Sonene National Park in general, is now a national preoccupation, and the stronger the relationship between this area and Peruvian society the better. It is difficult to predict when and from where the next threat may materialize.
After having travelled the required two full days up the Tambopata River from Puerto Maldonado, the gateway into the Candamo Valley and its wildlife riches is the infamous Tavara River, a narrow, sometimes treacherous, white-water river strewn with moss-covered boulders and lined either side by steep pre-montane forests, that calves its own short gorge through the Andean foothills. Waterfalls, orchid-infested bows branching over the river, low flying hummingbirds and majestic Military macaws must all be dodged as one makes one’s way gingerly upstream in the expedition boats.
At a beautiful bend in the Tavara River is located the La Nube Research Station, a two-storey wooden complex with a palm thatch roof originally built with funds from Conservation International. Some limited research, particularly on plants and birds, has been undertaken here, within large research plots first established by the Cayetano University in Lima. Its name, The Cloud, refers to the near-permanent, some would say stubborn, cloud that hangs over the nearby Candamo Valley. The morning mist that the lush vegetation and wet conditions generate doesn’t dissipate easily, as the valley is surrounded by high hills that shade the valley in the morning and prevent the mist from evaporating, and the Tavara River gorge is too narrow to allow enough warm air in from the lowlands downstream. Most of the satellite imagery of Tambopata shows The Cloud, stubbornly in place, despite the rest of the region being bathed in glorious sunshine. New species to science, and potentially even trolls, are to be found here!
The La Cuchilla (Knife-edge) plateau, which lies just to the north of the confluence of the Tavara and Tambopata rivers, is a geologic feature with a poorly studied, stunted forest growing on top. The La Cuchilla cliffs, that delineate the plateau, form the headwaters of the Chuncho, La Torre, and D’Orbigny rivers – the watercourses that dominate the central region of the Bahuaja Sonene National Park.
A better understanding of these three areas of high conservation and scientific value, along with a strong media strategy to maintain the firm linkage between them and Peruvian/international society, will go a long way towards protecting these areas and making more informed decisions about how much change Peruvian society is willing to accept in other parts of the Tambopata rainforest.