Mongabay Feature: Jaguars, tapirs, oh my!: Amazon explorer films shocking wildlife bonanza in threatened forest

Story courtesy of Mongabay.com

Watching a new video by Amazon explorer, Paul Rosolie, one feels transported into a hidden world of stalking jaguars, heavyweight tapirs, and daylight-wandering giant armadillos. This is the Amazon as one imagines it as a child: still full of wild things. In just four weeks at a single colpa (or clay lick where mammals and birds gather) on the lower Las Piedras River, Rosolie and his team captured 30 Amazonian species on video, including seven imperiled species. However, the very spot Rosolie and his team filmed is under threat: the lower Las Piedras River is being infiltrated by loggers, miners, and farmers following the construction of the Trans-Amazon highway.

“Most people think of the rainforest and they picture animals everywhere, but in reality, even in healthy forest, you could walk all day and see nothing,” Rosolie told mongabay.com in a recent interview. “But the camera traps show a different view. The footage not only allows us to better understand what species visit the colpa and when, but it allows us to observe natural behavior: tapir and deer visiting with their young, birds and deer sharing the copla, the ocelot tracking an agouti.”

But Rosolie says the number of species captured at this colpa surprised even him.”Seeing such incredible abundance and diversity at a single location in the forest, in so short a time, is something we have never seen before.”

Using editing and narration, Rosolie then turned his 2,000 plus camera trap videos into a short film that tells a story of this still abundant place. While camera trap videos are often presented with little-to-know context about the wildlife on screen, Rosolie says this is a “missed opportunity” to reach out to the larger public.

“For people who might not be so familiar with the animals of a given ecosystem, or know what challenges they face or what makes them unique—you have to give some context and presentation—make it possible for them to join in too,” he says.

But his wild place is under threat. Although the headwaters of the Las Piedras River are protected, the lower Piedras remains neglected, and the controversial Trans-Amazon highway has brought “a massive influx of logging, hunting, gold mining, and drug,” according to Rosolie.

“In the last month there was one jaguar shot and another hit by a car, plus a guy on my team saw loggers kill a macaw—it’s bad. People don’t realize how delicate wildlife is,” Rosolie says, adding that “for the wildlife on the Las Piedras, the subject of the videos, the situation is urgent.”

Rosolie says that if protected, the lower Las Piedras River would be “the final piece of the puzzle” in what would arguably be the greatest network of protected areas in the world, connecting Manu National Park and Alto Purus National Park to Bahuaja-Sonene National Park and Madidi National Park in Bolivia.

“Contained in these parks is the greatest biodiversity on Earth (including world records in birds, butterflies, and dragonfly species),” explains Rosolie, who has also video taped one of the Amazon’s least-known mammals, the short-eared dog (see video below).

But getting the area protected will require a large-scale coalition, including the Peruvian government, locals, and NGOs.

“Right now we need public support, and for that, there needs to be a way for people to learn about this river, and support the process of protecting it,” says Rosolie who is currently writing a book about the region (due out next year). “These camera trap videos are just another small part of the first step in the process of broadening the exposure for the Piedras, and ensuring that this river survives.”

Rosolie sees his effort in the Amazon as instrumental for ensuring that wild nature—and animals like jaguars, giant anteaters, and tapirs—are preserved in a world where the human footprint seems ever-expanding.

“Our generation has the chance to do something unique in history: preventative conservation—ensuring that places that are untouched remain so—as well as helping human inhabited areas to maintain viable on an ecosystem level,” Rosolie says. “In another fifty or a hundred years, that opportunity will be long gone.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the Las Piedras River or supporting conservation efforts there can contact Paul Rosolie: Adventure@tamanduajungle.com or David Johnston: info@faunaforever.org

Paul Rosolie checking the camera trap videos on a laptop in the Amazon. Photo by: Mohsin Kazmi

Paul Rosolie checking the camera trap videos on a laptop in the Amazon. Photo by: Mohsin Kazmi.

 

Mongabay:Will you tell us about your work in the Peruvian Amazon?

Paul Rosolie: I have worked in the Madre de Dios region of Peru for the past seven years studying the ecosystem, and wildlife. I have been exploring wildlife communities that exist in isolation from human interference; and the west Amazon is still rich with these areas if you know where to look. For the last four years my team and I have also been studying the relationship between humans and anacondas (an important and threatened apex predator), and the changes facing the region due to the Trans-Amazon highway.As a conservationist and writer I feel it is my job to tell the story of the region while there is still time to act. Our generation has the chance to do something unique in history: preventative conservation—ensuring that places that are untouched remain so—as well as helping human inhabited areas to maintain viable on an ecosystem level. In another fifty or a hundred years, that opportunity will be long gone.For this reason my work is currently concentrated on the Las Piedras River; it is the longest river in the region and home to stunning flora and fauna, as well as uncontacted tribes. I’m the field director of a research station for Tamandua Expeditions, one of the few ecotourism operations in the area on the Piedras where we are trying to apply lessons learned from the Tambopata River (another river in the Madre de Dios, where ecotourism has been very successful at promoting conservation). Right now the lower Las Piedras is not officially protected as a national park or reserve, and we are seeing a massive influx of logging, hunting, gold mining, and drugs—which is all rapidly deteriorating the ancient forest and incredible wildlife that exists in many places there.

 

Still from video camera trap of jaguar taken by Paul Rosolie in the lower Piedras.
Mongabay: You had a video camera trap at a salt lick for four weeks in the Peruvian Amazon. What species did you record?

Paul Rosolie: The cameras recorded over two thousand videos of 30 species: 25 mammals, 3 birds and 2 reptiles (species list can be found in the video description on youtube). For many species, there were numerous individuals visiting multiple times during the study, and we were able to observe the interactions between this community through the camera trap footage. Seeing such incredible abundance and diversity at a single location in the forest, in so short a time, is something we have never seen before.

Mongabay:What was the most surprising animal to see on the camera trap?

Paul Rosolie: The giant armadillo surprised me the most, they are very secretive, and I’ve never seen one out in the daytime before. We also observed a very small side-neck turtle hanging out in the puddle-part of the colpa which was interesting (could have very easily have munched by one of the larger mammals!).But my personal favorite was the giant anteater! They are so beautiful. It’s my favorite video because a few years ago I spent five weeks rehabilitating an orphaned two month old giant anteater by hand just a few kilometers from the colpa. I’d like to think that maybe—just maybe, that is her all grown up! (Credit goes to Lucy Dablin at Fauna Forever for that one)

Mongabay:Did you catch any insights into behavior for Amazonian species?

 Navigating a tributary of the Las Piedras. Photo by: Gowri Varanashi.

 

Paul Rosolie: Definitely. Most people think of the rainforest and they picture animals everywhere, but in reality, even in healthy forest, you could walk all day and see nothing. In the jungle, where everything is being hunted, only the silent and the stealthy survive. As humans we are handicapped compared to the many species that have better sight, smell, hearing, and stealth than we do. Because of this, even when you do spot an animal, it is usually only moments before it disappears. But the camera traps show a different view.
The footage not only allows us to better understand what species visit the colpa and when, but it allows us to observe natural behavior: tapir and deer visiting with their young, birds and deer sharing the copla, the ocelot tracking an agouti. There was even one nighttime video of a puma lying down in the foliage at the fringes of the clearing, staking out the colpa in wait for prey. After watching thousands of videos, you start to recognize individuals, and get a window into these animal’s lives, and how they operate in the society of the forest—really fascinating.

Mongabay:Your footage of the jaguars was stunning. Have you had any personal encounters with these giants—other than the near-miss caught on camera?

Paul Rosolie: There have been many encounters. I have been camping in remote areas and found jaguar prints around my tent in the morning—one print was five inches from the corner of the tent. Then one time I was awakened in a hammock at night by a curious jaguar —she was close enough I could feel her breath. They are very inquisitive.More than once while checking the videos I got the feeling I was being watched—and more than once the cameras proved that there were indeed jaguars nearby while I was working. Though I have been close to them so many times, I am still waiting for my perfect sighting: on a log over the river framed by morning mist!

Mongabay:Unlike most camera trap videos, you’ve done a lot of editing, added narration and important context to you video. Do you hope this will help a wider audience see and understand the wildlife of the Amazon?

Paul Rosolie: That’s exactly why the video was constructed this way. I have seen many other camera trap videos where the species are simply listed—and I think that in some cases those are missed opportunities. For you and me and other people in the field of conservation/biology/wildlife, we don’t need any embellishment or explanation—I think it’s safe to say that in most cases we know the stories of these species. But for people who might not be so familiar with the animals of a given ecosystem, or know what challenges they face or what makes them unique—you have to give some context and presentation—make it possible for them to join in too.This is what Steve Irwin did so artfully with crocodiles (and every other conceivable creature). He went and got into the water with them, told you what they were thinking, what their issues were, and why he loved them—and people ate it up. He was able to reach millions of people by telling a story. Today I think conservationists should use the age of social media to really involve people, get people excited.

Mongabay:You’ve also had another encounter with an Amazonian rarity—arguably the most rare big mammal in the region—will you tell us about your personal encounter with the short-eared dog (see video above)?

Paul Rosolie: I was walking along a trail used for Brazil nut collection on the Tambopata River, following a blue morpho. There are dozens of massive blue butterflies on this trail, and I was trying to get the perfect shot so I was being very quiet and still for over an hour, when something caught my eye and I looked up. There was this animal I had never seen before staring at me. I was startled, but I didn’t move. I even looked away from the animal so that she wouldn’t feel like I was zeroed in on her—I tried to look disinterested (which was not easy!). Because I was calm she was calm, and slowly walked off down the trail, that’s when I followed and started filming.

Mongabay:Did you know what you were looking at right away?

Paul Rosolie: It is a little embarrassing to admit, but I actually thought it was a bush dog at first. Both the short-eared dog and the bush dog are both very seldom encountered cryptic species. Neither appear in photo-books or documentaries about the Amazon because they are too secretive to film or photograph, and since I had never seen one in the wild before, I was a bit taken off guard. Most of my training has come from indigenous hunters—but even they rarely mention this species—and when they do they mash bush dogs and short-eared dogs into the same category/species and call it ‘perro de monte’ or forest dog.The only thing I knew for sure was that this was a very important animal to film.

Mongabay:What do scientists know about this species?

Paul Rosolie: This species is uncommon throughout its range. We know that they live in the lowlands of the west Amazon, and can thrive in terra firma, flood plain, and bamboo habitats. Their area of highest density seems to be the Madre de Dios, though they seem to exist only in the most inaccessible and remote reaches of the region. Virtually nothing is known about breeding or social structure, in fact, they are so rare that we don’t know how to classify them. Up until recently their conservation status under the IUCN was Data Deficient. Today they are listed as Near Threatened in response to their sensitivity to habitat disturbances.They seem to not only prefer but require habitat isolated from humans. Domestic dogs pose numerous threats to short-ears through disease and physical danger.

Logging truck near the lower Las Piedras. Photo courtesy of Paul Rosolie.

Mongabay:Is the area you work in protected?

Paul Rosolie: Right now it is not. The Madre de Dios region of Peru is home to an incredible system of leviathan protected areas such as Manu National Park, Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, Alto Purus National Park, and just over the boarder in Bolivia, Madidi National Park. Contained in these parks is the greatest biodiversity on Earth (including world records in birds, butterflies, and dragonfly species). Though the headwaters of the Las Piedras River are included in Alto Purus National Park and an Uncontacted Indian reserve, the lower Piedras is currently unprotected and experiencing higher rates of logging and deforestation than ever before.

Mongabay:What are the biggest threats to the region?

Paul Rosolie: Recently the Trans-Amazon highway was paved and completed, which caused a number of logging roads to be cut into what had previously been ancient, untouched forest. Now that the roads have been created we are seeing a massive influx of settlers from the Andes. Houses and farms are popping up each day and forest is being cleared with increasing speed. Loggers are using the roads to access stands of ironwood, cedar, and other old growth timber that is now exposed.With all the human activity has come a lot of hunting. In the last month there was one jaguar shot and another hit by a car, plus a guy on my team saw loggers kill a macaw—it’s bad. People don’t realize how delicate wildlife is. I have personally witnessed a single hunter cause the local extinction of an entire species. So for the wildlife on the Las Piedras, the subject of the videos, the situation is urgent.

Mongabay:What do you hope to achieve with these videos?

 Red howler monkey in the Las Piedras region. Photo by: Mohsin Kazmi.

Paul Rosolie: The goal is to get the lower Las Piedras River protected. The Madre de Dios has a rich history of conservation, and in the eyes of a growing number of people, the Las Piedras watershed is the final piece of the puzzle. Protecting this river would create ecosystem connectivity between the large, famous protected areas like Manu, and Bahuaja-Sonene, Alto Purus, and Madidi.But the species in these videos are representative of the entire west Amazon, a part of the world that holds an incredible opportunity for us as a global society. Because so much of it remains so intact, we have the chance to ensure it survives. The Andes/Amazon interface is the engine that powers the rest of the Amazon, a system that has an incalculable influence on not only South America, but also the entire planet.I think these videos have the power to tell a story, to give people a glimpse into a world that was never visible before camera traps. I want to use them to help protect the region.

Mongabay:Given the importance of the lower Las Piedras River for Amazon conservation, what do you think it would take to convince Peru to set this tract of land aside?

Paul Rosolie: It’s no small task to create a national park, but as I mentioned, the truly unique element of the Piedras plan is the once-in-history opportunity to protect the area before it is degraded, and before it is filled with too many people to make a park viable.We need to get attention on the Las Piedras, and identify it as a conservation priority on a larger scale. We need to attract the attention of DGFFS or Forests and Wildlife Directorate and the Peruvian Government, as well as some of the larger NGO’s that have had success in the Madre de Dios in the past, like Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF, and Conservation International, as well as smaller operations.The creation of a national park requires cataloguing biological and ethnographical data on the area and completing exhaustive economic studies. Then come meetings on the local, regional and national levels to discuss the terms, boundaries, and other elements of the plan. It’s a massive process, but given the history of conservation in the region, and the surrounding parks, we are way ahead of the game. The Madre de Dios is already a beacon of conservation, and I think that connecting the already-existing parks to create a mega-reserve would be something for Peru to be proud of; an important example for the rest of the world.Right now we need public support, and for that, there needs to be a way for people to learn about this river, and support the process of protecting it. In the past this has been a tremendously successful strategy (The creation of Bahuaja-Sonene National Park was helped by the international interest created by the documentary CANDAMO: The Last Forest Without Men). For this reason I have spent the past few years writing a book about my adventures on the Las Piedras (and in other parts of the Madre de Dios) called Mother of God (currently being published by Harper Collins, due out in roughly eighteen months). Likewise, these camera trap videos are just another small part of the first step in the process of broadening the exposure for the Piedras, and ensuring that this river survives.

Mongabay:How can people help?

Mountains of the western Amazon. Photo courtesy of Paul Rosolie.
Paul Rosolie: Get involved! There is a lot of great work happening on the Las Piedras River using tourism and research to promote the preservation of the area. Tamandua Expeditions (www.tamanduajungle.com) and Fauna Forever (www.faunaforever.org) are using research/tourism to protect the wildlife in these videos, and the lower Las Piedras River. Ecotourism based conservation depends on travelers. But what is unique here is that the operations on the Las Piedras are so small, and so crucial, that someone that visits the Las Piedras is not just joining a tour—they are joining the effort to protect the forest, the wildlife, and the local people.Even aside from traveling, there are limitless ways to get involved today. With social media people can stay connected to our work in the field and help promote, raise awareness, money, and share resources. As an example, my research station was recently rescued this way. We were in a state of emergency because our roof gave out and the rain was destroying our station, but through an Indiegogo campaign we were able to connect to people from all over the world who pitched in. We had people help with equipment, video editing, promotion, communication, graphic design, and other needed skills. In the end we were able to repair the roof and save the station—which in turn allows us to continue protecting the land and the wildlife!

Mongabay:What’s next for you? When do you head back to Peru?

Paul Rosolie: During the coming dry season (around May) I want to continue the camera trap work, but this time with HD footage – I think that would be really exciting. Also, we will be continuing an ongoing study of anacondas.Currently I am finishing writing a book called Mother of God for Harper Collins. It is about the Madre de Dios and greater west Amazon region told through my experiences in conservation/exploration in the jungle over the last seven years. Anacondas, conservation, tribes, poachers, jaguars, giant anteaters, and floating forests—its an adventure! Just like with the videos, I want this book to make the beauty and adventure of the Amazon more accessible to people, bring them in!There are plans developing to walk a mega-transect along the entire Andes/Amazon interface from south to north—it’s never been done before and I think it will help us to learn about the state of the region, and build awareness.

Village off the Las Piedras. Photo courtesy of Paul Rosolie.
Logger on the Las Piedras. Photo by: Mohsin Kazmi.
Macaw. Photo courtesy of Paul Rosolie.

Las Piedras Colpa – Camera Trap Video Species

1. Red Brocket Deer (Mazama Americana), Data Deficient

2. Grey Brocket Deer (Mazama gouzoubira), Least Concern

3. White-lipped Peccary(Tayassu pecari), Near Threatened

4. Collared peccary(Tayassu tajacu), Least Concern

5. Lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), Vulnerable

6. Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), Least Concern

7. Puma (Puma concolor), Least Concern

8. Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), Vulnerable

9. Giant Armadillo (Priodontes maximus), Vulnerable

10. Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus kappleri), Least Concern

11. Northern Amazon red squirrel (Sciurus igniventris), Least Concern

12. White-fronted capuchin monkey (Cebus albifrons), Least Concern

13. Bolivian red howler monkey(Alouatta sara), Least Concern

14. Lowland paca (Cuniculus paca), Least Concern

15. Cental American agouti(Dasyprocta punctata), Least Concern

16. Green acouchi (Myoprocta pratti), Least Concern

17. Bicolor-spined porcupine (Coendou bicolor), Least Concern

18. Jaguar (Panthera onca), Near Threatened

19. Tyra (Eira Barbara), Least Concern

20. Amazon Coati (Nasua nasua), Least Concern

21. Brazilian rabbit (Sylvilagus brasiliensis), Least Concern

22. Black-faced black spider monkey (Ateles chamek), Endangered

23. Bolivian squirrel monkey (Saimiri boliviensis), Least Concern

24. Amazonian red-sided opossum (Monodelphis glirina), Least Concern

25. Mouse opossum (Marmosa murina), Least Concern

26. Spixes guan (Penelope jacquacu), Least Concern

27. Razor-billed currosaw (Mitu tuberosum), Least Concern

28. Pale winged trumpeter (Psophia leucoptera), Least Concern

29. Yellow-footed tortoise(Chelonoidis denticulata), Vulnerable

30. Side necked turtle ( Platemys platycephala), Least Concern

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