January 20, 2010

The importance of saving Yasuní National Park

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s become easier of late for people to dismiss the perpetual dangers of the planet’s rainforests. These places are dynamic, illustrative examples of the profound influence human activities have on areas with such a high density and interdependence of life, so environmentalists and scientists lean on the rainforest as a symbol of the movement. There are few images more powerful than those that display the results of deforestation in the Amazon. It serves as a reminder to me of what needs to be done.

But I think the public at large tends to roll their eyes at standbys in general. We’re so inundated with sensory information in the 21st century, most of which is geared toward selling us something - products or ideas – that we learn to fend off some of the incoming barrage. The more repetitious, the more likely that it’ll be tuned out. It’s easy to brush aside the latest research from the Amazon as old news. Yeah, it’s still in trouble. Yeah, people are jerks.

But this paper from published at PLoS ONE is so detailed, so comprehensive, it demands a close read and another look at rainforests in peril, thick jungles still wild and unknown, not merely the iconography of NGO rhetoric. It’s a powerful study, one that brings the western Amazon alive through extensive data and hands the reader ample evidence of what lives there, how it is threatened, why it’s worth protecting and where we go from here. It’s the story of Yasuní National Park, ten-thousand square kilometers of unique, wild, protected land under pressure by common threats: oil prospecting, overhunting, colonization, deforestation and other modes of habitat loss.

Yasuní is small compared to many other protected areas that have been evaluated for landscape-level diversity, but the park and its borders exhibit a remarkable richness and density of vertebrates and vascular plants.

Yasuni Threatened

Starting top left and moving clockwise: Bush dog, Lowland tapir, Poeppig's woolly monkey, Giant armadillo, Giant otter, Amazonian manatee and Oncilla..

The assessment of this biodiversity was performed across taxonomic groups at a local level (alpha diversity, community) and on a landscape level, or at the scale of the park (gamma diversity, the product of alpha and beta diversity, beta being a measure of unique species between communities, αβ = γ). As the researchers note, Yasuní is approximately the size of your typical landscape-level biodiversity analysis, 10,000 km2.

Yasuní is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world at both scales, local and landscape. I don’t want to delve too much into the specifics of these statistics, as you can find them in giant tables and lists of stats in the article, but there were a few items that I want to highlight that I found outstanding. Keep in mind much of these data are preliminary.

Herpetofauna: Individually, Yasuní is a world leader in the richness of its reptile and amphibian populations, but together the numbers are particularly stellar. At the Tiputini Biodiversity Station on the border of Yasuní, 247 species of reptiles and amphibians have been documented in the 6.5 km2 area, the world record on a local scale.

Fish: There are 562 species of fish in the greater Napo River Basin and 382 in Yasuní itself; that's more fish species in the park than in the entire Mississippi River Basin.

Birds: At the landscape level, a full third of the known Amazon species are represented in Yasuní, 596 species.


Mammals: Over 200 species of mammals coexist in the area, 169 within the park and 35 more based on range data (expected). An estimated 12 different species of primates live sympatrically, a number only exceeded by primate communities in Peru and Africa. Ecuador has the 9th highest mammal diversity in the world; it’s remarkable that nearly half of that number can be found within only one of its parks, according to the authors.

Bat diversity has set another record in Yasuní, with over 100 coexisting species estimated (typical bat assemblages estimated, based on rarefacted data gathered on phyllostomids).

Vascular Plants: Yasuní National Park is nestled in one of only nine centers of global plant diversity, areas with over 4,000 species per 10,000 km2. In a single hectare of the forest, researchers found 655 species of trees and 900 species of other vascular plants. In the first 25 hectares of the Center for Tropical Forest Science Yasuní plot, 1,100 species of trees were documented; that number is expected to expand to 1,300 when the last 25 hectares is evaluated, making it “the richest CTFS 50 ha plot yet sampled in the world.”

So it’s very clear that Yasuní houses some of the most complex systems of organisms within its bounds (I recommend taking the time to read all of the biodiversity figures, they are staggering), but why? There are currently no precise, concrete answers to that question, but the suspicion is that the plant and amphibian diversity in particular is due to heavy rainfall compared to the rest of the Amazon (3,200 mm avg in Yasuní compared to 2,400 avg for the Amazon as a whole), and a limited dry season. Food is available for animals year round and plants are not stressed by lack of water or low temperatures.

Perhaps more importantly, Yasuní is a haven for many threatened and endemic species. The giant otter is one of the more charismatic of these, populating the Yasuní and Pastaza Rivers in the park. There are less than 250 breeding adults in Ecuador; Yasuní is home to 20 groups of five individuals, including a reproductive pair. The toad Atelopus spumarius also makes its home here, an amphibian facing significant declines in the future due to the spread of chytridiomycosis.

It’s well known that endemic populations – species found only in the area – face far greater consequences in the wake of habitat destruction. There are 43 endemic vertebrates in the Napo Moist Forest region, the area encompassing Yasuní: 20 species of amphibians, 19 species of birds and four species of mammals. The Round-eared bat and the Streaked dwarf porcupine are only found in the forests of Ecuador.

According to current data and projection, there are anywhere from 220 – 700+ species endemic to the Napo Moist Forest region and five of those have been found only within Yasuní National Park, including a recent find, the non-photosynthetic, myco-heterotroph, Tiputinia foetida (which I’m assuming from the name, doesn’t smell like roses).

All of these factors add up to a very robust and self-sufficient slice of the western Amazon, certainly as close to a wild frontier as any national park can get. Yasuní is special not only because of its delicate components, but also because of its scale. The park provides enough resources and unfragmented space for the species it protects, particularly large vertebrates, which ecologists hold as indicators of a healthy system. There are plenty of predators, herbivores and seed dispersers with plenty of room to function. According to the researchers, the Woolly and Spider Monkeys alone are responsible for the dispersal of seeds from over 200 species of trees. They are successful because they are able to function as they have evolved to, without direct or indirect anthropogenic pressures.

The projected effect of climate change on the Amazon, particularly the threat of more seasonal conditions, could drive more species west to Yasuní, where the Andes trap moist air and the area is less likely to face extended dry seasons. In this situation, Yasuní becomes a refuge not only for its historical denizens, but also for migrants seeking more ideal conditions:

Recognizing those factors, Miles et al.’s [152] central conclusion was that, to ensure the greatest resilience of Amazonian biodiversity, the highest priority should be given to strengthening and extending protected areas in western Amazonia that encompass lowland and montane forests. In that context, Yasuni has unique value. It not only protects a lowland forest, but also, given its proximity to the Andes, could also serve as a key ‘‘stepping-stone’’ for climate-change driven species migrations between the Amazon forests and upslope forests found in Sumaco, Llanganates, and Sangay National Parks.

Ecuador is under considerable pressure itself to harvest the estimated 850 million barrels of oil in the so called “ITT Block” (Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), leased oil fields that intersect and underlie Yasuní National Park. In 2007, the president of Ecuador agreed to postpone drilling and focus on the ITT Initiative, a measure that would protect the park indefinitely provided Ecuador was compensated by the international community. The researchers are still concerned with establishing a more permanent protection, however, considering that oil roads have already encroached in the northern portions of the park and the Initiative is lacking funding.

Protected areas

Harvesting oil has a tiered effect on the rainforest allowing for primary and secondary degradation. The primary effect of oil procurement on the rainforest is direct: roads and sites are built on deforested land, and spills and other forms of negligence seep into the surrounding land and water, affecting water-dependent species like the giant otter. The secondary effect is colonization. The oil roads are used in Ecuador to access new parts of the forest by hunters, farmers and other migrants, causing further deforestation and overhunting. Bass et al. have a very detailed example of a proposed “controlled” harvest of oil from a major company that ended up doing little to keep the ecosystems it invaded intact.

Their management solutions are necessarily restrictive, and dovetail with their exposition:

Permit no new roads nor other transportation access routes—such as new oil access roads, train rails, canals, and extensions of existing roads—within Yasuní National Park or its buffer zone.

Permit no new oil exploration or development projects in Yasuní, particularly in the remote and relatively intact Block 31 and ITT Block.

Create protected biological corridors from Yasuní to nearby higherelevation Andean parks for species on the move due to climate change.

Create a system of strict protected areas and no-go zones (i.e., off-limits to oil exploration and exploitation) in the northern Peruvian Amazon.

Establish a protected corridor between Yasuní and Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve that, together with the Peruvian reserves, would form a trans-boundary megareserve with Yasuní National Park at its core.

How many areas on the planet are like Yasuní? Perhaps more importantly, how many have we hollowed out and lost already? This place, like many others, is a living artifact, a big piece of our history, but as many times as that’s said, the repetition of moral arguments and political will weighs heavy on the communal dialog, dragging it down from its noble purpose. People don’t want to be told what to do because someone said so, they want to be shown. I believe this paper is important because it goes to great lengths to do so. It’s an excellent exhibition of data and simultaneously, an eloquent plea for action in a place that should be dear to all of us.

Bass, M., Finer, M., Jenkins, C., Kreft, H., Cisneros-Heredia, D., McCracken, S., Pitman, N., English, P., Swing, K., Villa, G., Di Fiore, A., Voigt, C., & Kunz, T. (2010). Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador's Yasuní National Park PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008767

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