The Yarapa River Rainforest Reserve: An Ecology in Recovery
by David Rosane photos by D. Sherman
People call me birddave. The guy who studies birds with Dr. Eloy Rodriguez. The nut who keeps on flying back and forth across the Atlantic. Yes, I am a very fortunate individual. I live a precious, albeit dichotomous life. For the past decade, I have had the privilege of spending half of each year collecting chemo-ornithological data for Cornell University, mist-netting tropical feathered jewels in the deep, dark jungles of Venezuela, the luscious cloud forests and coastal subtropical brush of the Dominican Republic. There, I share the life of Indigenous communities. They generously invite me into their villages, teaching me the foundations of their culture, sharing their vast knowledge of animals and plants. I meet new people, make new friends.
The rest of the year, I am lucky enough to live in Paris. When in the urban jungle, I flirt with starlings, talk to pigeons, argue with house sparrows. I have an office in my apartment; hammering out new ideas for research, designing databases, editing footage of wild bird behaviors, writing books and papers for the scientific and popular audiences. Some days, I awake reading the paper, coffee in hand. A few years ago, I stumbled across something that looked like an obituary. A small paragraph at the bottom of the last page of the International Herald Tribune. It was written by Dr. John Terborgh, a great ecologist of the neotropical rainforests. The title ran: “the silent Amazon forest”. It said, with reference to the jungles around Iquitos, Peru : “ The expected sounds of parrots, macaws and monkeys (are) missing. Today thousands of loggers and miners, agents of the current bonanzas, are mopping up any animal populations that survived the earlier booms. Soon, I fear, the entire Amazon will be an empty forest, save for a handful of inadequately protected parks and reserves.”
I started to cry. I was born in the rainforest of Guyana 36 years ago. My first words, so the family legend goes, were : “shut up little birdies”. Of course I didn’t want them to shut up. I needed peace as a baby. And now, as an adult, having been a bird lover since the age of 5, I have had no peace at all. Every where I look, every where I go, I see destruction. The birds, their habitats, are disappearing. I have, and continue to be, a broken albeit fortunate individual. Last year, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Charles “Charlie” Mango, Dr Jay Hyman, George Howell and Ms. Esther Bonderaff, Dr Rodriguez and I were invited to north eastern Peru to conduct our summer research with a tribe of eager, brilliant, and wide-eyed Cornell undergraduates. I feared the worst: were we to see no animals, hear no birds, witness what American author and activist Terry Tempest Williams calls “the unnatural history of death” ?
For four weeks, we hemmed ourselves into the mosquito netting and grand hospitality of Yarapa River Lodge, located 4 hours by boat south-east of Iquitos, on the western fringes of the great Amazon forest. We studied the flora, fauna and biochemistry of the area. Walking, talking, learning, discovering. We had the river in front of the lodge. We saw the dolphins everyday, diligently foraging for the hundreds of species of Amazonian catfish and piranha. Parrots flew overhead in continuous shrieks of raucous laughter, screaming for berries and palm fruits. Coral snakes slithered across our trails. Tarantulas crept under our beds, tree-frogs leaped onto our heads. I even stepped on a scorpion and survived. And yes, we did dance with big blue morpho butterflies. Believe it or not, we even swam with anacondas ! We were lucky. The power and vibrancy of life was still there, although incomplete. Bruised and scarred. We found the bullet-ridden corpse of a margay cat, a victim of the pelt-trade. And the harpy eagle was no where to be seen, the haunting hoots of nocturnal curassows were no where to be heard. They had disappeared.
The Yarapa river, whose source lies near the foothills of the Brazilian border, is one of hundreds of tributaries of the great Ucayali River, forerunner of the gargantuan Amazon. Endowed with white and black water river systems, and the affiliated oligotrophic, nutrient poor soils, sculpted over geological time into a mosaic of high and low terrain, the Yarapa area is today an intricate mélange of seasonally flooded Igapo and Varzea forests, and Terra Firme (or high-ground) forests. Each of these forest types support its own guild of plant and animal species. Together, they form a community of communities, a kaleidoscope in which we managed to identify more than 200 species of birds, countless arthropods including bullet ants and rainbow colored orb spiders, and the ubiquitous nine species of primates. The marmosets, capuchins, howlers, squirrel monkeys and more. We also collected more than 100 species of medicinal plants.
Ecologists today have surveyed the rainforests of the world. They have come to the conclusion that the highest biodiversity on earth is found in Peru, along a rim of forest, a belt of chlorophyll-fueled “green hell” connecting the Andean Foothills to the western rim of the Amazonian basin. Yarapa lies just east of that belt, and is thus potentially endowed with the second highest diversity on plant earth. We must not let it go. The aforementioned mosaic of Terra Firme, Varzea and Igapo is practically unique. The latter two ecosystems are the most common in the Yarapa area, supporting flood-tolerant trees and undergrowth plants adapted to the capricious overflows of the Amazon.
The Varzea forests flourish along whitewater, sediment rich waterways and streams. They offer us festoons of arboreal epiphytes; the bromeliads and aroids that house Lilliputian frogs and mosquito larvae, that anchor their celestial existence to the towering 35 meter heights of Bombaceae, Rubiaceae, Moraceae and Leguminosae trees. In the early morning, these forests resonate with the piping serenades of the musician wren, the ringing decrescendos of wood-creepers. At night, you hear the flip-flop wing beats of some 50 species of bats; the insectivorous, the nectar-sipping, fruit eating or blood-sucking chiropterans. They fly by, caressing your ears with the encouraging sound of biodiversity. The power of DNA, the life-force of natural selection.
The Igapo forests, on the other hand, root themselves in the sandy soils bordering blackwater lakes and clearwater rivers. They are not as rich in epiphytes, but do support fruiting plants of many tropical families, with up to 48 species of trees per hectare. For the fruit-addicted electric blue cotingas, screaming pihas and small, multi-colored araçari toucans, the Igapo is a cornucopia of tropical ambrosia. A paradise for the birds. A paradise to be saved. A paradise that will be saved. For I have just received, as this “Emanations” 4 goes to press, a busload of beautiful, refreshing news. An email from Dr. Charles Mango : “David, the land at Yarapa lodge has been increased and now encompasses two square miles. The lodge has 3600 meters along the Yarapa and extends almost 2000 meters into the jungle. The Yarapa River Rainforest Reserve, on the opposite side of the river, constitutes almost 8,000 hectares. This amounts to 24,000 acres. We have a 50 year lease with the village of Jaldar. I am now trying to increase the size of this reserve. We are working with the other villages that are upriver from us in the hope of creating a huge reserve along the entire Yarapa river. The idea recently received impetus, when a few of the local lodges in the area decided to market their trees for profit. The local village heads approached Victor, my son and director of the lodge, and asked for our help. We convened a meeting at the lodge with the chiefs and the officials in Iquitos. It was here that the idea to make the entire Yarapa basin into a reserve was born.”
Thank you Charlie. Thank you Victor. I think I see the future. I see respect for the dignity of human beings and biodiversity. Thank you too, Dr. John Terborgh, for sounding the alarm. Thank you Jay, thank you George, thank you Esther. And thank you Eloy. A tribe is growing, a tribe fighting for the love of life. At Yarapa, I am now comforted with the news that my “little birdies” will never shut up. In the coming summer course of 2003, the Harpy eagle may return, and the curassow just might creep in beneath our huts and boom, pouring fountains of peace into our sleep.
Dr. David Rosanne is an Ornithologist from Cornell University and a research associate to Dr Eloy Rodriguez
Dr. Eloy Rodriguez is Director of Field Studies, Cornell Biodiversity laboratories of EsBaRan/Yarapa - Peru and Punta Cana - Dominican Republic