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Cocha Cashu Biological Station

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Would a 3-month Course in Remote Amazonian Field Site Change Your Life?

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Guest lecturer Dr. Harald Beck explains his research on wallows created by peccaries and used by a variety of wildlife.

Would three months living and studying in one of the most remote field stations in the tropical rain forest change your life? At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station’s annual field ecology course in Peru, offered by San Diego Zoo Global, that’s our mission—to change lives. With the support of some generous donors, we were able to recruit and fund this exceptional educational opportunity for 10 bright and motivated Peruvian college students. They arrived at the field station full of potential and ready to soak up knowledge and experience like sponges.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

A red howler monkey stretches to reach some ripening figs.

Why should this be such a life-changing experience? First, imagine the remoteness. Deep in the heart of Manu National Park, the Station is set in the midst of primeval forest and has the complete portfolio of Amazonian wildlife. Giant otters and black caimans swim in the lake in front of the Station, catching fish and occasionally harassing each other. Peccaries and tapirs visit the mineral licks at night to eat clay (as a digestive aid and to get valuable nutrients). Macaws of all colors fly overhead, and the river is lined with skimmers, Orinoco geese, and horned screamers. Columns of army ants march across the forest floor and, yes, a few mosquitos and biting insects can also be found…but it’s not that bad. And the trees! The magnificent trees soar majestically skyward. So diverse is this forest that a couple of acres contains more than 150 species of trees. Not least, the instructors are well-seasoned biologists with years of experience in the Amazon with an Amazon-sized devotion to the cause of tropical conservation.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

One of the students finds a prize, a tapir skull.

I’m here for a two-week visit to check in on the Station and help with the students. I’m not sure what is more rewarding: exploring the forest and its wildlife or seeing these students’ whole world open up as they see new possibilities. Already the experiences they’ve had are remarkable. I would have made great sacrifice at their age to experience something like this. Over the next three months these students will receive expert tutelage on the natural history and ecology of the Amazon, designing and implementing ecological research, and connecting with the wonderful diversity of life found at Cocha Cashu. It’s bound to change lives.

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D. is the Brown Chair and director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. Read his previous post, Bagging Tasmanian Devils: Can We Save a Misunderstood Creature?

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Welcoming Students to Cocha Cashu

Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

We can hear the Matsigenka schoolchildren chattering over the hum of the outboard (it’s amazing how sound carries over water), but they fall silent as they approach the beach that represents our port. Unlike researchers, who typically spend 10 minutes tidying their gear and putting on rubber boots before disembarking clumsily, the kids jump out of the boat without fuss. They are shy as Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru, comes forward to greet them. They have never been to Cocha Cashu before, although their neighboring community, Maisal, is just an hour or so upriver. Their teacher, Miluska, shakes Cesar’s hand and smiles warmly. Together, they walk the 550-yard (500 meters) trail through the rain forest to the station.

In our discussions with local people, we have noticed repeatedly a sense of bafflement about what we do at Cocha Cashu. People see us come and go, but there is very little connection, if any, between the researchers and staff who spend weeks or months at the station and the people who live in the communities in and around Manu. There is also little contact between the researchers and the Park authorities. We would like to change all this by making Cocha Cashu more accessible to local inhabitants, to increase the transparency of our activities and research, to share research findings openly with Park staff, and to enhance communication and interaction on all levels and with all community members. In short, we plan to integrate Cocha Cashu into the local and wider community.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station's library.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station’s library.

This process is not as simple as it sounds and will take some time to complete. We have begun exploring various avenues and ideas and will continue to do so in the coming year. As a first step, and at the request of Miluska, in October 2012 we invited 15 primary grade schoolchildren in Maisal to spend a weekend at the station.

Over the next two days, Cesar and Fortunato (our boat driver and photographer) introduced the children to life and research at Cocha Cashu. The kids were shown around the main buildings and given a presentation after lunch to enhance their understanding of Cashu’s role in Manu, beginning with the origins of the station and ending with our hopes and objectives for the future. This was followed by an excursion into the forest to explain a number of ongoing, long-term research projects, and they had the opportunity to count and measure some trees in a few little plots to experience how scientists evaluate the forest.

A refreshing swim in the lake!

A refreshing swim in the lake!

They also received a lesson about the mechanism of Cashu’s power supply, examined water quality, and, during a short discussion session, the children in turn showed us that they have a great understanding of the natural history of aquatic systems. There was also plenty of time for fun, not least a swim in the lake! Little by little, the kids lost their awe and entered into the spirit of Cocha Cashu. For us, the broad grins in the group photo, taken toward the end of their visit, say it all.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Homecoming in Cocha Cashu.

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Titi Monkeys and Me

The field station on the edge of Peru’s Cocha Cashu.

My pack is my pillow. I lay on the damp, leaf-strewn earth gazing up at the titi monkey, waves of nostalgia crashing all around me. In a parallel life, I could have been doing this for 25 years. Deftly, nimble black fingers gather the small fruits and pop them into the monkey’s mouth. I can see its dark eyes clearly, searching for fruit, occasionally casting a furtive glance my way. It calls to its mate, and they scamper along branches, rejoin, and resume foraging in tandem. I have found what I have been looking for the last 25 years…in a sense.

I am at our biological field station at Cocha Cashu in Peru (see Cocha Cashu: Exploring Uncharted Territory). I have given myself the gift of the day: a day to wander through the forest alone; a day for nature pure and simple. No science. No human relationships. No over-thinking. From the onset, it is my highest hope that I will experience titi monkeys. I have spent the morning walking slowly and quietly through the forest, enjoying the birds, butterflies, and occasional monkeys.

A forest good for primates. This is an ancient ficus tree that bears figs relished by monkeys.

I hear leaves rustling quietly overhead and the softest little “peep-peep-peep” that instantly brings me back two decades. I recognize the contact call that the titi monkey gives to stay in touch with its mate while foraging. The next half hour is a personal journey through time—past, present, and future.

The year is 1988. I am in my first year of grad school at UC Davis. I am in a one- hectare “field cage” observing the daily drama that unfolds between several pairs of monkeys. James and Laura—the names come back to me—are the star couple, happily pair bonded and devoted to one another. Klinger and Mabel have troubles. Klinger is retiring and fearful (i.e., a wimp) and Mabel is…a would-be cheater. She has her eyes on James. I am collecting behavioral data and working out my doctoral dissertation research with professors Sally Mendoza and Bill Mason. I am also dreaming of relocating my research to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon.

One of the other primate denizens of Cocha Cashu, the brown capuchin monkey.

But this project will never be. I will instead find a field project with rattler-battling ground squirrels in California and then find my way to a postdoctoral position with San Diego Zoo Global. I will track rhinos through the African bush and study giant panda ecology in the bamboo forests of China. One day later I will become the director of many conservation projects around the globe. But I will not study titi monkeys, and I will not come to the Amazon…not for a long time.

But today I am lying on my back deep in the Amazon watching a pair of titi monkeys feed, thinking of a life that might have been. I return to camp with an Amazon-sized lump in my throat.

Ron Swaisgood is the director of Applied Animal Ecology and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Homecoming in Cocha Cashu

This is Theo (or Thea?), a young otter born last year in Cocha Cashu. The giant otter habit of periscoping allows us to document their unique throat patterns.

The howler monkeys wake me up before my alarm clock does. For a moment, I’m disorientated. Oh, right, I’m in Cocha Cashu in Peru. As I dress, I try to decide how I would describe the howlers’ epic serenade to my kids. Like a train roaring through a tunnel? A powerful wind rushing through the tree canopy? Awesome in the true sense of the word?

The day is just beginning when I meet Russ at the lake. We collect our gear and gingerly step into the wooden canoe. It sits low in the water. Any sudden movement risks an early bath. The trick is to smoothly fold yourself into a cross-legged position on the bottom. We eventually manage this (not so smoothly), and gently push ourselves off. The canoe, shaped like a hollowed-out needle, slides soundlessly from the shore. Sitting in the stern, I grip my crudely carved paddle and push against the water, accidentally knocking against the boat and causing Russ to clutch the sides. But soon I fall into a rhythm, five strokes to starboard, five to port, and the canoe stabilizes. We relax. The paling sky, the murmur of our passage, the darkly sleeping forest, it all seems so familiar. It is as though I’ve never been away.

A juvenile striated heron pretends to be invisible as we approach.

Almost immediately, we glide past a tree in which white-fronted capuchins are feeding. There is still not enough light for photography, so I take pleasure in simply watching. Russ does not speak, for which I am grateful. The beauty around us is enough. We slowly drift on. Howlers on one shore of the lake begin their unearthly concert, and a group on the opposite shore answers. The forest is quickening. Far off, I hear the soulful hiccupping of crying babies; correction, dusky titi monkeys. A hoatzin shuffles in overhanging branches, rasping softly. Sunlight now gilds the trees, and their leaves turn a luminous green. A striated heron stands frozen at the edge of a patch of floating grass. I touch the water with my paddle, and the canoe whispers forward. Russ and I take photos of the heron until, losing heart, it flies off.

Then I hear them. I hold my breath. Yes, there it is again. Unmistakable. Now I’m tense with anticipation. I know what to look for and scan the water’s surface ahead. It reflects the tree line perfectly, such is its stillness. But at the grass edge to the left I see it distort and shimmer. Then I hear a sharp exhalation, and a wave bulges toward us. They’re chasing fish. Russ and I see the small head simultaneously. Two. No, three giant otters! I reach for my camera and wait. Sure enough, they soon spot us and head directly toward us. As they come closer, they begin to zigzag, studying us from all angles. One exhales explosively and ducks under. Another propels its upper quarters straight out of the water—periscopes—and I quickly take a photo of its throat pattern. To my delight, I recognize this male. I knew him as a demanding cub in 2002, in nearby Cocha Salvador, Manu National Park’s best-known oxbow lake. I named him Diablito—Little Devil. Now, a decade later, we meet again.

The third otter also snorts loudly and periscopes. This individual was born in Cocha Cashu in 2009 and is Diablito’s daughter or son. Soon I have the throat patterns of all three. Gently, quietly, I paddle backward, letting the otters know that we mean no harm. The important business of hunting soon distracts them, and they continue foraging along the grassy shore.
I take a deep breath. I love seeing giant otters, the subject of seven years of conservation work, but actually recognizing an individual from my former life is thrilling. And I’m happy that the lake still harbors a resident giant otter group as it has done for as long as research has been carried out at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station.

As we make our way back to the station, a pair of macaws flies overhead and a cormorant croaks rudely. My paddle dips into a large clump of fat, squirming tadpoles. They fan out, bobbling the water surface. The lake is humming with life, including biting beasties. I’ve been so caught up with the otters that only now do I feel the burning itch of several bites on my arms and neck. But it’s not worth stopping for repellent—our breakfast is calling us.
The canoe nudges the station’s jetty, and Russ pulls us along it. He climbs out, stretches, and turns to face me. “That was wonderful. Thank you,” he says. Pleased, I beam at him. As he walks off for his coffee, I take a last, long look across the lake and sigh contentedly. I’ve come home.

Jessica Groenendijk is an education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru.

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Cocha Cashu: Exploring Uncharted Territory

Curious giant river otters inspect Ron and his group.

For the past two years the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has been on a journey. The path has been long, and not always straight, but the endpoint is clear: we are exploring uncharted territory in search of a new and improved conservation vision. I am proud to say that I have been helping to steer us down this path, alongside my colleague and friend, Alan Lieberman, director of Regional Conservation Programs for the Institute. It all started two years ago, when John Terborgh, professor at Duke University, asked us if we were interested in inheriting his legacy of four decades at the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park in the magnificent Peruvian Amazon. Manu is a park without peer, a huge expanse sheltering more species than any other park on Earth. It is still pristine, almost untouched by human activity, other than the indigenous people living in the park as they have for thousands of years, some of whom remain uncontacted by the outside world. Learn more about the park and the Station from these earlier blogs: Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature, A Walk in the Woods with John Terborgh, and Manu National Park: Worth the Bites.

The Cocha Cashu Station will be set up to house researchers.

Cocha Cashu is deep in the heart of this park and, as such, is not easy to access. Having secured a 10-year agreement with the Peruvian National Parks Service to administer the Station, my journey starts in Cusco, where I am meeting our newly hired staff. I am joined by Cesar Flores, program director, Jessica Groenendijk, education coordinator, and Veronica Chavez, logistics coordinator. We board a van and spend the day on the long, winding road to a high Andean pass and then plummet down the mountainside along a single-lane dirt track to the Amazon basin. The direction of traffic alternates from day to day. Views of the cloud forests flanking the Andes are breathtaking. Along the way we are treated to a rare sighting of the preposterously ornate cock-of-the-rock, a bird that appears to have a slice of orange super-glued to its head.

A motorized canoe brings researchers to the Station.

At Atalaya we board a motorized canoe and travel all day down the upper “Mother of God” River to a jungle town called Boca Manu. From there, it is a pleasant two-day trip by boat up the Manu River, past the last bastions of civilization, to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station. Along the way we see more than 50 species of birds (out of the more than 1,000 that live in Manu), white caiman, river turtles, neotropical river otters, and several species of monkeys. We enjoy watching a group of red howler monkeys, dangling by their tails from the vegetation and scooping up mouthfuls of mineral-laden soil from the cliff.

At the Station, we spend our time brainstorming our mission and inspecting the infrastructure to determine how to upgrade the facilities. We will work to create more creature comforts for visiting scientists, who will pay a small fee to support the Station, while still maintaining the rustic—some may say primitive—charm of the Station. Planned are a new kitchen, improved bathrooms, a shower facility (replacing bathing in the nearby oxbow lake, though some may still prefer to attend to their hygienic needs alongside the piranha and black caiman that share the lake!), and improved solar power and internet connection. Yes, the Station does not yet have proper toilets, but it does have email! Most enjoyable, we check out the vital network of trails that provide researchers access to the forest and animals they study.

Ron inspects a large spider.

Despite the difficult task at hand, we slowly fall under Cashu’s spell. Eight species of primates visited the forest surrounding the Station, and we were treated to groups of spider and capuchin monkeys sipping the nectar from the flowering giant trees. Sometimes they were joined by scarlet macaws, and together they created quite a ruckus. Morning coffee was enjoyed at the dock, where the resident group of giant river otters often passed by, an incredible animal measuring 6 feet in length. We also took the small dugout canoe out on the lake and observed the otters playing and fishing. Jessica spent several years studying these animals and was a tremendous fountain of knowledge and expertise on the species. And there is nothing so magical as watching a full moon rise over the Manu River, silhouetting the ancient primeval forest that has remained unchanged for millennia.

A black-capped squirrel monkey is just one of the many species found in this pristine rain forest.

A week later, sadly, we retraced our steps back out of the Park. We left with a better understanding of the Station’s needs and a new and improved mission: to contribute to the knowledge and conservation of tropical biological diversity by improving infrastructure, educating the public, building conservation capacity, and promoting quality, innovative, scientific research at local, regional, national, and international levels. A tall order! We hope you will continue to follow us on this journey.” Though we work in the field in 35 countries around the globe and maintain several field stations, this is our first station “open for business” to any and all scientists and is our first program in the Amazonian ecosystem. The path is sure to be an exciting one, full of adventure and surprise.

Ron Swaisgood is the director of Applied Animal Ecology and the general scientific director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Tracking Pandas in Foping Nature Reserve.

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Cocha Cashu: Wild Nature

Manu monkey

Dozens of squirrel monkeys pass noisily through the trees in search of ripening figs and insects.

The Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru: A Naturalist’s Dream

I sit spellbound among trees that make up a forest abundant with all forms of life. Soon the animals move to me, passing over me like animate waves through the forest. A large group of white-lipped peccaries, relatives of our domestic pig, passes first. I’m enveloped in peccaries as they snort and root and clack their tusks together to express some difference of opinion between one another. The next wave is a group of brown capuchin monkeys, leaping from one palm frond to another, approaching curiously to evaluate what I might be.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Atop a majestic tree, an ornate hawk-eagle has built its nest.

Far above in the crown of an emergent giant tree, the shaggy head of a fledgling ornate hawk-eagle peers over the edge of its nest to see what the commotion is about. Its father is likely out searching for titi monkeys, which, once captured, will make a fine meal to promote the chick’s growth so it can soon hunt for itself. In the distance, the melodious duet of a pair of titi monkeys, expressing the strength of their lifelong bond, breaks the quiet of the forest. Butterflies of every color imaginable flit among the flowers in the dappled light of the forest floor.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Forests unbroken as far as the eye can see. Manu's 1.8 million hectares contains at least five uncontacted tribes living as they have for millennia.

Such are the scenes that play out in the deep forests of Manu National Park in southeastern Peru. This rhythm of life and death has repeated itself uninterrupted for eons. Manu has changed little in the last few thousands years since the rise of human civilization. This is one of the last places on Earth where nature reigns supreme.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

View of Cocha Cashu, a small oxbow lake by the station. Piranhas here. Swim at your own risk! This also serves as the bathing facility.

I am here with two of my colleagues from the San Diego Zoo, Alan Lieberman and Russ Van Horn. We have the privilege to visit such a place at the invitation of Dr. John Terborgh, one of the world’s most distinguished tropical ecologists. Thirty-some years ago, John came to this remote corner of the Earth to begin work at a field station, Cocha Cashu, located on the shore of a small oxbow lake. In that time, John and his team have seen several hundred students and researchers come and go, and they have established a reputation for unsurpassed ecological research.

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

Disaster averted. One engine, done in by the hidden logs lurking just below the surface, had to be replaced in transit to Cocha Cashu. No coast guard here!

The unique selling point of Cocha Cashu is its pristine condition, affording an unrivaled opportunity to study the processes of nature undisturbed by human influence. For the Amazon, this is the “control group,” the place to come to study nature as it should be. It provides a baseline, a goal for us to strive for when attempting to recover other areas degraded by human activity. For me, it has always been the ultimate experience for wild nature. Seven years ago, I visited the wonders of Manu as a tourist—a privilege shared by only 2,000 to 3,000 people each year—but had not set foot in the forests of Cocha Cashu.

On this visit, I am immersed not just in nature but also in the research culture that has flourished here. We are working nearby in the cloud forests above Manu, studying the Andean bears (also called spectacled bears) and other inhabitants of the cloud forest (see post Bear Culture). Now, we are in the jaguar’s realm. We talk among ourselves about the exciting possibility of someday returning to Manu, not as visitors, but as researchers. What an incredible opportunity it would be to help fulfill the mission of this remote outpost of the Peruvian rain forest! It would be a dream come true.


Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.