As someone interested in nature, and as a scientist with San Diego Zoo Global, over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to see four of the world’s eight bear species in the wild. Often these sightings occurred in circumstances that left my heart pounding with wonder, although I admit that once or twice I’d have preferred to know beforehand that all would end well. How many bear species can you list, without referring to a reference? Similarly, how many primate species can you list? They may be big charismatic mammals, but both bears and primates are a tiny fraction of the biodiversity in our world. On a recent trip to the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in southeast Perú, I gained a much better appreciation for the biodiversity of the lowland Amazonian rainforest. You’ve probably heard that tropical rainforests have incredibly biodiversity, but it’s one thing to ‘know’ in your head that the rainforest features amazing biodiversity, and it’s something else to ‘know’ it from experience.
Jessica Groendijk, education and outreach coordinator for the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, has written about how she and I began a morning at the field station. We saw giant river otters in the wild! Thus began a truly memorable day in the field. After returning to camp, I quizzed Jessica over breakfast on her interpretation of the otters’ behavior, and various aspects of their ecology. Patiently she explained what was known and not known about giant river otter behavior, ecology, and conservation. She politely refrained from reminding me that most of this information was included in the book on giant river otters she co-authored with her husband. I did read the book, honest! It’s just that I read it a few years ago, and I hadn’t yet had my first cup of coffee…
After fueling up, we grabbed our gear and left camp with Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, and Luis Ramirez and Samantha Young, both of San Diego Zoo Global’s Conservation Education division, to become more familiar with the habitat and animals surrounding the field station. I’ve spent much more time in the cloud forest, and the tropical dry forest, than in the lowland Amazon rainforest, so the Amazon is like a different world to me. In my humble opinion, it is truly wonderful, in the full sense of that word.
By the end of this day at Cocha Cashu, Jessica and I had not only seen giant river otters (!) and numerous bird species, we’d also seen seven species of wild primates: white-fronted capuchin monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, common squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, saddleback tamarins, and emperor tamarins. My heart got a decent workout.
Cocha Cashu has long been known as a great place to conduct biological field research, to better understand how things work in the lowland Amazon rainforest. After seeing the improvements Cesar and his staff have made since I last visited the station, and talking to these folks about their vision and goals, I’m hopeful that Cocha Cashu will continue to be a source of knowledge, and that this knowledge will help guide efforts to conserve the lowland rainforest and its diverse components.
Thanks again, Jessica, for allowing me to share a wonderful morning on the lake at Cocha Cashu, and thanks to Cesar and all the other people in Perú and in the US who made our visit, and our involvement at Cocha Cashu, a possibility.
Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Are Wild Areas a Luxury?