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.
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.
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.
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 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.