These images are part of a large monitoring program and confirm that the food chain is still healthy in this ecosystem.
In the forests of El Tuparro National Natural Park, a protected area in the far east of Colombia’s Orinoco region, a jaguar roams freely, the king of a territory it shares with many other species. It was captured in a languid mid-stride pose on one of 44 camera traps set up around the park between January and May 2020 by park rangers and researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and WWF. Other species picked up by the network of cameras: a puma (Puma concolor), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), tapir (Tapirus terrestris) and peccaries (Tayassu pecari and Pecari tajacu).
“All the top predators in the food chain, such as the jaguar, the jaguarundi and the forest fox , are found within El Tuparro National Natural Park,” said Jorge Parra, WCS’s protected areas coordinator. “This means that there is prey and that the park is fulfilling its function of maintaining ecosystems. Usually, these species are the first to disappear when there are severe disturbances.”
Every day, when the park rangers walk through the area, they come across animal tracks, including those of tapirs accompanied by their young, dozens of peccaries in search of watering holes, and pacas (Cuniculus paca), a giant rodent. These, and the visual evidence gathered by the camera traps, point to the park as a conservation success story.
A jaguar (Panthera onca) in El Tuparro National Natural Park captured by camera traps. Image courtesy of WCS.
Henry Pinzón, head of El Tuparro National Natural Park, said it was exactly 40 years ago that the Colombian government declared the territory a conservation area. The park comprises the core zone of El Tuparro Biosphere Reserve, an area that is home to ecosystems typical of the Orinoco region, with some of the country’s most scenic landscapes, such as the Maipures rapids, where the Tuparro River meets the Orinoco River and their waters rush around rock forms.
El Tuparro National Natural Park, which is almost 557,000 hectares (1.38 million acres) according to its latest delimitation, is home to dry and flood-prone savannas, gallery forests, terra firme forests (rainforests not inundated by flooded rivers), and even rocky outcrops. The park is deemed environmentally important, and researchers have dedicated years of study to analyzing possible threats to its ecosystems, including fires, sport and commercial fishing, and even hunting.
Growing human pressure
The camera traps recorded a tapir with an arrow lodged in its back walking through the forest. According to Pinzón, this image confirms that the Indigenous communities inhabiting the territory are continuing to hunt traditionally. But it also suggests that the demand for resources may be increasing; the Indigenous population within the park’s area of influence has increased by 300%.
Much of this population is concentrated in two large Indigenous reserves that were created in 2018 and overlap onto the protected area: the Awia Tuparro reserve is home to the Sikuani people, while the Nacuanedorro reserve hosts the Mapayerri Indigenous people, a community that only recently made contact with the outside world. Part of the reason for the swelling population is the influx from neighboring Venezuela of Indigenous peoples fleeing the economic and political crises there. Like other Indigenous peoples the world over, their historical range predates national boundaries, and their move from Venezuela into Colombia followed the same paths their ancestors took.
An Amazonian tapir (Tapirus terrestris) captured by camera traps in El Tuparro National Natural Park. Image courtesy of WCS.
Danta flechada por indígenas para su consumo. Foto: Cámaras trampa WCS, Parque Nacional Natural El Tuparro.
A tapir hunted by Indigenous people for consumption captured by camera traps in El Tuparro National Natural Park. Image courtesy of WCS.
For now, the challenge for park rangers and WCS and WWF researchers is to find a balance that will ensure species richness and numbers are maintained, while guaranteeing food security for Indigenous communities. Through the monitoring program that is under way, they aim to establish the current situation of the species typically hunted by Indigenous people, such as peccaries, tapirs and deer. “It is important to understand how they are using the fauna to guarantee its sustainability,” Parra said. He added the monitoring program is not just to understand the state of the fauna and flora, but acts as an integral strategy to analyze the pressures on resources and possible responses, and to inform any subsequent actions.
The 30 people involved in the program are now comparing the information collected in 2020 with that from 2015 to establish what has changed since then. “We want to help so that food resources do not run out for Indigenous people and try to use it in a more sustainable way, which means that we may have to reach an agreement on their usage. We are evaluating this,” Parra told Mongabay Latam. In El Tuparro National Natural Park, which has savannas that become floodplains when the Tomo and Tuparro rivers overflow during the rainy season, there are more than 300 species of birds, four species of cat, as well as foxes, rodents such as the paca, capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) and black agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa), the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus cariacou), red brocket (Mazama americana) and gray brocket (Mazama gouazoubira), and five species of turtle: the arrau turtle (Podocnemis expansa), the big-headed Amazon River turtle (Peltocephalus dumerilianus), the savanna side-necked turtle (Podocnemis vogli), the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius) and the yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) — among the many other wild animals that make El Tuparro National Natural Park a jewel of the Orinoco region.
Fires burning out of control
The biggest challenge now facing El Tuparro National Natural Park rangers is the fires that occur throughout the year, mainly between January and March, the region’s hottest months. These fires are becoming increasingly frequent and, according to Pinzón, can endanger the park’s ecosystems. In the first quarter of 2020 alone, 86,121 hectares (212,810 acres) were burned, mainly in savannas. That’s larger than the 76,591 hectares (189,260 acres) burned in all of 2019. “Most of the fires are of anthropogenic origin. They are connected to actors who think that the territory should be completely ‘clean,’” Pinzón said. Although the savannas, the main areas affected by the fires, can usually be renewed within a week, what greatly concerns the rangers are the reptiles that live in these ecosystems, as they have very reduced mobility. They are also concerned about nests in trees and gallery forests. “We don’t want the forest to become unsustainable,” Pinzón said.
Tania González, a biologist and doctoral student at the National University of Colombia and member of the university’s Landscape Ecology and Ecosystem Modeling (Ecolmod) research group, is researching the effects of fire on small mammals such as marsupials and rodents in the Orinoco region. Although her work does not focus on El Tuparro National Natural Park, she said fires are usually used throughout the region to clear land for agriculture and to stimulate the growth of fresh grass for livestock grazing. At first, the burning was limited to the dry savannas, but now the fires have gone out of control and are spreading to the interior of the forests, affecting plants and animals there too. “Fires can affect animals both directly when it causes mortality, either from the flames or smoke, and indirectly when the vegetation they need for food or shelter dies,” González said. “This can happen in El Tuparro When animals are large, they escape and move on to colonize other areas, but when they are smaller and move less distances, the impact is usually greater, as can be the case with small mammals or amphibians and reptiles.”
During a survey conducted by González and other members of the research group in El Tuparro National Natural Park, they identified a Guianan white-eared opossum (Didelphis imperfecta) with two babies. This species had previously never been recorded in Colombia and was known only to exist in the lowland rainforests of Venezuela and parts of Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. This sighting, which was published in a study in June 2020, is very important for Colombia, as only two marsupial species of the Didelphis genus of opossums have been recorded in the country. According to González, “Marsupials and rodents are very important because they are organisms that have key functions in ecosystems. They disperse seeds, consume seeds and move nutrients around the soil when burrowing. These activities are essential for vegetation to be maintained and for us to have oxygen.”
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