Hola, everyone, for the first time from Ecuador. I am writing the bulk of this update on July 13th from Camarones, the village that is about an hour hike from my living quarters. Camarones offers the closest electricity to the reserve, so I have hiked down several days over the past couple of weeks to take advantage of it and use my computer a bit. The closest internet, however, is significantly further away, so I save the task of uploading this message for a future weekend.
[This ¨future weekend¨ I happen to be spending in a town further south along the coast called Puerto Lopez, the details of which I’ll save for a future update.]
As a refresher to what I have been doing this summer, since the beginning of June, I have been working for a US-based education and conservation nonprofit called Third Millennium Alliance (TMA). I was hired to carry out a camera trap survey of the wild felines in the ecological reserve TMA has established: the Jama-Coaques Reserve (Jama and Coaques are both coastal towns relatively close by), I will comment on the progress of the cat survey later. At the reserve, myself, the six other interns, and several staff members live in an open bamboo house. Although there are inconveniences, it is largely a fantastic place to live: with the surrounding forest valleys, continuous chorus of birds and insects, and the soothing gurgling stream just below us, it’s easy to look forward to coming back from a hike and collapsing in a hammock just to look around and listen. There are a few additional non-human inhabitants with us, namely a few chickens and our house cat, who fortunately has taken to hunting the numerous cockroaches which plague our kitchen at night. All our food and supplies are brought up by person or mule, after being purchased in the coastal town of Pedernales about an hour’s drive north of Camarones. We do eat very well at the reserve (compared to remote places I have worked at before), although the lack of any meat or fish gives me an extra reason to look forward to weekend trips to the coast.
Although I did not enter this position with a very thought-out anticipation of what specifically was entailed, the days I have spent at the Jama-Coaque Reserve have not progressed as I might have anticipated. Some of the unexpected events have turned out serendipitous, and some have turned out disappointing. Without bogging down this belated message with too many details, I’ll give a short representative summary of what I’m talking about.
To begin with, the one solid expectation I did have was to work on a camera-trap survey of the wild felines in, and perhaps around, the 800-acre Jama-Coaque Reserve. By using camera traps (cameras that are set up in the forest, usually attached to trees, which will take a picture when triggered by motion/heat) I intended to discover more about which species of feline were in the reserve, distinguish individual cats based on their uniquely personal spot patterns, and make some preliminary conclusion about their density. This survey proved to be both mis-advertised—although I’m sure much of that was unintentional—and unreasonable to complete as I had hoped. Upon arriving here in early June, I found that out of the six species of cat TMA advertised to occur in the reserve’s range, only one—the ocelot—has ever been seen, and only the ocelot and the jagarundi are confirmed to be here. One of the six species, the oncilla, does not range west of the Andies at all. And, when I asked if the two largest species, the jaguar and puma, were ever sighted or believed to live near the reserve, I was answered with a, “No, they’ve never been seen” along with a chuckle to implicitly call out the naivety of my question. Of course, I’m the first to admit that just because there has never been an indication of these cats being here does not mean they are not here. My second unfortunate discovery, however, makes finding such potentially present and definitely secretive species extremely improbable: TMA only has a meager arsenal of three camera traps. Granted, the 800-acre expanse of the reserve is a small area for a survey, but it is usual for preliminary surveys to have tens of cameras, with each station having two cameras facing each other to maximize the likelihood of getting a clear picture of a passing cat. Considering these and other restrictions, the camera trap survey has fizzled down to a trial period of tweaking the cameras’ technical settings and physical camera sets, intending to identify how best to use the cameras for a future time when TMA does acquire enough equipment for a proper survey. Although this is still a somewhat valuable task to complete, it strikes me as contrived, and I fear there will be little I have to offer TMA after two months.
So that is the bulk of the bad news concerning the cat survey. On the bright side, we have gotten some good pictures and videos (the camera traps can take video clips when triggered, also) of the endangered ocelot. I also get to spend the majority of my hours during the day walking the trails, since I am looking for the best places to put cameras for a future survey. Of course, I usually find lots of distractions while hiking around to steal my attention…I’ve seen lots of plants and flowers, birds, snakes (the Common Boa who frequents our bathroom and shower is pictured), insects, tarantulas, monkeys. I never get tired of hiking around, and I usually see something different every day.
On that note, the PacificCoast equatorial rainforest here in Ecuador is also quite distinctive from the rainforests where I’ve worked in Africa. In addition to a different composition of flora and fauna, the most striking difference is the amount of running water. In Kibale forest, for example, there were very few streams or rivers; based on the season, there were varying levels of stagnant water in the papyrus swamps and forest valleys, but very little flowing water. Here, we are in a forest that sits one the side of a mountain (incidentally, probably one of the reasons the forest is still standing—less steep areas have largely been slashed and burned for agriculture) and near the headwaters of the Camarones River. There are a few streams trickling through the reserve that converge to form the larger Camarones further downslope, and walking along the streambeds I have found many quintessential jungley waterfalls. Since we are here in the dry season, when there is much less water flowing through than in the wet season, the streambeds are largely hike-able, and I’ve spent many hours just following the water up or down. Less cascading water also means dryer rocks, so I’ve been able to scramble around some of the waterfalls where it would be impossible in the rainy season.
Our work week lasts Monday through Friday, and a typical weekend sees us hiking down to the highway and taking a truck or bus to a beach town along the coast. Thus far, I have spent a day or two over-nighting in Pedernales to the north, Canoa to the south, and Bahia a bit further south. These beach towns offer a nice way to relax in the open air outside of the closed forest. Although we eat very well at the reserve, it is also a refreshing change of pace to drink some cold fruit juice or fruit badidos, a delicious Ecuadorian milkshake. A significant portion of these weekends for me is also spent in an internet cafe; the closest electricity to our bamboo house is an hour away in Camarones, but the closest internet is a further hour’s driving along the road to Pedernales. So, all of our corresponding and researching is restricted to weekend days.
Although the peculiarly-chosen American movies dubbed in Spanish playing at a volume sufficient for the car behind us to benefit from was enjoyable, certainly my favorite part of the bus rides south have been the short stop in Jama. There, vendors board the bus bearing pitchers of coconut and orange juice, empanadas, pastries, and a fantastic kind of bread with cheese baked in called pannes de yucca. The yucca root is one I’ve grown very familiar with in East Africa, where it is called cassava, and I often ate a porridge-type meal which used cassava flour. Never before, however, had I tasted it in bread with cheese, which is by far the best-tasting method of cooking it I’ve experienced.
My final two weeks here will largely consist of what I’ve now been doing for 6 weeks, probably with a few farewell activities thrown in before I leave the reserve on August 3rd. From there, I will probably take the bus back to Quito and spend several days there before my return flight home on the morning of the 6th. I return home only to leave again several days later for a mountaineering trip in the Pacific Northwest, however I do anticipate writing more about living and working here in Ecuador sometime soon. It is unlikely I will write more while I am still in Ecuador. I will also upload more pictures in addition to the several I’ve given here as examples. So, I hope everyone is enjoying their summer, and in all probability, hasta luego from Ecuador!