With Amazon Explorer, Paul Rosolie
Visiting a rainforest can be an exercise in challenged expectations. Everyone knows that rainforests are full of life: they teem with species, act as stages for unimaginably intricate food webs, and provide refuge for rare and even undiscovered organisms that exist nowhere else in the world. And yet . . . dense tropical forests can appear deceptively devoid of animals. One can spend hours and even days hiking through the Amazon’s cathedrals of green without spotting many animals beyond buzzing insects and snatches of birdsong from overhead. There are millions of organisms around, to be sure, yet they are all woven so tightly into their environment as to be almost indistinguishable from the forest itself.
Through the camera lens
Although it seems as though obtaining glimpses of the forest’s large and rare fauna might be a hopeless endeavor, there are a few tricks of the trade that researchers use to tease out evidence of even the most elusive species. Recently, advances in remote camera technology have provided scientists and photographers with new and exciting options for detecting wildlife—a way to put eyes in the forest without disturbing animals’ natural behaviors or movement patterns. When viewed through a camera lens, the forest comes to life. Case in point: the work of Paul Rosolie, a wildlife researcher who has done extensive research along Peru’s lower Las Piedras River. Rosolie has put concerted effort into documenting animals in the region’s forests. He often strategically places his cameras at mineral deposits—hotspots for wildlife seeking critical nutrients—and Rosolie’s photos have provided a valuable window into forest diversity and activity.
Rosolie’s film, An Unseen World, a collection of stunning camera trap footage from the Peruvian Rainforest, was a winner in the 2013 United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) short films contest, Forests for People.
There is a dark side to this story. The animals captured by Rosolie’s cameras cannot comprehend that their forest is on the brink of vast and potentially devastating changes. But Rosolie can, and this is what drives his efforts to document and publicize the region’s incredible biodiversity. He conducts his research knowing that every day, development encroaches a little bit farther into this delicate ecosystem, largely facilitated by road development designed to ease the process of extracting resources from South America’s rich interior.
The Trans-Amazonian highway was an ambitious and ill-conceived project initiated by General Medici, one of Brazil’s military rulers, in 1970. He observed that the northeastern parts of Brazil faced extreme resource scarcity, and his solution was to build a 5,000 km road spanning South America from east to west—crossing some of the most intimidating terrain on the planet. It was cut through thousands of kilometers of steaming tropical forest, up steep and winding mountainsides, and across dizzyingly high Andean passes.
The highway was assembled at a breakneck pace—the entire road was laid over the course of just 18 months. Unfortunately, someone managed to overlook the fact that the rainforest gets a lot of rain. A lot of rain. Enough rain to make the new highway, covered in just a thin veneer of gravel, virtually impassable for up to six months of the year.
Although the road failed as a reliable route of commerce, it has created lasting impacts. It resulted in previously isolated indigenous communities being exposed to new diseases, costing thousands of human lives and even broader cultural losses. The Brazilian government sponsored a large resettlement movement to populate South America’s interior after the road was built. Inevitably, settlers left stranded during rainy periods had to clear fast swaths of forest to eke out a living, due to the Amazon’s low soil nutrient content. And during the months the road was actually passable, it served as a conduit for logging—both illegal and otherwise—and rampant wildlife poaching in a region that is teeming with rare and unique species, including many that are likely unknown to science.
Humankind’s urge to conquer nature knows no bounds, however. Although the Brazilian government largely abandoned the road a few years after it proved to be a maintenance nightmare, there has recently been a new push to pave the entire thing, in an effort to keep it passable and facilitate more resource extraction from the heart of South America. It also provides a convenient corridor for moving drugs from one coast of the continent to the other, although that was not included in the official economic analyses.
This new and “improved” version of the highway—now experiencing dramatic increases in traffic—passes through the Las Piedras river area. The consequences are becoming more and more evident by the day. New logging roads are sprouting off of the main road into the pristine forest, and Rosolie and his team have seen a marked uptick in wildlife fatalities for species ranging from jaguars to macaws.
Protecting the Las Piedras region
One reason the region is reeling from the new road is that none of its land is formally protected—making it nearly impossible to enforce penalties for killing or disturbing wildlife. Thus, Rosolie is spearheading the effort to obtain formal protection of the land. “It’s no small task to create a national park, but…the truly unique element of the Piedras plan is the once-in-history opportunity to protect the area before it is degraded, and before it is filled with too many people to make a park viable.”
“Protecting this river would create ecosystem connectivity between large, famous protected areas. I think that connecting the already-existing parks to create a mega-reserve would be something for Peru to be proud of; an important example for the rest of the world.”
Protecting the Las Piedras region would yield compound benefits by creating a corridor system between other vital biodiversity hotspots. “Protecting this river would create ecosystem connectivity between large, famous protected areas. I think that connecting the already-existing parks to create a mega-reserve would be something for Peru to be proud of; an important example for the rest of the world.” While fighting to protect the region from further disturbance, Rosolie continues to document the rich diversity of Las Piedras. His cameras have yielded footage of dozens of rare and unique mammal species, including the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtus), one of the Amazon’s rarest mammals.
Rosolie has also documented a tiny marsupial known as the “mouse opossum” (Marmosa murina), the bellow-lunged red howler monkey (Alouatta sara), the elusive pale-winged trumpeter (Psophia leucoptera), and the virtually unstudied twist-necked turtle (Platemys platycephala), just to name a few highlights. Conservation work can be disheartening, especially for researchers that spend much of their time out in the field, confronting the effects of habitat destruction and poaching first-hand every day. Rosolie remains undaunted, and is putting effort into developing ecotourism-based conservation efforts around the lower Las Piedras. He has also written a book, Mother of God, which will be published by Harper Collins in early 2014. Rosolie hopes that the book’s tales of adventure and descriptions of the rich biodiversity of Peru’s forests will bring more attention and support to his efforts to protect wildlife in the region. In the mean time, he continues to cook up new and innovative ways to bring much-needed attention and support in order to save one of the jewels in South America’s crown of biodiversity.
Species in Las Piedras Colpa Camera Trap Study:
1. Red Brocket Deer: Mazama Americana
2. Grey Brocket Deer: Mazama gouzoubira nemorivaga
3. White-lipped Peccary: Tayassu pecari
4. Collared peccary: Tayassu tajacu
5. Tapir: Tapirus terrestris
6. Ocelot: Leopardus pardalis
7. Puma: Puma concolor
8. Giant Anteater: Myrmecophaga tridactyla
9. Giant Armadillo: Priodontes maximus
10. Nine-banded Armadillo: Dasypus kappleri
11. Red Squirrel: Sciurus igniventris
12. White Capuchin Monkey: Cebus albifrons
13. Howler Monkey: Alouatta sara
14. Paca: Cunniculus paca
15. Agouti: Dasyprocta punctate
16. Anuje: Myoprocta pratti
17. Porcupine: Coendou bicolor
18. Jaguar: Panthera onca
19. Tyra: Eira Barbara
20. Amazon Coati: Nasua nasua
21. Rabbit: Sylvilagus brasiliensis
22. Spider Monkey: Ateles chamek
23. Squirrel Monkey: Saimiri boliviensis
24. Amazonian Red Sided Opossum: Monodelphis glirina
25. Mouse opossum: Marmosa murina
26. Spixes Guan: Penelope jacquacu
27. Razor-billed Curosaw: Mitu tuberosum
28. Pale Winged Trumpeter: Psophia leucoptera
29. Yellow-footed Tortoise: Geochelone denticulata
30. Side Necked Turtle: Atemys platycephala