In 1997, the ornithologist Dr. Robert Ridgley and his scientific team discovered a new species of bird, until then unknown to science. It is a beautiful, long-legged, land-dwelling bird with a distinct call, from which its name, Jocotoco Antpitta, was derived. Deemed Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the Jocotoco is estimated to have only 480–600 individuals remaining in the world.
To protect its habitat, a foundation named after the Jocotoco was established, and it subsequently purchased the land containing the bird’s habitat, turning it into a reserve. Since then, Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco owns and manages many reserves across Ecuador. Two of the areas that TiME proposes to purchase and protect this year, land in the Chocó Forest and Tapichalaca Reserve, would be administered by Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco, if they receive sufficient votes.
Both reserves protect crucial primary forest. Primary forests are mature forests that have reached a final stage in their development. In other words, if fire were to burn an area and leave the soil scorched, the process of regeneration would take place gradually, with each phase setting the stage for the next: fast-growing grasses build nutrients in the soil, allowing softwood trees to grow, and so forth, until fully developed forests are formed. This process can take anywhere from 50 years to a millennium, depending on local factors and tree species. Therefore, while reforestation plays a crucial role in rehabilitating the global ecosystem, it is critical first and foremost to preserve the existing primary forests, on which many animals depend. Even the shortest span of forest regeneration of 50 years may be too much given today’s fast pace of species extinction and climate change.
To be considered a primary forest, a mature forest must also be devoid of human interference, such as logging, road construction, mining, and invasive species. A mature forest demands an undisturbed canopy and unpolluted water and soil. When the forest is fragmented again and again by human activity and parts of it become isolated, it will no longer be able to sustain the same biodiversity. Of course, this does not mean that all human presence damages the forest — it is only invasive activity and modern agriculture that are ill-suited to the surroundings that are problematic. Indigenous communities have been coexisting with flora and fauna in the forests for many generations.
These communities have of course lived inside mature forests for many generations without harming their primary status. Today, however, under modern, Western influences, many local communities rely on agriculture or industry for income. In Ecuador, many Indigenous communities have relied on logging corporations for their income. The primary forest that used to surround Indigenous villages is now gone, and the younger generations are unfamiliar with the animals that used to be all around their homes not very long ago. When Fundación Jocotoco was founded, the initial local response was characterized by fear that foreigners would expropriate the forest. Soon suspicions faded. Only 3 percent of staff at Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco are international employees, and most of the park rangers, who make up 80 percent of the staff, are from local communities. Today not only is there complete cooperation between the foundation and local communities, but the foundation is in fact mostly operated by locals. For them, it is not only an opportunity for empowerment, income, and personal growth, but also for learning about the forest that used to surround their home and define their culture.
José Añapa, who comes from the Chontaduro community near El Chocó, is one of the Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco park rangers. Añapa told TiME that he considers the forest his home, and often takes his children there, even on his days off. Every time, he is amazed by the unfathomable difference between being inside and outside the reserve; the animals seem to be aware of the border, roaming freely inside yet scarcely being seen outside. Within the reserve, they seem to feel safe, knowing that although their habitat has unrecognizably narrowed, within it they are free to live their natural life. Since working at the reserve, Añapa has developed a passion for bird-watching, and we can only hope that through his hard work in the reserve, our children will also be able to observe, one day, the bizarre Harpy Eagle and umbrella birds, the splendor of the Plumbeous Forest Falcon and Black-and-white Hawk-eagle, and the beauty and joy of the Jocotoco.
Fundación Jocotoco’s communication specialist, Manuel Patiño, told TiME that he feels immensely inspired by the devotion and drive of the park rangers, who are extremely passionate about their work despite it being very difficult and physically demanding. The work for the foundation has opened up many horizons for them and their communities, with the foundation’s employees acting as ambassadors for change and the younger generations becoming much more aware of conservation.
Ecuador is a small country, its territory smaller than that of Italy. Yet, it has unique biodiversity and is home to many species that can rarely be found anywhere else. In 2021, Jocotoco’s reserves alone constituted 0.00006 percent of the Earth’s surface, but hosted 10 percent of all bird species worldwide.
One of TiME‘s proposed projects this year, awaiting your vote, is the Tapichalaca Reserve in Ecuador’s south. The land slated for purchase will connect two national parks and thus allow the primary forest to remain intact, creating connectivity and preserving gene flow among local species (as different communities of a species are able to meet and exchange genes, the risk of inbreeding and damage to the fitness of the species are reduced). The area is severely threatened by agriculture and livestock, which make up 44 percent of the local economic activity and cause an alarming rate of deforestation. This forest is the only home of the Tapichalaca Tree Frog, a newly discovered, curious species with marking on its legs; it also houses the Spectacled Bear, the only living bear native to South America, whose facial markings appear like glasses, and the foundation’s namesake, Jocotoco Antpitta. The land is also a vital corridor for the Puma, Mountain Paca, and Vulnerable Little Red Brocket — a small, endearing deer with round ears and a heart-melting expression.
The northern territory available for your vote is part of the tropical region of the Chocó Forest. In this location, where the Colombian Chocó Forest and the Moist Forests of Ecuador meet and extend from the west coast to the Andean mountains, the diversity of ecoregions creates a rare biodiversity. Thirteen percent of vertebrate species here are restricted to this region, as well as a quarter of the fauna. The Chocó is in fact as biodiverse as the Amazon, but it is poorly studied and protected in comparison. Only 2 percent of the forests in this region of Ecuador remain — with the rate of deforestation only increasing in recent years. The land proposed by TiME for purchase and protection is the last large tract of Chocó lowland forest, meaning losing it will result in the loss of many species that call it home. One of them is the Brown-headed Spider Monkey, among the 25 most endangered primates in the world, who depends on the Chocó’s intact canopy for survival. Also found here is the Endangered Horned Marsupial Frog, which was thought to be extinct for a decade before being rediscovered in 2018. This frog is very unusual: not only does it carry its eggs on its back but it also completely skips the tadpole stage, with a grown frog hopping out of the egg. Other local inhabitants include the Vulnerable Long-wattled Umbrellabird, which, with its fancy hairdo, resembles a creature from Walt Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland; and the Critically Endangered Great Green Macaw, which most of us know as a pet. The demand for their splendor in homes worldwide encourages their illegal trade and poaching.
A Role Model
Fundación Jocotoco encourages sustainable tourism and hosts scientific expeditions, providing a stable source of income for the foundation, which is used for the operation and conservation of the reserves. For the next four years, the foundation is hosting a scientific project from Germany that studies forest regeneration, with the hope of creating a blueprint to be used in tropical forests worldwide. With this model, Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco is not only protecting unique primary forests and endangered species, but is also increasing awareness, promoting research, and enabling local Indigenous communities to take responsibility for their land and to protect it. Human life and biodiversity are forever interwoven, and Jocotoco provides yet another proof that we do not have to choose between them.
We thank Manuel Patiño and José Añapa for their help in writing this article.
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