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How a group in Ecuador protects 10% of the world’s bird species

  • The Jocotoco Foundation, an Ecuadorian non-profit organization, has carved out a distinctive approach to nature conservation in Ecuador, leveraging a mix of approaches to preserve habitats critical for endangered bird species and other wildlife.
  • The group, which now has 15 reserves across Ecuador that protect 10% of the planet’s bird species, works with a range of partners, including local communities.
  • Martin Schaefer, Jocotoco’s head, told Mongabay the group adapts its approach depending on local conditions and circumstances: “For each species, we analyse its threats, whether we, as Jocotoco, can make a difference and by how much. Then, we review what the best approach may be.
  • Following Rhett Ayers Butler’s visit to Jocotoco’s Narupa Reserve in July, Schaefer spoke about the organization’s work, the global challenges facing wildlife, and the shifting tides of public perception towards the environment.

In 1997, ornithologist Robert S. Ridgely discovered a previously undocumented bird species, the Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi), in the tropical montane forests on the Amazonian slope of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador. This ground-dwelling bird was immediately recognized as critically endangered due to its very small range and the threats to its habitat, which led to the establishment of the Jocotoco Foundation in 1998 and the subsequent purchase of land for the creation of the Tapichalaca Reserve.

Since then, Jocotoco has established a network of 15 reserves across Ecuador. Each reserve has been selected to protect areas that are globally significant for bird conservation, ranging from the lowlands of the Amazon rainforest to the Galapagos Islands. These reserves safeguard a vast number of regionally endemic and globally threatened plants and animals, including 10% of the world’s bird species.

Jocotoco antipitta (Grallaria ridgelyi). Photo credit: Franco Mendoza
Jocotoco antipitta (Grallaria ridgelyi). Photo credit: Franco Mendoza
Mountain Tapir in Tapichalaca reserve. Photo credit: Nicolas Devos
Mountain Tapir in Tapichalaca reserve. Photo credit: Nicolas Devos

Beyond preserving habitats critical for endangered bird species and other wildlife, Jocotoco has integrated ecotourism, community engagement and education, and scientific research and monitoring into its conservation strategy. The organization works closely with local communities to promote conservation awareness and sustainable practices. Additionally, its ecotourism programs generate employment opportunities and revenue for people living around their reserves.

Martin Schaefer, Jocotoco’s head, discussed the group’s adaptive approach with Mongabay: “For each species, we analyze its threats, assessing whether Jocotoco can make a difference and to what extent. Then, we determine the best approach. Sometimes, working with communities or local authorities to save threatened forests is most effective. In other cases, acquiring land to block logging roads of industrial timber companies is the better strategy. The approach depends on the specific threats to biodiversity.”

“In continental South America, habitat loss is the most significant threat, and we counter it by collaborating with communities or protecting land, whether it is ours or that of third parties,” he explained. “On the Galapagos, invasive species pose the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Here, we work with the authorities to control or eradicate invasive species such as rats or mice, which also damage crops.”

Martin Schaefer in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Stone
Martin Schaefer in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Stone

Schaefer, who joined Jocotoco in 2010 and has over 20 years of experience in the Neotropics, says Ecuadorians tend to be very supportive of conservation efforts. This support is evident in the collective decision in a referendum in August to phase out oil drilling in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park and ban mining in the upper Chocó, as well as an increasing willingness to listen to the country’s Indigenous peoples.

Schaefer recently spoke with Mongabay about Jocotoco’s work, the global challenges facing wildlife, and the shifting tides of public perception towards the environment.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity..

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN SCHAEFER

Mongabay: What led you to this work?

Martin Schaefer: I had always wanted to contribute to a greater cause. Choosing to protect nature was an easy decision, as I have been inspired by nature since early childhood. Observing wild animals navigate their lives — sometimes quite literally, as in the case of the large migrations of birds or wildebeest — is a constant source of joy and wonder. The privilege of seeing many wonderful and sometimes grandiose places has fueled my desire to help future generations witness as much of nature as I have been able to.

Mongabay: You’ve overseen tremendous growth since you joined Jocotoco. What have been drivers of this expansion?

Martin Schaefer: As in each success, there are several drivers. First comes a wonderful team of dedicated people, from park guards to office workers. Without such a team, we would not have been able to protect nature, let alone expand our model. Given the rapid declines in wildlife and the health of ecosystems, the desire and vision to achieve more protection of nature was natural.

Martin Schaefer in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Stone
Martin Schaefer in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Stone

Second, we improved our model of conservation to become more quantitative. This allowed us to communicate better what we would be able to achieve.

Lastly, there was an opportunity. Two decades ago, people and civil society at large were less engaged in protecting nature. They simply did not see the need for it. The fires in Australia, the Amazon, and California changed that dramatically. Now, everybody understands our need to protect nature, even if it’s just out of self-interest to ensure our own survival. Thus, by having an excellent model of conservation, Jocotoco was able to expand its funding over recent years.

Brown-headed Spider Monkey in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: James Muchmore
Brown-headed Spider Monkey in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: James Muchmore

Mongabay: What is Jocotoco’s conservation model?

Martin Schaefer: We focus on highly threatened species and ecosystems. For each species, we analyze its threats, assessing whether Jocotoco can make a difference and to what extent. Then, we determine the best approach.

Sometimes, working with communities or local authorities to save threatened forests is most effective. In other cases, acquiring land to block logging roads of industrial timber companies is the better strategy. The approach depends on the specific threats to biodiversity.

Park guards José Añapa and Bryan Tamayo in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Trageser
Park guards José Añapa and Bryan Tamayo in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Scott Trageser

In continental South America, habitat loss is the most significant threat, and we counter it by collaborating with communities or protecting land, whether it is ours or that of third parties.

On the Galapagos, invasive species pose the greatest threat to native biodiversity. Here, we work with the authorities to control or eradicate invasive species such as rats or mice, which also damage crops.

Mongabay: What is the role of ecotourism in Jocotoco’s model? And what about conservation in Ecuador generally?

Martin Schaefer: Ecotourism is and has always been one important part of our operations. For two reasons: it brings in income, even though this is often modest. More importantly, it allows us to showcase how effective we, Jocotoco, can be in protecting nature. Nature heals on its own. All we need to do it is to give it a chance to do so. By having lodges in our reserves, Jocotoco enables visitors to witness the wonderful habitats and species they otherwise rarely encounter. For many Ecuadorians, it is a rare chance to see the beauty and diversity of their surroundings. Thus, our model has always been to welcome the public, as you can only love what you know.

Great Green Macaw in Las Balsas reserve. Photo credit: José León
Great Green Macaw in Las Balsas reserve. Photo credit: José León

I would always encourage others to set up ecotourism operations but would caution them against seeing such operations as a panacea. For too long, conservationists believed the ecotourism can guarantee the long-term financial sustainability of nature reserves. This is true in some spectacular sites, but not true for the many important locations that do not sport gorilla or tigers.

Mongabay: More broadly, you’ve been working on wildlife conservation issues for a number of years. In that time, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the sector?

Martin Schaefer: One particularly big change is the attitude and perception of civil society towards nature. Nowadays, most people in Ecuador are acutely aware of climate change, or reductions in water availability, and of pollution. None of these were important topics 20 years ago. It is very encouraging to see how we respond to these challenges as civil society. Today, people are willing to take actions.

Oophaga sylvatica in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Alex Wiles
Oophaga sylvatica in Canandé reserve. Photo credit: Alex Wiles

At the same time, I have seen a great reduction in wildlife. Take insects for example. I have worked in sites, where insects declined by 57% in just nine years. Their numbers were not impressive nine years ago, but nowadays you need to search for them. While we cannot stem the tide, we can establish refuges that allow populations to build up again.

Puma in Canandé Reserve. Photo credit: Javier-Aznar
Puma in Canandé Reserve. Photo credit: Javier-Aznar

I have also seen the globalization of wildlife trade, take shark fins or body parts of tigers, bears, and jaguars. By now, that trade has reached the most remote sites in the world. This was not the case 20 years ago. At the same time, we have also seen many success stories, such as the return of wolves and eagles in Europe after a hunting ban. Thus, all the changes testify to our ability to influence the state of our world, for the better or worse.

Petrel-monitoring in the Galapagos. Photo credit: James Muchmore
Petrel-monitoring in the Galapagos. Photo credit: James Muchmore

Mongabay: In August the people of Ecuador voted to cease oil drilling in Yasuni. Is this indicative of peoples’ attitudes towards nature? And what is the climate (political, economic, social, etc) for conservation efforts in the country?

Martin Schaefer: Yes, banning oil in the Yasuní has been a big win. It shows people’s changed attitude towards nature. In the past, we were told that there is no alternative and that drilling would bring benefits to the communities (mostly jobs) and to society at large. The many oil spills showed, however, that the environmental and financial costs (of cleaning up) were never mentioned and always outsourced to society.

Ecuadorians are very supportive of conservation efforts. This has been evident for a long time. What is changing is that indigenous people are listened to more than they were in the past. Often, they have spearheaded conservation efforts, and not just in the Yasuni. Ecuadorians also voted against mining in the upper Chocó, a fragile ecosystem close to Quito. Here, dozens to hundreds of threatened species occur. People are rightfully concerned about how mining affects the quality of their water supply.

Environmental education in Galapagos. Photo credit: Jacob Guachisaca
Environmental education in Galapagos. Photo credit: Jacob Guachisaca

With the recent election, the political and economic situation is changing. However, environmental issues will remain in the focus.

Mongabay: What are the main issues facing your reserves?

Martin Schaefer: Our reserves are very secure thanks to the protection afforded by our park guards. Rarely, do we talk with a neighbour who has been hunting or cutting a tree. Typically, such situations can be resolved.

Mongabay: When I visited Narupa, rangers told me their approach focuses on “the carrot” instead of “the stick”. For example, asking rather than telling community members not to poach. Is this specific to Narupa or part of Jocotoco’s philosophy in navigating conflict?

Martin Schaefer: This is part of our wider approach. People across the world dislike when someone tells them what to do. Thus, we like to enter into a conversation first. To understand the reasons for why they are acting, sometimes against their own long-term interests. More often than not, you find are people aware that their action may harm their environment and the environment of their kids, but sometimes they lack economic choices in the short-term. Once you achieved engagement, it is far easier to discuss potential solutions. Of course, we cannot solve the worlds’ problems, but sometimes Jocotoco can contribute in a meaningful way.

Narupa Reserve. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler
Narupa Reserve. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler
Narupa Reserve. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler
Narupa Reserve. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler

Mongabay: What are your ambitions for Jocotoco’s future?

Martin Schaefer: As long as there are so many problems that are not addressed, we like to expand our model. We started to work in Costa Rica and we would like to also expand our cooperation with the national and regional authorities within Ecuador. I am convinced that private-public partnerships can be a solution to increase efficiencies in both sectors. It could also alleviate some of the chronic underfunding of conservation.

We currently protect 10% of all the species of birds in the world. An ambition would be to bring this number up to 15%.

Mongabay: What gives you hope?

Martin Schaefer: Hope is not an external entity, but something we create with our own actions day in, day out. Thus, I have hope because Jocotoco achieved so much collectively, much more than I had envisioned. Take the restoration of Floreana, 17,200 ha large. In October we will try to right the mistakes of the past and eradicate the rats that the early settlers brought. This, in turn, will allow to us to re-introduce 13 extinct species. Take some of our park guards who almost single-handedly saved highly threatened species. This all gives me hope because they are all inspiring.

Collecting data in the field in the Galapagos. Photo credit: Jocotoco
Collecting data in the field in the Galapagos. Photo credit: Jocotoco
Acoustic monitoring. Photo credit: Juan Pablo Mayorga
Acoustic monitoring. Photo credit: Juan Pablo Mayorga

Rhett A. Butler
Rhett A. Butler
  Rhett A. Butler is the founder and CEO of Mongabay. Rhett founded Mongabay out of his passion for wildlife and wild places. He has traveled widely in the tropics and enjoys photography, hiking, and scuba-diving. LinkedIn Profile | Personal website | Contact
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