Editor’s note: Eckerd College student Nicholas Hess spent January working alongside researchers along the Tambopata River in Peru.
TAMBOPATA NATIONAL RESERVE, Peru — At a rustic research station in the Amazon Rainforest, conservation minded people from across the globe collaborate to better understand the Amazon Rainforest, and how to conserve it. Secret Forest Research Station, run by the organization Fauna Forever, lies along the bank of the Tambopata River in the Peruvian Amazon.
Volunteers and researchers from all over the world visit and participate in the long-term monitoring projects ongoing at Secret Forest Station.
There is a mammal team, herpetology team, bird team, and botany team. Each team focuses on their specific taxa and follows specific research protocols to uncover trends or changes in the ecosystem that occur over time. Nearly every day since 2017, the teams at Secret Forest have been utilizing consistent monitoring research techniques to draw scientific conclusions. The data collected provides researchers with insight into the workings of the sensitive and complex Amazon Rainforest.
Secret Forest is the only research station with a focus on long-term monitoring projects in the Tambopata region of Peru. Long term monitoring, to be done effectively requires consistent research protocols to be carried out at a high frequency. The consistency ensures the variables are minimized so that changes, trends, and correlations are clear in a dataset. Doing so long term establishes a large data set which will be useful to researchers from today, to years down the line.
Keeping up such projects requires helping hands. Secret Forest relies on the help of interns who are passionate for field research and conservation to carry out the data collection under the guidance of the coordinators. Interns pay a reasonable fee for housing and food to be able to live in the Amazon and gain experience. Interns or researchers can also do their own projects for their education or research needs.
Nadine Holmes, the mammal coordinator at Secret Forest who is originally from England, has been living in the Tambopata region of the Amazon in Peru since 2018 working on her Ph.D. and with conservation work.
The Amazon is a captivating place with its biodiversity, grand trees, and unusual organisms. Holmes says what is most special to her about the Amazon is how there is always something new around every corner.
“I just feel like there is never a day when you can’t learn or experience something new,” said Holmes.
Holmes manages all daily research to do with medium to large mammals. When interns are on site, she helps guide them in designing and carrying out projects. Currently, she is also taking on general management of the camp, logistics, and movements to maintain overall smooth running of camp. In addition to her work with Fauna Forever, she is investigating the occupancy of carnivores in high human use areas vs. low human use.
Being on location in the Amazon, she has learnt that the human side of conservation is of utmost importance to make lasting change. She says this is the reason she is working in the field of anthropology, which surprises people who think research in the Amazon must be purely wildlife oriented and unrelated to people.
“You need a multi-disciplinary approach to conservation to affect better change and reach more people,” said Holmes.
Unfortunately, the Amazon is in deep peril, and the Tambopata River region where Secret Forest Station is running is no different. Deforestation for logging and agriculture causes irreversible damage which lasts for countless generations.
Illegal gold mining is a huge problem along the Tambopata River. The effects and illegal activities can be observed from where Secret Forest Station borders the river. The gold is extracted from the river through artisanal mining practices. Sediment is pumped over a washboard on a floating platform. Mercury is used to clump the gold deposits into an extractable form, but the toxic mercury is then discarded back into the river. Additionally, this process churns up the sediment, fundamentally changing the geology of the river, altering the banks and critical habitat for wildlife.
An hour- long boat ride along the river is enough to expose the prevalence of the issue after passing several mining platforms in a short amount of time. The issue is not restricted to the Tambopata River, but extends up river into several tributaries, and downriver into larger rivers. The entire Madre de Dios Region of Peru, the south eastern portion of the country, 85,000 square kilometers, is threatened by this illegal activity.
The consequences are not only suffered by nature, but the local people, including miners themselves who rely on fish from the river for food. The poisonous mercury is taken up by small organisms which are eaten by larger organisms until the mercury is concentrated in the tissues of large fish – the most desirable for eating. This is called bioaccumulation and can harm fishery populations and cause major health problems for people.
Although the activity is illegal, because of the economic benefits of gold mining, little is done to stop it. According to Holmes, miners hold a lot of economic and social power, and are not people to be crossed with.
Witnessing backward steps in conservation, especially right outside the port of the research station, can be demoralizing to conservationists, but it also serves as a reminder of why the work being done at Fauna Forever’s Secret Forest Station is so important.
As more data is collected at Secret Forest, related to the long-term monitoring projects, or studies by independent researchers, more science can be published. This helps establish a baseline of what exists in the region and uncovers secrets of the jungle’s natural history that weren’t known before.
Establishing biodiversity baselines directly helps conserve land by receiving funding from organizations like Wilderness International which gather funds from the public. Land can be bought and set aside for conservation, and research can be funded by conservation organizations. Conservation organizations are more likely to have funds from donors if they can show the biodiversity on the lands they wish to conserve. The data used to draw in funds comes from the work being done on the ground at Secret Forest Station.
The research projects and publications conducted at Secret Forest make collaboration with government officials easier and connect people. Involving the local community is also an important step to conserving land and biodiversity, said Holmes.
“The more people who come down to help, the wider the range of interests, and the more we will learn from each other,” said Holmes. Secret Forest Station can always use more volunteers and interns to do the groundwork.
Visiting the Amazon can be an incredible experience filled with amazing animals and scenery.
Working in the Amazon at a research station like Secret Forest can be rewarding, but Holmes assures it is not all glamorous. The day-to-day life at Secret Forest can be pleasant. It is a relaxed lifestyle. However, the jungle is unpredictable, and you need to be open to going with the flow. It can become very hot and uncomfortable, bugs bite, wasps sting, and at least one person’s digestive system is usually unhappy at any given time.
“The jungle likes to break things including people sometimes,” said Holmes.
But work being done, despite setbacks and grueling conditions can all be worth it. When there are small victories, like a local community resorting to coexistence instead of violence when confronted with a Jaguar conflict, it is all worth it to Holmes.
“Once getting out here it gets a hold on you and despite the not so fun things you fall in love with it and see it’s worth saving,” said Holmes.
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