Or, what you probably don’t want to do in your penultimate year vacation if you’re interested in a research career. I’m going into my third and final year in Natural Sciences (going to be specialising in Zoology) here in the University of Cambridge now, and it’s about time to start thinking of what I want to do after graduation. Or a bit late to start thinking, in some sense, especially if you’re interested in research/post graduate studies, as I somewhat knew I was. I had spent most of my summer in South America: a month in Ecuador, mostly at Bilsa biological station, and a month in Peru, mostly at Villa Carmen biological station.
I had always wanted to experience the new world tropics, being from the old world tropics, and the new world was something I had always read about, or watched about (thinks about the animation Rio). The tiny and highly agile hummingbirds, brightly coloured and super poisonous dendrobatid frogs, monkeys with prehensile tails, coatis and peccaries and everything else. I enjoy field work and being in the outdoors, and I felt that the syllabus I’m taught in Cambridge doesn’t provide as much opportunity for learning skills in the field, hence I decided to do some volunteering in research stations in Ecuador and Peru. I had been to South Africa with Operation Wallacea the previous summer for a similar reason, to gain experience in doing field work in a different environment. I didn’t want to fork out more than £2k for 4 weeks in the field not including flights, and so I decided to organise my own volunteer trips.
One of five stations that Fundación Jatun Sacha manages around various parts of Ecuador, Bilsa was supposed to be the one where the research was happening. I had emailed the volunteer coordinator and specifically asked for a station where I could help with biological monitoring and research. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver, and I arrived at the station (after some adventure, read my other blogpost here) to find that the projects offered were mostly to do with planting (of medicinal/fruit/native plants) and teaching English at the local school. I was rather disappointed, to be honest, about the lack of science there. Nonetheless, I had a pretty good time, teaching English in the local village school, hiking some of the trails there, trying to identify the common birds around the station and enjoying the isolation from the world (there isn’t telephone reception in the station itself, one has to walk ~15 mins to the nearest village and stand at specific spots to get some reception).
The station itself wasn’t the most modern, electricity was only introduced in Dec 2012, the toilets in the main building were only installed a few weeks before I arrived (previously they had to walk ~5 mins to the outhouse). The road leading to the station is pretty bad (very muddy) and fairly inaccessible to motor vehicles and other large machinery at certain times of the year. But that also meant that the environment and surrounding area was slightly more pristine than other places.
Bilsa is part of the Mache-Chindul Ecological Reserve, located within the Choco bioregion and is one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots identified. Bilsa started out being just 760ha in 1994, but is now almost 4000ha, and is privately owned by Fundacion Jatun Sacha to protect the forest and the fauna within. There was a lot of research done at Bilsa in the past, especially on the birds and herpetofauna of the area (here’s another blogpost on birding in Bilsa.)However when I arrived there didn’t seem to be many of them going on at that point. There was a PhD student, Luke Browne, from Tulane University who was studying seed dispersal, and I tagged along with him and his research assistants to find out more about what his project. As part of tracking the seed dispersal of the palm Oenocarpus bataua, he had set camera traps with tagged seeds to see what ate them. Most of his clips were of rats, but he did also get a nice video of a jaguar passing through the area, so we know that these beautiful cats are still in the area!
Most of my time though was spent trying to teach English words to the children in the village school. Some of them have to walk about an hour to get to school, and school is a single room with 6-15 kids (the kids don’t go to/appear in school everyday) aged between 5 and 13. The teacher also doubles as the village barman at night. Most of the villagers there earn their living by agriculture; however this does mean that the forest, though technically protected, isn’t quite safe. There are also some who poach wildlife to sell in the markets, since there aren’t really park rangers or law enforcement officers around.
The station manager had many plans for Bilsa, like the planting of a vegetable garden, and having some livestock in the station to make it a bit more self-sufficient. There previously were chickens and guinea pigs, but a wildcat of some sort (I can’t remember which now) had broken into the pens and ate/killed them all With a treasure trove of biodiversity, I think Bilsa can definitely be much more than what it is now, possibly tapping on birding tourism/ecotourism money. However, as a biological research station, going down the business/commercial route might not be what the fundación’s objective is. There is a fine balance that needs to be tread I guess, between obtaining money for research and conservation, and how that money was obtained at whose expense… In any case, when I left, I heard there were plans for a proper road (gravel? tarmac? asphalt? in any case something that is driveable) to be built for the area, which would greatly increase accessibility to bigger markets in the city for the villagers. As well as make the forest more accessible to people with less innocent intentions. In situations like these, I always find it hard to decide if building the road is a good thing or not…
One of three biological stations that Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA) owns in Peru, it is located in the buffer zone of Manu National Park, the Manu Biosphere Reserve. Unlike Bilsa, getting to Villa Carmen wasn’t too much trouble (you can still read my other blogpost here). The staff at ACCA were really helpful in organising transport for me and the directions were much more straight forward. It also helped that there was a built road all the way to the station, passing through the nearest town 10 minutes away, and had all the modern facilities of the Internet. However for the first week and a half or so that I was there, the electricity (which comes from a hydroelectric dam) was down as they were doing maintenance on the dam, and so there was no Internet and only a generator for electricity at night. I wasn’t too fussed though (as difficult as it is for some people to believe), I don’t feel the need for the Internet all the time, and I’m very happy not having it when it isn’t available.
Work for volunteers seemed better organised at Villa Carmen, although there weren’t really biological monitoring research going on there either. I had previously opted to volunteer at Wayqecha cloud forest biological station, another ACCA station, where they were conducting phenology and climate change studies, but due to unforeseen reasons, I decided to go to Villa Carmen instead. They have ongoing projects on sustainable agriculture, like the use of biochar as a substitute/supplement fertiliser, and creating a photographic guide of fungi and herpetofauna for the station. I helped out with the herpetofauna one, and spent most of my time catching tadpoles and walking the trails looking for frogs/snakes.
The forest in Villa Carmen is mostly secondary, lots of bamboo especially closer to the station. The property used to belong to an entrepreneurial farmer (he had shrimp ponds and pineapple plantations I think? There’s the remains of a pond and lots of pineapples in some parts of the forest…) and before that an airline operator (there’s an airplane that’s slowly being consumed by the wild along one of the trails), and so the area is pretty far from pristine. Nonetheless, it is still rather biodiverse, especially for birds, and one of the volunteers who was working on coming up with a bird guide for the station saw more than 100 species in a day (here’s another blogpost on birding at Villa Carmen). There was a flock of hoatzins that liked to loiter close to the main building, and I managed to see them a couple of times! Hoatzins are cool strange birds but I couldn’t get a good photo of them.
As mentioned earlier, there wasn’t internet during the first part of my stay there, and so to identify the tadpoles we had to rear them. Patrick Campbell, the volunteer coordinator who makes sure that volunteers aren’t slacking, is also into herpetology, and so we would fish in the temporary pools (rainwater collected from downpours along the road) and other ponds for tadpoles and keep them in the lab. A few of them metamorphosed into frogs before I left, which was super exciting (: We would also go on the trails looking for frogs and snakes, and I learned to identify several of the more common frogs.
There was also a native Indian village, Santa Rosa de Huacaria, nearby. Although illegal hunting was not too big of a problem there (logging was a bigger problem), there still wasn’t much wildlife around as the natives were allowed to hunt. I visited the village with one of the tourist groups that came by, and saw them making their own arrows for hunting, which was pretty cool. There was much need though, for greater education and awareness among the locals in the area for understanding conservation, better and more sustainable agricultural practices and the work of the research station. Also, the lasting impact of plastic! So much plastic trash everywhere, on the road side, and in the field (both in Ecuador and in Peru). To that end, Villa Carmen has an education and outreach officer who visits the various neighbouring towns and villages. Working with communities and creating buffer zones for core biodiversity areas (like what Villa Carmen is I guess) are I think some of the most important and useful things that work for conservation.
Being easily accessible, we had many people coming to/fro the station. There was a hymenopterist conference in Cusco and some of the attendees came to Villa Carmen for a collecting trip after, and I went with some of them during some of their trips. I didn’t know that most of the flying insects around were wasps; always thought they were flies/mozzies! There was also another day we helped shovel sheep shit for the biochar project – not much fun I must say, it’s character-building work, to borrow the words of Fred Weasley.
During my stay at the station, there was much construction work going on, as they were going into birding tourism, and education, becoming one of the locations for the School for Field Studies. I guess that’s how a field station can keep itself running sustainably, without constantly relying on donations. Since the road had already been built, there isn’t really much of a conservation conflict with going into these businesses I guess, compared with Bilsa, though the additional human pressure and impact from having more people around would probably be felt in some way or other.
Having had a taster of the new world tropical forests, do I want to go back? A lot of what I imagined it to be came from reading books like Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival, E.O. Wilson’s Diversity of Life and Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg. I enjoyed the bits of it that I experienced, but I feel like I have yet to experience the Amazon proper on the river, and so will definitely want to go back at some point. South America is such an amazing place, with lots of interesting culture, awesome outdoor activities and scenery, and diverse wildlife.
Anyway, to come back to what I said in the first line, this has been an amazing adventure and a great holiday for me, but I don’t think it is all that useful in practical terms for post graduate studies. It would probably have been better to find a specific project and volunteer with them for at least a month or two, to properly learn field techniques and get the most out of it; or pay an organisation like Operational Wallacea to organise an expedition where I actually get to learn something useful (like savannah ecology/identification of savannah flora and fauna) for a few weeks; or do a placement in a lab whose research I’m interested in. I wouldn’t say I regretted this vacation (it’s been pretty awesome), but I definitely wish I thought out my plans better.