The bird that saved forest­sRY

A chance en­counter on a for­est trail led to the dis­cov­ery of a pre­vi­ously un­recorded bird and the birth of a con­ser­va­tion move­ment.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Neil Glenn

How the dis­cov­ery of Ecuador’s jo­co­toco antpitta led to the cre­ation of a re­serve and in­flu­en­tial con­ser­va­tion foun­da­tion

When you see an unusual species for the first time, have you ever put your­self in the walk­ing boots of the per­son who ac­tu­ally dis­cov­ered it? Imag­ined the thoughts and feel­ings of those pi­o­neers who first clapped eyes on, for in­stance, an ostrich or a tapir? In the case of South Amer­ica’s charis­matic, robin-like and very rare jo­co­toco antpitta, I know ex­actly what those ex­plor­ers felt like – be­cause I asked them.

The jo­co­toco antpitta was un­known, to science at least, un­til 1997. The story of its dis­cov­ery that year in­volves a hon­ey­moon (of sorts), a group of friends, a deep knowl­edge of neotrop­i­cal birds and a tiny sprin­kling of luck. Equally un­likely, the re­mark­able tale of how the bird’s habi­tat then came to be pro­tected takes in a pioneer­ing sur­gi­cal technique for reti­nal de­tach­ments, some Rus­sian chem­istry pro­fes­sors, BBC One’s iconic Life on Earth se­ries, a clutch of con­ser­va­tion bod­ies and some amaz­ingly benev­o­lent peo­ple. This is how the story un­folded… On 3 Novem­ber 1997 Mercedes Ri­vadeneira mar­ried Xavier Munos. The fol­low­ing day, as is the tra­di­tion with new­ly­weds, Mercedes set off on an ex­cit­ing trip; more un­usu­ally, Mercedes’ new hus­band was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously left at home. In his place her trav­el­ling com­pan­ions were Bob Ridgely, an or­nithol­o­gist at Philadel­phia’s Academy of Nat­u­ral Sciences – a man with an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of South Amer­i­can birds; John Moore (au­thor of Vo­cal­iza­tions of

Birds of the Neotrop­ics); John’s wife Ruth, and Lelis Navarette, an ex­pert lo­cal bird guide.

The 1997 ex­pe­di­tion to Cerro Tapicha­laca – an un­pro­tected tract of cloud­for­est on the east­ern slope of the Ecuado­rian An­des – was or­gan­ised by Mercedes and Xavier’s company, Ne­blina For­est. The aim of the trip was for John to ob­tain fur­ther sound record­ings of birds to up­date his project and for Bob to wrap up work on his forth­com­ing mag­is­te­rial vol­ume The Birds of Ecuador.

Off the beaten track

Af­ter 11 stren­u­ous days of sur­vey­ing the area, Bob sug­gested that the group should walk along a nar­row trail he’d read about but had never vis­ited: Que­brada Honda. The day’s spe­cific tar­get was to record the calls of the golden-plumed para­keet, a beau­ti­ful bird classed as Vul­ner­a­ble. But as things turned out, the rare para­keet was not to be the star.

“I was the first per­son to see the mys­tery bird,” re­calls Bob now. “I was some way from the oth­ers in the party. We’d first heard it soon af­ter dawn, at a great dis­tance, but didn’t know what on earth it was – which in it­self was a bit unusual. I fig­ured that was that: we’d never know. But then came the mir­a­cle: three or four hours later, there was that won­der­ful ring­ing call again – a re­peated ‘jo-jo-jo-jo-jo.’

This time the bird was much closer. “I was able to whip out my mi­cro­phone,” Bob re­mem­bers, “and get a long record­ing. I played it back, and out the bird hopped through the bam­boo. It was bold and ap­proached quite closely. In­stantly, I knew that this was some­thing no other sci­en­tist had ever seen. The first words out of my mouth were not suit­able for a fam­ily mag­a­zine.”

By then the oth­ers had come down the val­ley. “We all ogled the bird for the next half hour,” Bob says. “I had ne­glected to bring my cam­era that day, so I dic­tated metic­u­lous notes into my cas­sette tape recorder – this was 1997, af­ter all.”

The friends changed their plans for the rest of the trip, and re­turned to Que­brada Honda the fol­low­ing two days. “De­spite lots of rain I was able to take a medi­ocre pho­to­graph to prove this fab­u­lous bird was not a fig­ment of my fevered imag­i­na­tion,” Bob says. “And, of course, I had those his­toric record­ings too.” As you’d ex­pect, peo­ple liv­ing in the area al­ready knew the call of the bird. But, more sur­pris­ingly, they had never ac­tu­ally seen what was mak­ing the noise. “The lo­cals told us that they called the bird jo­co­toco, so that’s how it even­tu­ally got its English name,” says Bob.

Con­ser­va­tion threat

Soon it be­came ap­par­ent that the ex­pe­di­tion had a prob­lem. Chain­saws could be heard all around the area in which the new antpitta had been found. There was a con­stant pas­sage of mules car­ry­ing freshly cut wood along the trail. As no sci­en­tist had seen this species be­fore, there was ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity that it had a very small pop­u­la­tion and was pos­si­bly found only in this cor­ner of south­ern Ecuador. Some­thing had to be done – and fast.

“Fur­ther re­search – which is still on­go­ing – has re­vealed that the jo­co­toco antpitta lives in very wet forests with an un­der­story of var­i­ous bam­boo species,” ex­plains Bob. “The antpitta feeds al­most en­tirely on large earth­worms that it finds in seep­age zones, and that may be why the species is so very lo­calised. The bird re­quires con­stantly wet con­di­tions where the ground hardly ever dries out.”

This is where Nigel Simp­son en­ters the story. Nigel co-de­vel­oped a new technique to re­pair reti­nal de­tach­ments and was in the process of sell­ing his suc­cess­ful busi­ness. He had be­gun dis­cus­sions with Bob about how he could best use his new­found wealth and free time to help save threat­ened habi­tats in his beloved South Amer­ica. By an amaz­ing co­in­ci­dence, the as-yet-un­named antpitta chose just that mo­ment to hop out of the Ecuado­rian cloud­for­est and a new con­ser­va­tion project was born: the Jo­co­toco Foun­da­tion.

As chair of his or­nithol­ogy department, Bob was in a po­si­tion to quickly or­gan­ise a re­turn visit to Cerro Tapicha­laca. And so, within just two months of the antpitta’s dis­cov­ery, Nigel man­aged to visit the site for him­self to see the bird and dis­cuss what could be done to pre­serve its home.

By the end of 1998, the Ecuado­rian gov­ern­ment had ap­proved the Jo­co­toco Foun­da­tion’s for­ma­tion. Lo­cal farmers were strug­gling due to the un­favourable cli­mate at Tapicha­laca – the area is del­uged by over 5m of rain­fall an­nu­ally – and were happy to sell their land to the fledg­ling Foun­da­tion. Be­fore long, the first 800 hectares of the Tapicha­laca Re­serve were safe. Fur­ther reserves were bought by the Foun­da­tion (co-funded by John and Ruth Moore) on the western side of the An­des at Bue­naven­tura and Jorupe. The Foun­da­tion grew and grew.

A lodge was opened for vis­i­tors and re­searchers at Tapicha­laca, funded by Nigel Simp­son with money from a com­mis­sion he re­ceived from help­ing chem­istry pro­fes­sors to ob­tain fi­nan­cial sup­port for uni­ver­si­ties in the Soviet Union. In 2001, the World Land Trust (WLT) be­came a ma­jor donor, and re­mains so to this day, en­abling an am­bi­tious re­for­esta­tion project that has so far seen 1.4 mil­lion na­tive trees planted on Foun­da­tion reserves. Tapicha­laca Re­serve al­most dou­bled in size to 1,600 hectares in 2003, af­ter a WLT fundrais­ing ap­peal in mem­ory of Christo­pher Par­sons, the late ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of BBC TV se­ries Life on Earth.

Com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion

Af­ter 20 years, the Foun­da­tion now owns and man­ages 12 reserves cov­er­ing 19,000ha, with more pur­chases in the pipeline. Over 50 species of bird threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion are be­ing pro­tected, to­gether with nearly 300 species of rep­tile, am­phib­ian and mam­mal.

A vi­tal fea­ture of any con­ser­va­tion ef­fort is to in­volve lo­cals. It is sim­ply not good enough to buy a tract of land and tell in­dige­nous peo­ple they can­not ben­e­fit from it. From

“As no sci­en­tist had seen this species be­fore, there was ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity that the pop­u­la­tion was ex­tremely small. ”

the start, fam­i­lies who sold the Foun­da­tion their land at Tapicha­laca were em­ployed as rangers. Its reserves also in­vite vis­its from schools, and bird­feed­ers are open to the pub­lic to en­cour­age a fas­ci­na­tion with lo­cal wildlife. The mayor of Pa­landa, near Tapicha­laca, has ap­proached the Foun­da­tion to fur­ther ex­tend its re­serve to help pro­tect two lo­cal rivers – and thus the town’s wa­ter sup­ply. An emer­gency fund for staff and fam­i­lies is in place and univer­sity bur­saries have also been pro­vided for some lo­cal young­sters. In other ar­eas, Foun­da­tion vol­un­teers have ren­o­vated build­ings in towns and vil­lages and helped re­gen­er­ate lo­cal coffee plan­ta­tions.

Firm foun­da­tion

These ef­forts in the com­mu­nity have helped to raise aware­ness of wildlife and the en­vi­ron­ment with lo­cal peo­ples to the ex­tent where the black-breasted puff­leg has been adopted as the em­blem­atic species of Quito. As I trav­elled through the small com­mu­ni­ties dot­ted around Foun­da­tion reserves, I was im­pressed by the num­ber of mu­rals, wall paint­ings and wildlife statues in the streets and parks. It re­ally does seem as though lo­cal peo­ple have taken their wildlife and the Foun­da­tion to their hearts.

As my blue eyes met the dark red eyes of a jo­co­toco antpitta on my own quest to see the species in Fe­bru­ary 2018 in a for­est undis­turbed by the sound of chain­saws, I thought about the way in which this shy, unas­sum­ing bird and its once-un­fa­mil­iar call led to the pro­tec­tion of a for­est and cre­ation of an en­tire con­ser­va­tion move­ment in Ecuador. And I thought, too, of how it came by its sci­en­tific name, Gral­laria ridge­lyi.

“It’s an in­cred­i­ble saga,” Bob Ridgely agrees. “Look­ing back, it seems al­most un­be­liev­able that ev­ery­thing could have fallen into place so well. Now the Jo­co­toco Foun­da­tion is one of the strong­est NGOs in­volved in ma­jor land pro­tec­tion ef­forts for en­dan­gered species – not just in Ecuador, but re­ally any­where in the world. To think it all started with this mar­vel­lous bird. I still get goose bumps just think­ing about it!”

FIND OUT MORE Jo­co­toco Foun­da­tion: fjo­co­toco.org World Land Trust: world­landtrust.org

Right: Bob Rid­g­ley’s hazy first pho­to­graph of the jo­co­toco antpitta as the bird hopped around amidst the bam­boo while feed­ing. Above: the jo­co­toco antpitta feeds al­most en­tirely on the large earth­worms whose habi­tat is wa­ter­logged seep­age zones on the for­est floor.

The chest­nutcrowned antpitta ( above) is one of around 55 recorded species of these no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult-to-spot neotrop­i­cal birds.

An adult Jo­co­toco antpitta (left) with a ju­ve­nile feed­ing on the for­est floor at Tapicha­laca

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