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.
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.
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.
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.
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