Crown Jewel of Biodiversity on the Edge
This week, PLoS has a new paper which reports the conservation significance of a truly astounding region in Ecuador. (Ecuador also happens to be the country in which I am conducting my thesis research, although my work is at a higher elevation in the eastern Andean foothills). The new paper by Bass et al. focuses on the Yasuni National Park, which is situated in a biodiversity hotspot, in the area where the eastern Andes foothills meet the western Amazon rainforest. It was declared a World Biosphere Reserve and Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1989. The park covers close to 10,000 square km, and is also home to two of South America’s few remaining indigenous tribes that live in virtual isolation from the modern world, the Tagaeri and Taromenane.
It is hard to emphasize how diverse this area is. Bass et al. have done exhaustive analysis to document the species richness, concentrations of threatened species, endemism, and ecosystem services represented within this park. They show that Yasuni is #1 in species richness for not for the country, or the continent, but the entire world for vascular plants, amphibians, birds, AND mammals. The area in which maximum species diversity for each of these groups overlaps, a kind of quadruple bang of maximum diversity, is tiny: it comprises just 0.5% of the Amazon Basin and a mere 0.16% of South America. Fish and herp species richness is also extremely high. See the paper for the many impressive facts and figures, here I will just say that this kind of richness is truly unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Not only is the Yasuni lush with diversity, but it serves as a sanctuary for many species facing extinction. Currently 13 vertebrate and 56 plant species classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable are found there, along with another 15 vertebrates and 47 plants classified as Near Threatened—meaning it is probably not long before they decline into more endangered status as well. There are 20 endemic amphibians, 19 endemic birds, and 4 endemic mammals (Yasuni round-eared bat, streaked dwarf porcupine, golden-mantled tamarin, and equatorial saki).
This place is also a hotspot for threatened mammals, which are the subject of my personal research interests and experience. Yasuni’s cast of characters features 8 mammal species of critical conservation concern: the white-bellied spider monkey, the giant otter, Amazonian manatee, lowland tapir, Poepigg’s woolly monkey, giant armadillo, oncilla and Melissa’s yellow-eared bat. Among the Near Threatened mammals, many of which are facing precipitous declines every year, are the golden-mantled tamarin, margay (the focal mammal of my thesis), jaguar, short-eared dog, bush dog, giant anteater, white-lipped peccary, spectral bat, and Tschudi’s yellow-shouldered bat. Obviously, Yasuni is home to a huge concentration of species which are clinging to existence.
Yasuni also serves to connect unprotected yet thus far intact habitats surrounding its borders, acting as both a sink and a corridor for biodiversity.
In a nutshell, this spectacular area has floored many scientists and experts, with the likes of E.O. Wilson and Jane Goodall referring to it as “the most biodiverse place on earth.”
Unfortunately, there is a “but” in this story. This area is incredible, but the northwestern portion of Yasuni sits atop three major oil fields—Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini—collectively known as the ITT. They contain enough oil to release 410 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, not to mention the catastrophic effects of such intense habitat destruction. It has been estimated that exploitation of these oil fields could yield up to $7-10 billion for the Ecuadorian government (the American dollar is the standard currency in Ecuador). Although a June 2007 decision by president Manuel Correa established a hold on drilling expeditions in the ITT, it is still not been extended “untouchable” status, as was done for another region in the southern part of the Yasuni and another just north of the reserve, in Cuyabeno. Correa also wanted $530 million from the international community in order to keep drilling at bay. It has also been calculated, however, that the ultimate value of NOT releasing that carbon dioxide is worth $11.9 million (see a presentation on the ITT Initative’s goals and predictions here). Obviously it is in everyone’s best interests to leave the oil in the ground, if only the world were so simple. The benefits, both economic and otherwise, are nowhere near as concrete as the fast cashflow that would result from extracting the oil.
The ITT-Initiative proposes to sell carbon bonds in order to fund this deal and keep the area protected for at least the next decade, in addition to encouraging more sustainable forms of energy use in order to decrease the thirst for oil in both the near and long-term future. In addition, conservation organizations around the globe have been putting forth efforts to raise donations to preserve the site and fund alternative energy projects in the region. The ITT-Initiative program would provide Ecuador with the opportunity to change its energy matrix and infrastructure, while establishing itself as a poster child for commitment to conservation and progressive, cleaner forms of development.
It all sounds very encouraging, but situations like this are tenuously subject to the whims of leaders, governments, native peoples, pressure from surrounding nations, and climactic circumstance. The vulnerability of this agreement is that at any moment, Ecuador can repay the international loan that “reserves the reserve” and proceed to drill it into oblivion. It can only be hoped that Bass et al.‘s exhaustive study and analysis of the biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by the Yasuni will help in efforts to keep this region from being destroyed in order to provide a short-term fix for the world’s oil addiction.
Although the Yasuni has been granted a reprieve for now, it is crucial to not become overconfident when it comes to dealing with conservation agreements (for that matter, the US does not have a stellar record itself). The park should still be considered—like so many of the organisms that currently seek refuge there—as being very much on the edge.
Bass, M., Finer, M., Jenkins, C., Kreft, H., Cisneros-Heredia, D., McCracken, S., Pitman, N., English, P., Swing, K., Villa, G., Di Fiore, A., Voigt, C., & Kunz, T. (2010). Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008767