Traveling to the rain forests on the eastern side of Ecuador from the capital Quito is an adventure to be savored. Even on a good day the entire journey takes a few hours to complete. En route one experiences a notable shift in climate from the cool temperatures of the Andean cordillera to the humid and damp environs of the western tip of the Amazon basin. My family and I made this trip at the end of 1994. Driving in a small 4×4, we experienced the thrill of rugged terrain, road-crossing marching ants and even an unplanned skid into a maize field. Much to our relief, we arrived safely at the town of Tena close to the Amazon’s Napo River. After driving a further 25 km to the town of Ahuano, we took a motorized canoe ride across the water to the Casa Del Suizo hotel for our planned three-night stay.
Unknown to us at the time, the Napo River flows along the northern-most reaches of the 9820 sq. km Yasuní National Park, recognized internationally as one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet and located only 50 km further east from where we were staying (1,2). The extraordinary variety of fauna and flora species of the park is evidenced in the unparalleled wealth of amphibian, bird, mammal and plant species that thrive within its borders. The latest field data on the faunal richness of Yasuní is telling: 141 species of frogs and toads (over 40% more than are native to the United States and Canada combined), 121 species of reptile (only one comparably-sized site in the Brazilian Amazon exceeds this number) and more fish species than are found in the entire Mississippi River Basin (1). In fact the inventory of record-breaking numbers for various forms of wildlife is mind-bogglingly large. So much so that scientists are now taking a closer look at what makes Yasuní such a uniquely special haven for life.
Fresh out of college and filled with an insatiable attraction to the wild outdoors, I vividly remember our stay at the Casa Del Suizo. Insects greeted us in their droves particularly in the evenings when pool-side lights attracted some of the largest beetles I have ever seen in the wild. It turns out that my experiences reflect the findings of one highly disseminated biodiversity study published in the open access journal PLOS One last month indicating that as many as 100,000 insect species abound in Yasuní- the highest level of estimated biodiversity per unit area in the world for any taxonomic group (1). The Napo forests also boast at least 43 endemic vertebrate and as many as 272 endemic plant species (1).
Precisely why such diverse life forms flourish so readily in Yasuní is not altogether clear although speculation has focused on the combination of the stable aseasonal climate that is typical of Ecuador as a whole and high localized rainfall of the Amazonian rainforest (1). Having traveled to this country many times I can vouch for the seeming homogeneity of annual temperatures. Still, the future of the Yasuní ecological paradise is far from certain. According to the authors of the PLOS One study Yasuní today faces major threats from developers eager to tap into the oil reserves that lie under its nutritious soils (1). Seventy nine percent of the Quadruple Richness Center- the zone where South America’s amphibians, birds, mammals, and vascular plants all reach maximum diversity of which the park is a small part- coincides with land that is actively receiving or slated for receipt of oil concessions (1,2).
Several animal and plant species are on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Endangered Species list including giant otters and the high-profile White-Bellied Spider Monkey (1). The chytrid fungus, which has played a significant role in the worldwide crash of amphibian populations (3), has also been found in the western most reaches of the Amazon basin (1). Talks have begun between the UN and the Ecuadorian government in an attempt to stave off oil development in Yasuní (2). With some bird species experiencing a 25% decline over the last 18 years due to oil-related deforestation, urgent action is a non-negotiable imperative (2).
During our sojourn at the Casa Del Suizo we were treated to a canoe ride down the Napo, a tour of a monkey rehabilitation center and even a close-up view of a jaguar temporarily being held in captivity. Others in my family also took balsa raft rides along a short stretch of the river while I remained on ‘terra firma’ watching from the safety of my hotel bedroom. Unlike other ecotourism centers we had stayed at, such as the Maquipucuña bird sanctuary near Quito, the Casa Del Suizo also benefited from round-the-clock functioning power generators and bright room lights that allayed any fears we had over what might be lurking under the bed covers in the dead of night.
Our departure was in all respects a sorrowful affair. We had counted on perhaps staying for longer but in the end could only hope that we would soon return. A momentary stop on our homeward journey to have our travel documents checked by the state border patrol rekindled the nostalgia. Perhaps some irregularity in our papers would force us to turn back. Alas we had no such luck. Knowing what we now know, we have every reason to revisit Napo and explore Yasuní- the ‘ecological paradise that exceeds all superlatives’. Perhaps next year or five years from now? Who knows. But we hold firm to the expectation that together with our children we will be able to enjoy these natural marvels as much as we did all those years ago.
- Bass MS, Finer M, Jenkins CN, Kreft H, Cisneros-Heredia DF, McCracken SF, Pitman NC, English PH, Swing K, Villa G, Di Fiore A, Voigt CC, & Kunz TH (2010). Global conservation significance of Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park. PloS one, 5 (1) PMID: 20098736
- Thirst for Oil Imperils South America’s Most Biodiverse Wilderness Environment News Service
- For more details on the chytrid fungus see discussion by field biologist Roland Knapp