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Endangered SpeciesPolicies & Politics

Saving Yasuni Forest, "Megadiversity" Hotspot, Faces Funding Challenge

Yasuni National Park, located 250 km inland along the Eastern most border of Ecuador, is a world record holder in biodiversity richness:  The roughly 10,000 km² forest is home to 139 species of amphibians (besting Columbia’s Leticia Park with its 98 species) and an estimated 100,000 species of insects. This latter figure represents the highest biodiversity count for any taxonomic group, per unit area, in the world.

Reptile and bat species are also present in record numbers. If that weren’t enough to make every field biologists in the world start packing his/her bags, Yasuni also holds the record for most species of epiphytes — plants that live on other plants. It’s a botanist’s paradise too.

A) Location of Yasuní National Park at the crossroads of the Amazon, Andes, and the Equator. B) Oil blocks and oil access roads within and surrounding the park. ITT = Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil fields, NWC = Napo Wildlife Center, TBS = Tiputini Biodiversity Station, YRS = Yasuní Research Station. The image background is the Blue Marble mosaic of MODIS satellite images

In 1989, UNESCO declared the Yasuni Forest a “biosphere reserve”.

In a January, 2011 PLoS ONE paper*, researchers Bass, Finer, Kreft and Pitman (and others) published an analysis of all the data that had been collected at Yasuni over the past decade. Their analysis confirmed the existence of a “quadruple richness” center in the heart of Yasuni (that means peak  species records for trees, mammals, amphibians and birds).

Richness center overlap of four key focus groups—amphibians, birds, mammals and vascular plants. A richness center is defined as the top 6.4% of grid cells for each taxonomic group (see Materials and Methods for details). 4 groups = area where richness centers for all four groups overlap; 3 groups = richness centers for three groups overlap; 2 groups = richness centers for two groups overlap; 1 group = richness center for just one group occurs; 0 = richness center for none of the four groups

Unfortunately, Yasuni National Park, which is adjoined by the Waorani Ethnic Reserve (the Waorani, or Huaorani, are a hunter-gatherer people that has been steadily pushed east), also sits atop the country’s second largest proven reserve of crude oil.

This reserve is known as the Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini (ITT) field . And, because UNESCO has little, if any, real authority over what it designates as a biosphere reserve, we have the set-up for the quintessential modern conflict: the need to preserve indigenous ecosystems/species/cultures pitted against the desire to extract minerals/fuel for profits and economic growth.

The biological richness of the area, together with the vital role played by tropical forests in climate control, has made preservation of Yasuni National Park (and the adjoining Waorani Reserve, totaling 28,000km²) a growing imperative to conservationists and biologists around the world.

Regionally endemic amphibians, birds, and mammals of Yasuní National Park.

In what has been called an “innovative model” for other, biodiversity-rich countries to adopt,  but what appears to many to be a form of quasi-benign extortion, the Ecuadoran government has agreed to keep oil companies out of Yasuni for the next 13 years — all for a bargain price tag of 3.6 billion USD. This is roughly half the estimated worth of the oil (January 2011 price per barrel).

However, even with six nations pledging to donate, as of January 2011, the Yasuni-ITT Initiative’s fund has just 100,000.00 USD (donated by Chile). The fund will need a total (minimum) 100 million by December, 2011. But, as pointed out by local** biologist Kelly Swing in a letter to the editor (Science, 7 Jan., 2011), this means that the fund needs 300,000.00 USD every day in order to meet this goal. Further, Swing also notes that the agreement stipulates 3 times this total needed for 2012. At that point, if the required minimum money is lacking, Ecuador can refund the donations.

Conservationist and Scientists are quite concerned that, barring a major cash infusion to the fund (which is being overseen by the UN Development Program, not Ecuador),  President Correa may quickly allow development of Yasuni’s oil fields. And there is good reason for this concern: it has happened before.

Ecuador’s Limoncocha Biological Reserve was completely destroyed (forcing the Waorani from their native home) following the building of an oil field access road in 1997. Apart from the “normal” destruction that takes place with oil extraction, the road allowed others — colonists and commercial timber and fishing interests — to gain access to the rich resources of the Reserve. Waterways were soon over-fished or over-hunted (the reserve’s caiman were wiped out) and the last primary forest in that region was gone within a few years.

A) Strict protected areas (IUCN categories I–IV) in the western Amazon. B) All protected areas within the Napo Moist Forests ecoregion. C) Oil blocks covering the Napo Moist Forests ecoregion

And –if you’ll forgive the dramatic metaphor — like vultures circling carrion, it is already starting to happen: oil companies are currently conducting drilling operations along the Park’s borders…

If you would like to learn more about Yasuni, visit the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. To learn more or to donate to the fund to save Yasuni, visit Save America’s Forests, or globally, Conservation International. For more information about the search for and study of new species in this area and in other hotspots, visit Finding Species.

* Global Conservation Significance of Ecuador’s Yasuni National Forest

** Affiliation: Tiputini Biodiversity Station, University of San Francisco de Quito

Some material for this article came from the news report ‘The Fight for Yasuni’ (Science, 26 November, 2010) by Eric Marx.

Top photo sequence:  courtesy of the University of San Francisco de Quito / Tiputini Biodiversity Station (see link above)

Maps, and Chart: from the cited paper (supporting materials) PLoSONE, under this CC license.




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