Conserving the Diversity and Beauty of Choco

Extending from Southern Panama through Colombia and Ecuador, the Choco is one of the world’s most magnificent ecosystems, featuring habitats that range from mangroves and moist rainforests through to dry tropical forests. Sadly, the Choco is subject to large-scale deforestation; mainly to make way for agriculture, and Ecuador appears to be worst hit by this habitat destruction. However, thanks to the efforts of a team of dedicated researchers, working along with local communities and authorities, the abundant natural beauty of the Choco will still be around for future generations to enjoy.

The Choco has been identified as one of Conservation International’s seventeen “Conservation Hotspots”. Despite the fact that only between five and ten percent of the Choco remains, its varied habitats are home to an amazing range of wildlife, including around 2,250 animal species and 9,000 plant species, with approximately twenty-five percent of these being found exclusively in the Choco. Based at UCLA’s Institute of Environment, the Center for Tropical Research (CTR) is a conservation group that, under the leadership of Dr. Jordan Karubian as the Latin American Director, has developed a program combining research, education and training, along with grassroots sustainable development, in an effort to conserve and expand the endangered Choco forests of Ecuador. The work of the CTR is supported by the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Conservation Society. The CTR has also been the recipient of the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund’s Local Conservation Hero Award.

Part of the CTR studies focuses on the basic biology of bird species that are endmic to the Choco and are in danger of becoming extinct. These include the Long-wattled Umbrellabird, the Brown Wood-rail and the Ground Cuckoo. Little was known about these birds prior to the studies carried out by the CTR, and with the information that has been gathered, researchers have a better understanding of the habitat required to keep the species going, and what effect habitat destruction has on them. By means of various hi-tech tracking methods, researchers are also investigating what role endemic fruit-eating species play in seed dispersal, which is valuable information for the regeneration of deforested areas.

Although the Ecuadorian Choco region has four major protected areas, due to a lack of resources needed to enforce regulations, the protection is on paper only. Driven by poverty, local communities continue with timber extraction, slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting. The CTR project seeks to promote sustainable development, such as ecotourism and the cultivation of sustainable commercial crops like cacao – the main ingredient of chocolate – while at the same time appealing to local communities to support conservation efforts before it is too late.

On the positive side, given the chance to do so, reforestation of the Choco could take a relatively short period of time. The CTR project has established models for successful research, training, education and development that can be used in other conservation sites of the Ecuadorian Choco region and even further afield. Also, upon winning the trust of local inhabitants, it has been established that the majority have a strong desire to conserve the area, and with some help in setting up viable alternatives for income, are prepared to give the project their full support.