#FeatureFriday: Herping in the Chocó
Ever since I started blogging on a regular basis about 4 years ago, a number of people have started to follow in my footsteps with their own blogs. I’ve asked a number of these wonderful people to write me a blog for a new section I’m calling ‘#FeatureFriday’. This month’s #FridayFeature comes from Oliver Thomas of Tales of Scales, make sure you check out his blog after reading this wonderful story.
On the western slopes of the Andes, extending from Ecuador, through Colombia to Panama is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – an incredible region known as the Chocó. Sadly, the Chocó is also one of the most threatened areas on Earth. In Ecuador, only 2% of the lowland Chocó remains as a result of deforestation to make way for agriculture, mostly palm oil. I’d seen this kind of mass clearing before, when flying over palm oil plantations in Borneo, but first hand on the ground the experience is that much more palpable.
The region has frankly outrageous diversity and ultra-high levels of endemism, making the rapid disappearance of the habitat all the more worrying. 9,000 vascular plant species, a quarter of which are endemic, call the Chocó home. For vertebrates, endemism is somewhere around 13%. These include 270 mammals, 800 species of bird, 210 reptiles and 130 amphibians – those are just the ones we know about! Here we’re going to focus on the reptiles and amphibians.
I visited the Chocó after a 2-month stint in the Amazon with Operation Wallacea. I got in contact with Save the Chocó, a charity helping to preserve the region by working with local and global organisations to protect, expand and establish reserves in the region. I then opted to visit the Canandé reserve, operated by Fundación Jocotoco, an Ecuadorian NGO that currently owns and manages 10 reserves throughout the country. While this organisation focuses on preserving the habitat for birds, other species are also protected by proxy.
I turned up at the field station where I would be spending the next week. I was met by my guide and soon to be friend, Jacinto, the only other person in this entire reserve. After exchanging pleasantries in Spanish, I asked “Usted habla Ingleis?” (Do you speak English?) to which I was given a confused expression and “No” as a response… Good thing I’d been practicing my remedial language skills, or it would have been a quiet week! I later, somewhat optimistically, offered to teach him some English. We didn’t get that far after realising that teaching in a language you haven’t yourself mastered is actually quite hard. Jacinto has been there from the beginning, creating all the trails for the Canandé reserve. He has an unparalleled knowledge of the birds in the area and could identify many by only their distant call. I learnt a lot from him and I offered my knowledge of the area’s herpetofauna (which grew exponentially over the week) in return. We came across some really cool species while out herping, a few of which are illustrating this blog post.
Towards the end of the week and after building up a solid relationship, Jacinto offered to take me to what is basically my dream home. Further up the Canandé river there is a shack on stilts atop a steep hill that drops to the riverbank. This is the place you want to be if any kind of catastrophic zombie/alien/Trump event happens, or if you just get sick of people. One hour from the nearest town by motorbike and through a fence in a palm oil plantation you dump the bike in the undergrowth and walk 5 minutes to the river. Here you take the dugout canoe 10 minutes upriver before an hour and a half hike to the shack. Optimal. This was my final night in the Chocó and we went for a long hike to look for Eyelash boas (Trachyboa boulengeri). Alas, they gave us the slip. We did, however, have a fight with a huge freshwater shrimp which was thoroughly entertaining.
There’s still a tonne of stuff I want to see in the Chocó so I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there again this summer. I’m also acutely aware that nearly every species I came across during my time there is under a genuinely concerning amount of pressure from the anthropogenic changes occurring here. We don’t even fully know what’s there or how it’s doing in the face of these changes and as already mentioned, only 2% of the ecosystem remains. I’ve already started planning potential research projects to look into some of this stuff. As usual the limiting factor, commonly the case with herpetological studies, is funding it. Hopefully one day that will all come together.
The links below will take you to some useful websites and information about the Chocó. The last one is a PDF compiled by the guys at Tropical Herping. It’s a brilliant guide that I used throughout my time there and their other work is amazing too. They also run herping trips to the Chocó so might be a good one to contact if you’re interested in visiting. Please also consider donating to Save the Chocó as the money goes directly towards buying land in the region. I’ve been donating to the charity whenever I fly in an admittedly futile attempt to offset the vast amount of carbon that is spewed out during the transport.
All images © Oliver Thomas