Thursday, 22 February 2018

Chaparrí; a special private reserve doing vital work

Northern Peru has many surprises for the visitor, not least because it far less well known and publicised than the tourist-seething south of the country. One of these is Chaparrí, a community-based private reserve which in 2001 became the first in the country to be formally recognised by government. In fact it was the efforts of the community, culminating in the declaration of the reserve in 2000, which resulted in the new legislation enabling the recognition of such privately owned conservation areas. This community initiative was funded by Peruvian wildlife photographer Heinz Plenge and various conservation groups. 

The community allows the reserve managers to manage their land - totalling 34,000 hectares - in return for them benefitting from entrance fees and income from the simple but very attractive and comfortable lodge. Moreover community members work as guards, guides, lodge staff and on conservation projects such as the Spectacled Bear rehabilitation centre, as well as on construction and maintenance projects.

Set in the dry forests of the Tumbes Bioregion 75km east of the city of Chiclayo, the reserve is firstly very beautiful indeed.
Typical Chaparrí landscape.
The high mountain in the middle of the ridge is Chaparrí iteslf, for which the reserve was named.
It was apparently of great cultural significance to the local Muchik people.
The red arrow is pointing to Chiclayo, near the coast; Chaparrí is slightly inland from it,
near the village (and surrounding community) of Santa Catarina de Chongoyape;
the village is often known simply as Chongoyape.
The importance of Chaparrí however goes beyond its beauty. The Tumbes Bioregion (technically ‘Equatorial Pacific Seasonally Dry Forests of south-west Ecuador and north-west Peru’!) is a biodiversity area of world importance. Indeed it is regarded as one of the world’s three top conservation priorities (along with the Philippines and Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests), based on the number of both endemic and threatened species present. Birdlife International describes it as "one of the most important and threatened of all Endemic Bird Areas”. Just 4% of the original forests are in good condition; there are an astonishing 65 bird species endemic to the region, 21 of which are threatened with extinction, and nine endemic mammals, of which six are threatened. 60% of the reptiles and frogs present are also endemic. Remarkably, 39 of these endemic birds can be found at Chaparrí. Of these, the 'flagship species' is probably the appallingly rare White-winged Guan Penelope albipennis, whose world population is probably less than 250, a quarter of which live at Chaparrí, stemming from a reintroduction of 16 birds in 2001.
White-winged Guan at Chaparrí; it is very exciting to see this Critically Endangered species here,
as it is very difficult indeed to find it elsewhere.

Mind you, it's almost embarrassingly easy to see here; this bird was preparing to roost for
the night on the roof of the lodge!
Other Tumbes endemics are readily seen around the lodge and on the walking tracks.
Plumbeous-backed Thrush Turdus reevei.
Tumbes Tyrant Tumbezia (or Ochthoeca) salvini.
Tumbes Sparrow Rhynchospiza stolzmanni.This New World sparrow (or bunting, according to some) has a very small range.
White-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes albiceps.Like the sparrow (above) this lovely brushfinch has a tiny range, but is doing quite well within that range.
Pacific (or Peruvian) Pygmy-Owl Glaucidium peruanum.A tiny owl, no more than 16cm long, whose size probably belies its ferocity, as it regularly
attracts a mob of angry small birds when it's found roosting in the open.
Tumbes Hummingbird Leucippus baeri. This plain-coloured species comes (with many other species)
every morning to drink at a pool in the creek just below the outdoor dining room.
It has a tiny range too, barely getting into Ecuador.
Collared Antshrike female Thamnophilus bernardi.Like most of its family, this species stays low and skulking in the understorey, but is
all around the lodge and quite readily seen.
White-edged Oriole Icterus graceannae, just showing (above the intervening branch)
the white edge to its wing from which derives its name.
White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, a spectacular Tumbesian endemic which sometimes
comes to the lodge feeders.
And that is, I think, a fairly impressive collection of endemics for a brief visit. Other more widespread species are also present of course.
Groove-billed Anis Crotophaga sulcirostris gathering sociably after a bath in a pond.
These non-parasitic cuckoos are indeed highly sociable, with up to five pairs laying their
eggs into a single nest.
Golden Grosbeak Pheucticus chrysogaster female. These lovely birds (the males are more brightly
coloured) are widespread in the reserve.
And of course birds aren't the only animals present! The most exciting non-bird present is for most people probably the Spectacled (or Andean) Bears which divide their time between being protected in large forested enclosures, and spending increasing time in the reserve, preparatory to being released into the wild. They are mostly rescued (illegal) pets, abandoned when they got too big, or confiscated by wildlife officers. Many arrive in very poor condition.

Spectacled Bear Tremarctos ornatus, keeping an eye on the breakfast proceedings from the creek below.
Guards keep an eye on them when they approach people, and usher them away if necessary.
The only South American bear (whose ancestors arrived only in the past few million years), Spectacled Bears
are almost entirely vegetarian, with bromeliad shoots forming an important part of their diet.
This dry country population is unusual, in that they are more normally found in cloud forest and
high mountain treeless paramo.
The bear wasn't the only one with an interest in the dining room. This female Collared Peccary Pecari tajacuregularly brought her two piglets around to see what might be on offer.

Guayaquil Squirrel Sciurus stramineus. Despite the name (Guayaquil is a big city in
southern Ecuador) this large squirrel is found through the Tumbes.
Green Iguana Iguana iguana. This impressive big lizard (up to 1.5 metres long) is found
widely in central and South America. They mostly eat fruit and vegetation.
As I've mentioned, the reserve is dominated by dry open forest.
Cactuses are not uncommon in the open parts of the reserve.
One unusual aspect during our visit (last October) was the aftermath of the wet El Niño season earlier in the year. While the rampant growth that resulted had died back by the time we got there, much of the vegetation was covered with dried creepers, making wildlife spotting harder.

Accommodation is scattered, simple, comfortable and solar-powered. Some of the rooms are near to the wonderful al fresco dining room (where local women prepare simple but superb local food), but others (including ours) are across the creek, in the dry forest. (The antshrike photo above was taken from our verandah, equipped with hammock.)
Access via swing bridge to the other side of the creek.
Our cabin, made in the local tradition.

Verandah (the hammock is almost out of sight behind the twisty tree trunk on the left).

Detail of wall decoration.

Traditional woven ceiling.
Visiting Chaparrí is a rare delight; it is isolated along 15km of unsealed, sometimes rough, road and you can only go with a local guide, so your stay will be quiet and peaceful. It feels very remote. It should be an unalloyed success story but nothing's ever quite that simple, sadly. Some of the community seemingly had somewhat unrealistic expectations of the financial benefits, and are becoming dissatisfied with the less than hoped-for (albeit regular) return. One land owner (to be honest I don't fully understand the relationship between community and personal ownership) has been persuaded to sell up to someone who is already clearing the forest for farming - in the middle of the reserve, to the distress of the reserve staff and managers. There is also a sense of unease about threats from squatters from elsewhere, to whom undeveloped land means unwanted land. 

We can only hope that the majority of the community are willing to hold firm and value their precious Tumbes environment as much as their parents did, who made the far-sighted decision 18 years ago. It was inspiring then, and should be inspiring now. One thing you can do is visit if you're in that part of the world; I can promise it won't be a hardship!

Sunset over Chaparrí Lodge - with White-winged Guan on the roof!

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