Volcanoes, Dairy Farmers, and Andean Bears

Photo of Volcan Antisana by Marcio Ramalho

A Success Story in People-Focused Conservation

The eastern slope of the Andes Mountains has some of the highest biodiversity on the planet. It is home to endangered mountain tapirs, Andean bears, and more types of beautiful tropical birds than you can count.

As a PHD student, April Sansom (now Dr. April Sansom, Community Conservation’s Executive Director) became friends with many of the farmers living and working in this beautiful place. The project she coordinated, “Proyecto PLAN,” brought together the local dairy farming community of Las Palmas, who voluntarily agreed to adopt new practices that would help protect the unique environment around them.

Ecological importance

Las Palmas, Ecuador is located in a sensitive and threatened watershed bordering the Antisana Ecological Reserve. It is critical that this watershed remain healthy, so one goal of this project was to protect the forest around the Quijos and Cosanga Rivers, which ultimately flow into the Amazon drainage system.

Rio Cosanga in Ecuador - rapids and rocks with forest behind
Rio Cosanga, Ecuador – photo by Don Henise

The dense forest is also excellent wildlife habitat, home to many endangered species and also many endemic species not found anywhere else on earth.

Making change together

As part of Project PLAN, April connected the dairy farmers, non-governmental organization workers, and university personnel from UW Madison. The team discovered a win/win: a way for the farmers to make their existing fields more productive so that they could support their families without having to cut down any forest.

Family farm in Las Palmas, Ecuador.
The farm of one of the families Dr. Sansom worked with in Las Palmas

With assistance from the technical team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the farmers designed their own experiments in their pastures to determine the best forage mixes (a forage mix is what farmers plant in their pastures for their cattle to graze). Better pastures allowed farmers to generate more milk on the same amount of land, which decreased pressure on the surrounding forests. Also, the farmers began rotational grazing, which further improved their pastures. The farmers were happy to try out these new practices, and were even happier with the results.

This more nutritious pasture for the cows allowed the protection of several hectares of secondary forest. Keeping more acres of forest uncut helped keep the watershed healthy and increased wildlife habitat.

The project continues

In June of 2019, April visited Last Palmas again to see how the dairy farms are doing. She was happy to discover that the farmers are still using the practices they learned during Project PLAN.

Selfie of Conservationist Dr. April Sansom in front of a forest vista in Ecuador 2019
Dr. Sansom visited the dairy farming families of Las Palmas again this year.

Sayler Erazo, one of the principal farmers involved, was able to remove 14 hectares of forest from production. On these 14 hectares, he replanted forest trees and allowed secondary forest to continue growing. Those 14 hectares are still forested today.

This project shows the power of working directly with local communities when trying to protect species and habitat. It’s often a long-term process, but the results are also long-lasting.

Is there more to do in Las Palmas?

While in Ecuador, Dr. Sansom also discovered an opportunity to assist a neighboring community to protect habitat. We’ll be sharing more about that project as it comes together.

Update: The Search for Pygmy Hogs

Nepal, 2019

Dr. Teri Allendorf is currently in Nepal, searching for signs of the critically endangered pygmy hog and working with local mammalogists.

Local people have been finding small nests made by some mammal species, using fronds (which you can see in the photo above). Forest guards showed Dr. Allendorf the types of places they find these nests.

Small brown pygmy hog standing in dirt and dry grass
the critically endangered pgymy hog (Porcula salvania) – photo by John Singh

If signs of pygmy hogs living in this area are found, it will be an important discovery. Currently, pygmy hogs are thought only to remain in one limited area in India, with none remaining in Nepal. However, because the hogs are still found in adjacent landscapes in India and the correct habitat types exist in the study areas in Nepal, the nests are worth looking at closely.

Conservationists standing together in a forest holding gear, talking and looking around
Looking for nests
Small hole in the ground surrounded by ferns and decaying leaves
Pangolin burrow

So far, we haven’t found any definitive signs of pygmy hogs. However, while looking for pygmy hogs, we did see a nice pangolin burrow, which is a species of conservation concern. There are many awareness programs about pangolin conservation in Nepal, so hopefully they will be a conservation success story.

Two men running while pushing a red truck through sand with deep tire grooves
One of the perils of traveling in the field

The work in Nepal hasn’t always been easy… vehicles and sandy dry river beds don’t always mix well. Thanks to our partners Birendra and Dinesh for the help getting us out!

Hopefully more possible pygmy hog nests will be found so we can help identify whether they were made by pygmy hogs, or some other mammal. If they are made by pygmy hogs, it would be exciting indeed! But as of now, the team has seen no definitive signs in this part of Nepal yet.

Partners

Dr. Allendorf is meeting with many interesting and impactful people during the search for pygmy hogs, as she works closely with communities in Nepal.

Two conservation practitioners talking
Dr. Neupane and Dr. Allendorf

We’re so happy to partner with Dr. Dinesh Neupane, an independent researcher. His expertise in Nepal’s wildlife has been such a great contribution. See a short interview with Dinesh on Facebook.

Two conservation practitioners standing together in Nepal
Dr. Arjun Thapa and Birendra Mahato

We are also happy to be partnering with Dr. Arjun Thapa from Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation (SMCRF) and Birendra Mahato from Green Society Nepal.

Portrait in forest of Chairwoman in Nepal looking at camera
Chairwoman Murti Devi Chaudhary

The team also had the pleasure to meet Murti Devi Chaudhary, chair of the Mahila Jhatkhanda Community Forest in Saptari District, where the pygmy hog search is taking place. Women’s community forestry groups have a strong presence in Nepal but often receive less support and recognition.

While in Nepal, Dr. Allendorf is also working to connect communities and explore the possibility of a community-conserved wildlife corridor in the area. This is a continuation of the work Dr. Allendorf and Community Conservation’s late Founder Rob Horwich started years ago.

Stay tuned for more about the corridor in our next update!