Amazon Region and Napo River: Travel in Ecuador

Before sunset.

In the summer of 2019, I visited Ecuador with my daughter. Elina went there for 2 months of studies to improve her knowledge of Spanish. I joined her when she completed her practice, and we planned together to explore this amazing country. We have selected a visit to three of the four natural-geographical zones in Ecuador: Amazon (eastern part of Ecuador), mountains, and coast. We did not plan only to visit the Galapagos this time.

Ecuador or the Republic of Ecuador is one of the countries, having the richest fauna and flora with an estimated highest level of biodiversity in the world per square kilometer. This is also one of the countries with the highest rates of endemism in the world. In addition, Ecuador is a country of unique culture and a long history of human civilization. The ancient history covers a huge period and goes back almost 17 thousand years ago. Modern history – from the 19th century to the present day – can be characterized as a period of struggle for independence, the formation of statehood, and the process of evolutionary development of society. Taking into account the value and uniqueness of biological diversity for the development of the country, the new Constitution of Ecuador (2008) contains an article that legitimately recognizes the Rights of Nature or the Rights of Ecosystems.

Amazonia (Amazon Region) in Ecuador stretches from the eastern slopes of the Andes to the lowland tropical forests of the Amazon Basin, occupying an area of ​​about 130 thousand square kilometers. It is impossible to survey in detail this vast territory even during a long visit. We planned to stay in Amazonia only for two days, knowing that we can look only at very small pieces of jungles. Our choice focused on the town of Puerto Misahualli, still surrounded by the jungle, through which the Napo River flows. Yasuni National Park is located not far from the town; it is known for its rich biological diversity. A small Napo Wildlife Center was established in this park, to save wild animals and rehabilitate them back into the wild. The area near the river is surrounded by jungles with swamps and other wetlands, in which hoatzins, one of the most amazing birds with ancient morphological traits, still occur. In the area of ​​the park and in the tropical forests around there are settlements of local indigenous peoples – the Kichwa-Anangu tribes; they are completely dependent on forest products, gathering herbs, and hunting wild animals.

Just before my arrival, heavy rains fell, which washed out the roads and even demolished one of the bridges on the way from Quito to Amazonia. Therefore, our bus took another safer road, which was much longer. As a result, we arrived at the final point of our journey very late. But the owner of a small hostel located in the jungle met us in the central square of Puerto Misahuali in the middle of the night. Another 15 minutes took the road to the hostel, and then we went up to the lodge along a narrow path illuminated by a flashlight beam. We stayed in a lodge that was still under construction. Its owner, Scott, has kindly provided us with the only guest room with access to the common dining room. The cottage is equipped with a comfortable shower and toilet. The house is supplied with electricity, but there is no internet connection yet. A small balcony adjacent to the dining room offers beautiful views of the river and the lush green jungles around. Scott began to build the guest-houses and make landscaping in the area around his house. Two of his assistants from Puerto Misahuali completed the construction of cottages for tourists, a small restaurant, and sanitary units. Volunteers from other countries helped with the design of the buildings and the new territory. All buildings are connected by a network of branching paths with picturesque bridges over water streams and small ponds that create habitats for amphibians and aquatic invertebrates. The buildings are located in a charming landscape surrounded by tall trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants. Bird feeders and bananas for monkeys attract forest dwellers, who can often be seen near the cottage.

Coming out of the house in the evening, visitors find themselves surrounded by velvet darkness, over which the pearly canopy of the night sky reveals itself with unusually bright stars and other night luminaries. Darkness is occasionally cut by zigzag flying fireflies. The darkness is filled with the noises of the night – the sounds of the jungle. First of all, it is a many-voiced choir of amphibians – frogs and toads, which begin their singing at dusk. From the voices, it can be assumed that about a dozen different species inhabit the local ponds. However, it was never possible to see them during the day. All amphibians are invisible, hiding in the depth of the ponds and in plants, growing on trees. By the presence of bromeliad plants in the trees, one can expect to find here bright tree frogs. Grassy bromeliads – evergreen epiphytic plants – can often be seen on trees. Tree frogs are associated with some of them. They settle on bromeliad clumps, sometimes very high on a tree. It is not easy to see frogs on trees or in bromeliads; although during the breeding season they can descend lower on trunks and become more observable. Reproduction takes place in the wet period. Some species lay their eggs right in the wet sinuses of the leaves, where the development of tadpoles takes place, which then turns into adult frogs. However, a considerable number of species also live in terrestrial reservoirs, as can be judged by night voices. In addition to frogs and toads, cicadas, owls, nightjars, night-herons, and other nocturnal birds join the night choir. In general, it is quite difficult to distinguish individual species in the polyphony of multiple jingles, but sometimes, when a bird flies closer, its voice begins to stand out among other nocturnal sounds. Bats also appear with darkness, slipping noiselessly among the crowns of tall trees. Some individuals quickly jump out of the dark and rush over a narrow strip of light rising above the house’s balcony in the hope of grabbing a gnawing insect or spider. Surprisingly, during our stay in the cottage, we did not see or hear mosquitoes or other bloodsucking insects. It is likely that the rainy period has just begun and they did not appear yet.

A clear starry sky, a chorus of nightly voices, flashing fireflies — everything promised a clear morning the next day and we prepared to get up early to watch the dawn and the birds arriving at the feeders near the open balcony of the house. But after midnight, the first drops of rain drummed on the roof, and in the morning we were awakened by the even sound of tropical rain. It then amplified, then calmed down by the oncoming waves, but did not stop. After morning dawn, only rolling streams loomed in the window, through which blurred silhouettes of trees and a gray river appeared in an obscure fog. Some kind of revival was heard in the crowns of the trees: birds from the Icterid (Icteridae, Passeriformes) family woke up there; it was a russet-backed oropendola (Psarocolius angustifrons). These birds are somewhat similar to the bright-colored American orioles; they even build similar nests, which hang from the tree branches, but rather large, resembling oblong baskets. Nests are closed at the top and with an opening entrance at the bottom. Despite the rain, the awakened oropendolas began to actively discuss the events of the new day, flying from tree to tree in pairs and small groups. Some of them have already built their dangling nests, and sometimes they flew inside to fix the inner trim. Others still constructed these nests and brought thin and long blades of grass to weave them into the walls of the nest. When the rain slightly calmed out, the yellow-rumped cacique (Cacicus cela) appeared (it is also a bird from the Icterid family). As soon as the rain subsided a little, both species began to rally out their relations, opening wings and showing bright spots on the tail and wings. Caciques and oropendolas are widespread in the Amazon region. They occupy in the jungle tropical forests the upper layer of tall trees. Both species show themselves by their noisy, loud voices and contrasting colors. Caciques have also very bright clear-blue eyes, contrasting with the overall black color of the plumage. In addition to these numerous two species, some other interesting birds flew up to the lodge, but we could not identify them behind a dense wall of rain. Several flocks of parrots flew over, small passerines emerged from the wet foliage and immediately hid again from time to time. The hummingbirds were not seen at all, apparently, they sat huddled in the thick shrubs and waited for better weather. Meanwhile, when Elina woke up, she made tea and was preparing to pour it into cups, when she suddenly found in one of them a large shaggy spider, somewhat resembling a tarantula. It is likely that the spider got into the mug to escape the rain. The spider did not want to leave its shelter, so we pick it out from the mug with a small sprig. Once on the balcony, the spider quickly ran down, hiding from the rain under the veranda.

In the late morning, the rain ended, but the heavy drops were still falling down from the wet trees. In the debris, located near the house, we heard a noise and spotted small monkeys with white faces jumping from branch to branch. The brown-mantled tamarins (Saguinus fuscicollis) came to check out the banana feeders. The monkeys were very careful, immediately soared up the tree trunk and hid among the high branches after insignificant stirring. However, they carefully examined all the trees in the area around the cottage, moving in small groups from tree to tree.

After observations of monkeys, we went to Puerto Mishahualli to meet with local guide Carlos and visit interesting areas around. The bright sun after the rain woke up nature: sparkling hummingbirds and small sparrow birds fluttered over the flowering shrubs; scavengers and other predators began circling in the sky. We met with Carlos near the central square, where other tourists were already waiting for a trip down the river. The monkeys – White-fronted Capuchins (Cebus albifrons) – were also nearby, occasionally descending from the trees and exploring the area in search of edible food remains.

Carlos enthusiastically began to tell us about birds and other animals living in jungles around the town. From time to time he interrupted his story that to show us a bird flying nearby. After several minutes of conversation, he offered us several possible trips, and he was ready to go to the jungle immediately!  Frankly, leaving the lodge, we did not plan to go somewhere, as we intended to explore the surroundings and walk along the paths around the town, where there were really many attractive shrubs with birds and insects flying everywhere. However, the single magic word “hoatzin” affected us like real live bait on fish.  Carlos said that the hoatzins live nearby Puerto Misahuali in the marshes, where people can always see them…

In my memory immediately appeared the pages from the ornithology textbooks and the description of this amazing bird. The Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) (the name “Hoatzin” came from the Aztec language) is the only species from the Opisthocomidae family and Opisthocomiformes order. It is the only bird on the Earth whose chicks have free fingers with claws on the wings. Adult birds lose these claws. This bird shows that an evolutionary connection between birds and reptiles is possible. Modern scientists suggest that the claws on the wings of the Hoatzins can be an adaptation to life in the dense tropical forest because other morphological traits do not indicate similarity with reptiles and are typical for all bird species. However, genetic studies conducted in 2015 showed that these birds appeared about 64 million years ago, in the time when the last dinosaurs became extinct. And, who knows, it is possible that Hoatzins or their ancestors, in their origin, are connected somehow with feathered dinosaurs. Hoatzins feed on vegetarian food, mostly leaves, but they can also eat flowers and fruits. This is the only species among birds, which is distinguished from others by the fact that the hoatzins digest plant food in a large crop, where bacterial fermentation of plants occurs in the same way as in the rumen of ruminant animals. This feature makes the Hoatzin “dung or stinky birds”, which have an unpleasant smell. The meat of the hoatzins also has a sharp, rotten smell, due to which birds are not eaten even by people from local tribes. Perhaps, this fact served to the preservation of these large birds — the size of a medium goose — in equatorial forests. Their habitats – riverside shrubs and swamps – also remain relatively intact, protecting this amazing endemic of the equatorial forests of the Amazonia. Therefore, to be in a place where you can see the hoatzin and not take this opportunity was completely unacceptable for me as an ornithologist and passionate birdwatcher. Elina also was interested to see the Amazon forest and its dwellers. At the same time, Carlos continued to list all new and new species to see, as well as interesting places to visit, more and more winning over us to him with his avid enthusiasm. Visiting places that Carlos called was interesting for both of us, so we almost immediately decided that we would use the offers. After short debates, we selected the boat excursion on the same day and jungle hike to a small forest reserve the next morning.

Hoatzins in the Amazon forest near Puerto Misahuali.

After a half-hour, we were on a small motorized vessel, well-equipped to serve tourists, driving along the Napo River. Carlos prepared rubber boots for both of us to hike through the jungle. Tropical landscapes with amazing trees pass by, but practically everywhere along the river, residential houses are built or are in the process of construction, occupied either by the local villagers or equipped as cottages to accommodate tourists. In some places on the river, we could see local artisan companies or families of gold diggers who washed the sand. The Napo River is known for its gold-bearing outlets, therefore many local inhabitants associate their income with gold mining. Stealthy white-winged swallows (Tachycineta albiventer) sailed by over the river very low, almost touching the water. A couple of other swallow species also flew near the water, but not so low. Not many birds were seen in this late morning time. We spotted two species of kingfishers – the Ringed (Megaceryle torquata) and the Amazon (Chloroceryle amazona), but both escaped so rapidly that we could not see their bright plumage in the details. The snowy egret fluttered from the shore; there in the shade – under the branches of the coastal plants, we could see its hidden nestling chick, which had already begun to fledge, but still kept the juvenile greyish plumage. We left Puerto Misahualli around 11 o’clock in the morning, for birds it was already the time of a day’s rest, so it was not surprising that we saw so little a number of birds along the river. We stopped on a sandy spit, from which the footpath went into the jungle. “Hoatzins …” – explained Carlos, we shook our heads knowingly and followed him under the canopy of the dark forest. Carlos slightly cleared the narrow path with his machete in places where lush vegetation locked the passage after the recent rains, but it was noticeable that the path was used and the road did not seem hard. The rainforest greeted us with relative silence, darkness and dampness. The silence of jungles was interrupted by the chanting of cicadas and the dialogues of ubiquitous caciques and oropendolas in the crowns of tall trees. Among other birds, Carlos heard only the great tinamou (Tinamus major), a secretive species, hidden in the darkness of wet rainforest. Two species of woodpeckers and a barbet, encountered on our way, flew away immediately, as soon as we approached closer.

The tropical equatorial forest is interesting not only by observation of birds. Many trees here are perfectly adapted to the conditions of life in a dark and humid environment. Probably, it should be said, first of all, about the walking palm or the cashapona (Socratea exorrhiza), – the unique tree, which has unusual stilt roots. According to local legends, these roots allow the palm to move from the place of growth to the side if something hinders the growth. But this statement was questioned by scientists, whose assumptions boil down to the fact that stilt roots make this palm more stable, as it grows to a height of 25 meters with a trunk diameter of only 12-16 centimeters. The second assumption is quite acceptable, given the swampy nature of the terrain and the absence of solid soil in the places where these palm trees grow.

Another interesting tree we saw on our way was the wild cacao or cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao). The word “cocoa” itself is also of Aztec origin. The cocoa tree is now widely distributed and cultivated outside of South America. But this species originated in the subequatorial regions of South America, most likely in the plains of the Amazonia, where this species still grows in the jungle in natural conditions. We saw later cocoa trees in mountainous areas also, but they were planted there, mainly for decorative purposes. The main cocoa plantations are located in humid plains, near Amazonia. Bromeliads were the most diverse among other plants. They grow in the tropical forest of the Amazonia as independent shrubs, as well as epiphytes on tree trunks or grassy plants inhabiting tree trunks and settling sometimes very high in treetops. Several species of orchids also were spotted, but in this season they had already finished flowering.

Among insects in the tropical forest, termites, ants, and cicadas are the most numerous. Termites and ants in the moist and swampy jungle arrange their homes in the trees. Termite houses do not look like massive hills, and resemble, most likely, wasp nests, although many of them have quite impressive dimensions. We were not focused on insect-watching but spotted several interesting species such as ants – leafcutters, giant ants, walking sticks, and bright dragonflies. Carlos warned us to be more careful with giant ants, as the bite of this species is painful and can lead to unpleasant consequences. Also in the dark wet forest, we saw several different types of mushrooms that were visible on the trunks of dead and dying trees.

Imperceptibly, the path led us to a swamp inhabited by hoatzins. A pair of birds sat close to the path. Hoatzins were in no hurry to fly away, assessing the degree of danger, which can be associated with our visit. Then, reluctantly, they flew far away that to hide on another side of the wetland. But after a while, this pair came back and settled down to rest in the middle of the swamp, so that we could observe them from a safe (for the hoatzins) distance. In total, in this swamp, according to Carlos, no less than 12-15 birds can be found. We could believe this because saw several more birds flying at a distance. Besides, we noticed on trees within this wetland several more parrots, a ringed kingfisher, a lesser kiskadee (Philohydor lictor) from Passerines as well as a greater ani (Crotophaga major) from the Cuckoo family. After watching the hoatzins, we went back to the river and continued our journey.

Further our way lay down the Napo River to the Wildlife Center of the same name. This center adjoins Yasuni National Park. We walked up the path, distorted by the night rain, to the visitor center, where we met another group, who had just returned from the excursion, and our guide descended towards us. It turned out that our guide, a student from the Netherlands, had practices in the center, studying the behavior of monkeys and, like many other students, volunteering in the nursery, helping to feed and care for animals, and also conduct excursions for visitors. The center was established for the rehabilitation and release of animals affected by contact with people back to the natural environment. Wounded and confiscated animals taken from poachers and smugglers are brought there. The staff of the center provides veterinarian help and food to the animals. When there is a chance to return animals back to the wilderness, they are placed in rehabilitation enclosures, from where they can be released into the Yasuni National Park after recovery. Those that injuries do not allow them to survive in the wild remain in the nursery for their life. Some of the released mammals and birds continue to keep close to the center, regularly visiting their feeding places. Wild animals, especially monkeys and many bird species, also regularly visit the center, as the nursery is located near the national park with a rich species diversity, and the animals living around us have the chance to get food in the center.

Visiting rules oblige all visitors to respect animal rights. Visitors to the nursery go along certain paths; if they meet on these paths the local inhabitants – monkeys, turtles, crocodiles, snakes, then the first rule prescribes to give way to animals, and only then to pass to people. Our guide warned that among the recently released inhabitants of the nursery there are monkeys who do not tolerate lenses and cameras turned at them. As a rule, these monkeys had a negative experience with people. Local tribes hunt them for food. The lens turned at the monkey may be considered as the last weapon, and there were already cases when angry monkeys snatched cameras from visitors and broke them. The second rule is to observe animals, as if they were in their natural environment, without attracting them closer or communicating with them. This rule is consistent with the practice of releasing animals back into the wilderness.

Several species of monkeys, tapirs, peccary, jaguars, ocelots, turtles, crocodiles, macaw and amazon parrots, toucans have been rehabilitated in the Wildlife Center. The parrots are permanently brought to the Center after they are confiscated from the bird traders, so the Center’s capacity is not always enough to accommodate all the incoming birds. But the saddest thing is that some birds, when after rehabilitation they are released in the wild, are caught by people again and sold on the same market. Therefore, one of the tasks of the Center’s staff and volunteers is to develop birds’ fear of people, as well as working with people – communicating with local tribes to develop sustainable ways to use natural resources and wild animals.

Humboldt’s squirrel monkey (Saimiri cassiquiarensis) groups often visit the Center looking for food given to animals in rehabilitation facilities. We spotted several groups of this monkey during our visit. We did not see many animals from the Center, as they slept (tapir, jaguar, and ocelot), but we were quite pleased with what we saw and heard. We looked and listened to interesting stories about the behavior of monkeys. Our guide showed us a golden-mantled tamarin (Saguinus tripartitus), a black-headed spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps), and a brown-woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha). We felt that she (our guide) likes her subject of study and is passionate about the conservation of tropical animals. The local population – the Kichwa tribes – hunt on woolly monkeys; therefore, these monkeys consider people as a dangerous enemy. Wounded monkeys, who have already had the experience of negative interaction with people, most often got into the Center. In the same way, many other animals enter the nursery. Therefore, the staff of the national park and Wildlife Center works with local tribes, helping them solve the problems of poverty, survival, and development in modern times, and reduce the pressure on the wild natural environment, providing opportunities to work in the park. Local people from tribes also can sell their crafts such as hand-made dishes, baskets, and other souvenirs to tourists in the villages and the visitor center. Some money from sales goes to their producers, and some replenish the budget of the Wildlife Center. Prices in a small souvenir shop are established for foreign tourists, so the local tribes are quite satisfied with the income, which they can get from their production. However, the Wildlife Center does not have enough money and donations for all operations relevant to animal recovery and release, and the financial support to the Center is always welcomed. Part of the funds received from donors and eco-tourism goes to the education of youth from local communities. Boys and girls from local tribes get a chance not only to learn how to write and read, but also study foreign languages ​​and get training to become guides in the ecotourism industry.

The next day, early morning we were already standing on the bridge, watching the amazing lilac light above the river, shrouded in clouds of fog, and the scarlet dawn over a thousand-year tree near the road. We had to go to the small Reserva El Para, located relatively close to the lodge. Carlos promised us to show a clay ravine where parrots are going to replenish mineral reserves. We arrived at the entrance to the reserve, where a local ranger, armed with a machete for a hike, was waiting for us. Together we went along a narrow path along a small stream. The path was overgrown or collapsed due to recent rains in some places. We were moved slowly, as the path was constantly going up and the road was blocked by fallen trees, landslides that fell on the slopes, or just something else. Flocks of parrots rushed high in the sky, both in the direction we went and back. The forest, surprisingly, was silent, even cicadas did not sing. We did not spot any mammals during our way. Only flycatchers and woodpeckers came across the road, but they were all far away and it was impossible to see them well. When we reached the site two hours later, it turned out that the ravine “swam” and collapsed slightly after the rains. The parrot gathering place was empty; the flocks of parrots flew over us, settling in tall trees around, but none of them was going down. After watching the parrots in the distance, we realized that we could not expect more and quietly went back down selecting another smoother path. The dark damp rainforest perfectly kept its secrets. In one of the places we saw signs of vital activity of the sloth, but the animal itself was well hidden somewhere in the crowns of tall trees. From time to time we stopped to look at interesting plants or mushrooms, insects or spiders. The flocks of parrots continued to fly high in the sky from the place, which we just visited. Several birds of prey circled in the sky. In general, the way back took about an hour. We only saw birds near the entrance to the reserve and in open areas along the road on the way back to Puerto Misahualli. The most abundant along the road was a species of birds from the cuckoo family — the Smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani). These birds, like many other American cuckoos, build their own nests and raise chicks themselves. Ani is a very communicable bird; they, instead of scattering in different directions, all flew in one bush, from where they curiously watched people. Many birds (ani) gathered in bushes around pastures, where cows were grazing. This is not surprising, since ani prefers to eat insect larva, and it is likely that large hoofed animals provide them with good food. Flocks of ani uncounted from 3 to 12 birds together.

Carlos drove us back to the town, and then we decided to walk from there to our lodge that to watch the birds along the road and we were not mistaken in our expectations! During the hour’s walk, we saw and could take some pictures of many interesting species than during our few hours of wandering in a dark tropical forest. Several species of hummingbirds, doves, flycatchers, caciques and oropendola, swallows and swifts, ani, and many other tropical species inhabit open landscapes. The birds did not hide there but continued to do their usual activities, just precautionary flying away from the strangers… When we left Puerto Misahualli later that day, we understood that 2-day stay was too short to view the magnificent biodiversity of the Amazonia. Among the places that must be visited is the Yasuni National Park, which is adjacent to a Napo Wildlife Center.

Finding a way out of a deadly trap

Linear infrastructure, Kazakhstan
Little Central Asian tortoises – Agrionemys (Testudo) horsfieldii, classified as globally Vulnerable by IUCN

It is well known that the development of linear infrastructure has many adverse impacts on animals. For the first time, we found the problem of mass death of reptiles and other vertebrates in permanent deep trenches used for fencing agricultural land in the southeast of the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan in 2019, when 365 reptiles were found during a double survey of a trench about 10 km long in May and June of 2019. Five species are doomed to death from hunger and dehydration in the absence of human help in these deep trenches of artificial origin.

Deep tranches cause the death of many animal species in the arid areas of Kazakstan.

A preliminary analysis of the legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan (KZ) showed that the use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land, leading to the mass death of animals and damage to land, is a violation of the Environmental Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On the Protection, Reproduction and Use of Wildlife”, as well as the Land Code of Kazakhstan. Repeated publications in the media and appeals on this matter to various state authorized bodies of the Republic of Kazakhstan in 2019-2020, unfortunately, did not bring the desired result and did not become a reason for taking real measures, although we raised the problem and contacted with several mass-media, which highlighted the problem of impact on wildlife from new trenches.

Due to the limitations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, new data were obtained only in May 2021 during an international zoological expedition organized by the Kazakhstan Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ACBK) as part of a project for the study and protection of gazelles supported by the SOS program (IUCN Save Our Species). The expedition was attended by specialists-zoologists from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Germany. As a result of a thorough survey, carried out on May 19-21, 2021, on a section of a trench arbitrarily selected from space images, which encloses the land of a farm at the junction of the borders of the Saryagash and Keles districts of the Turkestan region with a length of about 7 km (the total length of this trench is 36 km), we found 272 individuals of reptiles, including about 180 Central Asian tortoises – Testudo horsfieldi, 30 Sheltopusiks or Pallas’s Glass Lizards Pseudopus apodus, 40 Steppe Runners Eremias arguta (Near-threatened -NT- globally), 15 Dwarf Sand Boas Eryx tataricus and 1 Spotted Whip Snake Hemorrhois ravergieri. At the time of the survey, 20 reptiles had already died, and the remains of 7 foxes, 3 domestic sheep, and 1 foal were also found, which also fell into the trench and could not get out of it. All living reptiles were removed from the trench and released by us in suitable habitats at a distance of at least 5 km from the nearest trenches.

According to our updated estimates obtained using GIS, the total length of such trenches in the southeastern part of the Turkestan region (south of the city of Chimkent) is more than 500 km, thus, the number of reptiles that die in trenches annually can reach tens of thousands of individuals.

Thanks to the organizational support of the akimat (regional administration) of the Turkestan region, the problem of illegal use of trenches for fencing agricultural land this time caused a wide public response: a film crew from the regional television arrived at our place of work in the trench, accompanied by 15 volunteers to help save animals, and also employees of the District Land Committee. Later we met with a representative of the territorial inspection for the protection of wildlife. After our meeting with representatives of the Land Committee, they promptly began to issue demands for the elimination of trenches to tenants of land plots, who had taken the land in the lease for agriculture production. If they will not implement the rehabilitation measures destroying trenches, sanctions are possible up to the termination of land lease agreements. As a result, already in June 2021, the process of liquidating tranches began, which was confirmed by our personal observations and was highlighted in the media.

Thus, in 2021, as a result of the successful interaction of biologists, the leadership of the regional akimat (regional administration), state authorized responsible bodies, and the media, the real actions were started to eliminate the problem of illegal use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land in the south of the Turkestan region. It is obvious that for a comprehensive solution to the problem of mass death of animals in trenches, it is necessary to continue monitoring the situation in the Turkestan region and in other regions of Kazakhstan, to widely introduce the practice of rescuing animals from trenches before their elimination and, possibly, to amend the legislation of the Republic of Kazakhstan, including a direct ban on the use of permanent trenches for fencing agricultural land.

Local television taking an interview to highlight the problem of trenches impact on vertebrate animals.

According to unconfirmed data, such illegal use of trenches for fencing farmland is practiced not only in the Turkestan region of Kazakhstan but also abroad. Therefore, zoologists collect any reliable information on this issue.

Dr. Mark Pestov just recently came back home after the expedition to the Turkestan Region of Kazakhstan. Mark is a zoologist – herpetologist. He studies the life of cool-blooded animals – amphibians and reptiles. Several last years Mark is involved in studies and conservation of animals in Kazakhstan deserts. This is a story from Mark about new threats for wild animals that recently appeared in the deserts of Kazakhstan and the ways to solve them. All illustrations used in this review were provided and taken mostly by Mark Pestov. His contact details are vipera@dront.ru

Amazing American Songbirds or American Warblers

At the end of April – May, the migration of small songbirds begins in Ontario. By their small size and tinny graceful beaks, they resemble the warblers of the Old World. Warblers of the Old World belong to the Phylloscopus genus and include small insectivorous birds found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Most of the American small songbird species, occupying similar ecological niches and specializing in insect hunting,  are also called “warblers”. However, taxonomists distinguish warblers of the Old and New World. They place the American species in the family Parulidae or New World Wood Warblers. American “wood” warblers are very different from “true” warblers and have just some morphological similarities, related to adaptation and life to comparable environmental conditions. New World wood-warblers are small passerines that are also mostly insectivorous. During migration and at breeding sites, they vigorously examine trees and shrubs, skillfully extracting insects and arachnids from foliage and inflorescences, from the bark of trees and shrubs, and from other hidden places.

The Latin name of the New World wood warblers’ family – Parulidae – is associated with tits. The Old World tits belong to the genus Parus, described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758. Linnaeus, however, described one of the North American wood warblers – as the “American tit” – Parus americanus. The bird’s Latin name was soon slightly changed, retaining the root. This bird recently still was called Parula americana or Northern Parula and just recently was moved by taxonomists in another genus. Its Latin name now is Setophaga americana. However, the common name “Parula” is originated from the title given to this species by Carl Linnaeus. The entire wood-warbler family name – Parulidae – comes also from a Latin name designating tits – Parus and may be interpreted as “tit-like”. Obviously, both the species and the entire family have nothing to do with either tits or Old World warblers. However, our perception of passerine birds connects these unrelated taxonomic groups. Taxonomists consolidated the name of the family in 1947, highlighting the genus Parula as a type. It is noteworthy that the parula really looks somewhat like a tit: it has a slightly bluish color and when examining trees, especially birches, it can hang upside down, deftly clinging to thin twigs with its long fingers.

The New World Warblers – representatives of this family – occur entirely in the Americas. The family unites small insectivorous birds, many of which are brightly colored, especially males. All American warblers are rather small birds. The smallest species is Lucy’s Warbler (Oreothlypis luciae), weighing about 6.5 g with a length of a little more than 10 cm. Relatively large songbirds are Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) and Northern Waterthrush (Parkensia noveboracensis) with weight up to 25-28 g and length up to 15-16 cm. Most part of the birds from Parulidae family is associated with forest and shrub communities, nesting in shrub branches and in tree crowns. But there are also species that prefer to settle the nests on the ground, camouflaging them among the roots of trees.

Currently, 119 species of songbirds, belonging to 18 genera, have been listed to the family. It is believed that American warblers were originated and evolved in the northern part of Central America, where even now their species diversity is very great. During the interglacial periods, they spread far to the north, forming a group of long-distant seasonal migrants that fly to nest far beyond the tropical zones in the forested-tundra and taiga of North America.

These birds are found on migration in the Ottawa River Valley on their way to nesting sites in the northern boreal forests. The first migrants arrive in the Ottawa area in late April – early May. It is remarkable that some of the northernmost migrants appear in the northern latitude in late spring-early summer, they can be observed in the parks of Toronto or Ottawa only in late May-early June; they also begin to fly back prompt as early or mid-August. Thus, these birds have adapted to breed in a relatively short nesting season – one and a half to two months. In this period, they need to form pairs, find nesting territories, lay clutches, hatch, and raise chicks. Therefore, the size of clutches in migratory American warblers is quite large, they incubate up to 6-7 eggs and then feed large broods. For comparison, the tropical warblers from the same family usually have clutches with 2-3 eggs.

From May to early June, about 30 species of American warblers migrate through Ontario. Many of them stay for breeding in the orchards, parks, fields, and wetlands around large and small towns. But most migrants fly to the central and northern parts of the province and beyond its territory for nesting in boreal forests. Some the migratory songbirds, such as the Myrtle or Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata), American Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), or Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), are abundant and highly visible, while others are not always easy to spot even by a skilled naturalist. They migrate invisibly and quickly, trying to get to nesting places in northern latitudes as soon as possible. Many of those songbirds are characterized by a narrow food specialization. In nesting places, they hunt certain types of insect pests and caterpillars. In years when outbreaks of insect pests are observed, the populations of species-“specialists” also increases, then gradually reducing in accordance with the available natural resources.

It is not easy to spot many songbirds in the breeding places. Even having the bright color of plumage, they dissolve among the leaves of trees in the changeable play of light and shadow. But the presence of many species can be recognized by listening to their characteristic song. Some bird count techniques are based on the knowledge of bird songs and calls. For example, the famous “point count” method includes the identification of all birds around by their songs and calls from one point. The monitoring of breeding birds in North America has been conducted for over 50 years. Any citizen who has an interest in birds and their conservation may contribute his or her “two cents” to one of the bird monitoring programs by joining one of the environmental programs of Birds Canada, for example to the program on the Breeding Bird Survey or Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. You also can contribute your bird knowledge to the citizen science program on birds survey – ebird, which holds the global database, collecting bird observation data from all naturalists.

Our Planet, Our Future: SEU Didgest, No21

Dear friends and co-fighters,

Welcome to the next issue of Positive News. Let you spread it among your friends and co-fighters in your countries and around the Earth. Please, send me the addresses of your friends and colleagues to be included in the list. I will be glad to receive and publish your positive news from the fields and offices. If you know sites or mailing lists where I can find positive news for our digestы, please send me their addresses.

Sviatoslav Zabelin, SEU coordinator

An Urgent Call for Action

This statement was inspired by the discussions at the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit, issued by the Steering Committee and co-signed by Nobel Laureates and experts.

“It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present.” Paul Crutzen (Nobel Laureate 1995). Geologists call the last 12,000 years the Holocene epoch. A remarkable feature of this period has been relative Earth-system stability. But the stability of the Holocene is behind us now. Human societies are now the prime driver of change in Earth’s living sphere – the biosphere. The fate of the biosphere and human societies embedded within it is now deeply intertwined and evolving together. Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Evidence points to the 1950s as the onset of the Anthropocene – a single human lifetime ago. The Anthropocene epoch is more likely to be characterized by speed, scale, and shock at global levels. The global commons. Global heating and habitat loss amount to nothing less than a vast and uncontrolled experiment on Earth’s life-support system. Multiple lines of evidence now show that, for the first time in our existence, our actions are destabilizing critical parts of the Earth system that determine the state of the planet. For 3 million years, global mean temperature increases have not exceeded 2oC of global warming, yet that is what is in prospect within this century. We are on a path that has taken us to 1.2oC warming so far – the warmest temperature on Earth since we left the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, and which will take us to >3oC warming in 80 years. At the same time, we are losing Earth resilience, having transformed half of Earth’s land outside of the ice sheets, largely through farming expansion. Of an estimated 8 million species on Earth, about 1 million are under threats. Since 1970s, there has been an estimated 68% decline in the populations of vertebrate species.

Inequality. “The only sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.” Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate 2001) While all societies contribute to economic growth, the wealthy in most societies disproportionately take the largest share of this growing wealth. This trend has become more pronounced in recent decades. In highly unequal societies, with wide disparities in areas such as health care and education, the poorest are more likely to remain trapped in poverty across several generations. More equal societies tend to score highly on metrics of well-being and happiness. Reducing inequality raises social capital. There is a greater sense of community and more trust in government. These factors make it easier to make collective, long-term decisions. Humanity’s future depends on the ability to make long-term, collective decisions to navigate the Anthropocene.

Technology. The accelerating technological revolution — including information technology, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology — will impact inequality, jobs, and entire economies, with disruptive consequences. On aggregate, technological advancements so far have accelerated us down the path toward destabilizing the planet. Without guidance, technological evolution is unlikely to lead to transformations toward sustainability. It will be critical to guide the technological revolution deliberately and strategically in the coming decades to support societal goals.

Planetary stewardship. “We must break down the walls that have previously kept science and the public apart and that have encouraged distrust and ignorance to spread unchecked. If anything prevents human beings from rising to the current challenge, it will be these barriers.” Jennifer Doudna (Nobel Laureate 2020). Effective planetary stewardship requires updating our Holocene mindset. We must act on the urgency, the scale, and the interconnectivity between us and our home, planet Earth. More than anything, planetary stewardship will be facilitated by enhancing social capital — building trust within societies and between societies.

Is a new worldview possible? 193 nations have adopted the SDGs. The global pandemic has contributed to a broader recognition of global interconnectivity, fragility, and risk. Where they possess the economic power to do so, more people are increasingly making more sustainable choices regarding transportation, consumption, and energy. They are often ahead of their governments. And increasingly, the sustainable options, for example solar and wind power, are similar in price to fossil fuel alternatives or cheaper — and getting cheaper.

The question at a global systems level today is not whether humanity will transition away from fossil fuels. The question is: Will we do it fast enough? Solutions, from electric mobility to zero-carbon energy carriers and sustainable food systems, are today often following exponential curves of advancement and adoption. How do we lock this in? The following seven proposals provide a foundation for effective planetary stewardship

The City of New York has filed a lawsuit in state court against Exxon Mobil (XOM), Shell, BP (BP), and the American Petroleum Institute for allegedly misleading New York consumers about the role their products play in climate change and for allegedly “greenwashing” their practices to make them seem more eco-friendly than they are. “Three of the largest oil and gas companies and their top industry trade association—have systematically and intentionally misled consumers in New York City…about the central role their products play in causing the climate crisis,” the lawsuit states. “They have engaged in this deceptive conduct both to compete against growing safer energy options and to distinguish themselves from industry competitors as they vie for consumer dollars.”

Boats laden with seagrass seeds set off from Plymouth Harbour on Wednesday as England’s largest seagrass restoration project got underway. Led by Natural England, the LIFE Recreation ReMEDIES programme will plant eight hectares of biodiverse seagrass meadows off the coast of southern England over the next four years. The project aims to turn the tide for the beleaguered ecosystems, which have declined by 90 percent in the last century due to pollution, trawling and coastal development. Reckoned to sequester carbon 35 times faster than a tropical rainforest, the meadows provide a haven for seahorses and other marine life.  

Trees will no longer be cut down in this 950 sq km (236,000-acre) area after the land was bought by a coalition of conservation organisations to save one of the world’s last pristine rainforests from deforestation. “The forest will now be protected in perpetuity,” says Kay. The news is timed to coincide with Earth Day, the annual event established in 1970 to mobilize action on environmental issues. The newly named Belize Maya Forest is part of 150,000 sq km (38m acres) of tropical forest across Mexico, Belize and Guatemala known as the Selva Maya, a biodiversity hotspot and home to five species of wild cat (jaguars, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, and puma), spider monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of bird species. Combined with the adjacent Rio Bravo Reserve, Belize Maya Forest creates a protected area that covers 9% of Belize’s landmass, a critical “puzzle piece” in the Selva Maya forest region, helping secure a vital wildlife corridor across northern Guatemala, southern Mexico, and Belize. Protecting large areas of pristine rainforests will help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. “Forests like these hold vast amounts of carbon,” says Julie Robinson, Belize programme director for the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners behind the acquisition. “We’re at a tipping point, so it’s really important to try to reverse the trend we’re on.” The area was owned by the Forestland Group, a US company that had permits for sustainable logging. When it came up for sale, the Nature Conservancy and others, including Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust, University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, and Wildlife Conservation Society, saw an opportunity to buy the land

Saimaa Geopark has been granted UNESCO Global Geopark (UGG) status by the UNESCO Governing Body. The matter was announced today, Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 3 pm (Finnish time) in Paris. Recognition of the status will continue the development work of Saimaa Geopark, focusing on international nature tourism and bringing vitality to the region, as well as strengthening environmental education with stakeholders in the region. The vitality has been also strengthened by cooperating with entrepreneurs in different projects and creating a Saimaa Geopark Partner network. All the activities of the network are based on principles of sustainable development and the United Nations Agenda 2030 goals. 

Starting in 2004, Asiatic black bears Ursus thibetanus were reintroduced and tracked in the Republic of Korea, along with their descendants, using radio telemetry, yielding 33,924 tracking points over 12 years. Along with information about habitat use, landscape, and resource availability, we estimated the population equilibrium and dispersal capability of the reintroduced population. Researchers used a mixed modeling approach to determine suitable habitat areas, population equilibria for three different resources-based scenarios, and least-cost pathways (i.e. corridors) for dispersal. The population simulations provided a mean population equilibrium of 64 individuals at the original reintroduction site and a potential maximum of 1,438 individuals in the country. The simulation showed that the bear population will disperse to nearby mountainous areas, but a second reintroduction will be required to fully restore U. thibetanus. Northern suitable habitats are currently disconnected and natural re-population is unlikely to happen unless supported. Our methodologies and findings are also relevant for determining the outcome and trajectories of reintroduced populations of other large carnivores (Andersen et al., 2021).

Reverse the Red: the new initiative of IUCN

IUCN – International Union for Nature Conservation – recently launched a new initiative, which aim is “Reverse the Red” or stop and reverse extinction of threatened species in the world.

ReverseTheRed is a global movement that calls for joint action and the belief that our community can ensure the survival of all the species we live with on this planet, as well as ensure the protection of all the ecosystems in which they live. The IUCN Species Survival Commission, which oversees this initiative, tries to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the conservation work. The Species Survival Commission unites more than 7 thousand experts who work in the field of biodiversity conservation in different countries of our blue planet. However, it is definitely clear now that it is impossible to preserve species without the wide participation of not only specialists and narrow experts working in the field of studies and conservation of species and ecosystems, but also the whole society, including different sectors that affect the habitats of species and their populations. Participation of local communities and concerned citizens can also contribute to the protection and restoration of species.

The IUCN Red List contains information on the assessment of species at the global level with an evaluation of the threats for species. All threatened species can be categorized as Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), and Critically Endangered (CR). According to modern estimates, the Red List currently includes 37,400 species, that were categorized as threatened and the state of their populations is of concern at the global level. If you look at taxonomic groups, according to modern estimates, 41% of all amphibian species, 26% of all mammals, 14% of all bird species, 36% of all shark and ray species, as well as 34% of all gymnosperm (coniferous) tree species are threatened with extinction risk. And this is only among those taxonomic groups that have been assessed by experts. But there are still many taxonomic groups on the planet that have not yet been evaluated, for example, many species of invertebrates and angiosperms (flowering) plants, the diversity of which is very high on our planet and extinction of some tiny species may be almost invisible. By now, the conservation biology science and experts involved in nature conservation have accumulated knowledge and methods that allow the preservation of species and ecosystems, ensuring their survival and recovery. Experts from the IUCN Species Survival Commission argue that:
We KNOW how to save species
WE BELIEVE we can
TOGETHER we will

While a strategy to reverse biodiversity loss is still under development, it is now clear that it will be an umbrella initiative to work with key partners to achieve biodiversity conservation and recovery tasks for species and ecosystems. The IUCN Species Survival Commission has identified the following mechanisms to achieve its ambitious goals:
(1) Engage biodiversity conservation partners at national, regional, and global levels in the development of standardized tools and methods. The Reverse the Red initiative creates an umbrella mechanism for the conservation of species and ecosystems. (2) Work with pilot countries to refine and implement tools and collaborative strategies. Increase national capacity and commitment utilizing ReversetheRed framework for target species and ecosystem assessments, planning, and action. (3) Empower the country-based “Reverse the Red” partners to engage and activate their local communities through a diverse set of educational resources focused on biodiversity conservation, personalized experiences, advocacy campaigns, and behavior-change campaigns. (4) Establish a global reporting mechanism and forum to report on and celebrate the reversal of species extinction and ecosystem destruction.
These mechanisms will provide the structure, tools, and framework for objective setting of the Global Species Congress.

You can support this initiative by voting for it at: Webby Awards People’s Voice – Reverse the Red.
Images of threatened animal species from Nepal were used to illustrate this message.