23 April 2008

Conserving Neotropical Migrants in the Choco Region Forest

Birds in need of conservation will benefit from efforts to protect forest habitats in the Choco biogeographic region of northwest Ecuador and western Columbia.

"The Chocó biogeographic zone is an internationally recognized conservation priority," according to the summary for a grant recently awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "However, use of these forests as wintering habitat by these priority species is poorly understood. In Ecuador, over 96% of original Chocó forests were already cut by 1996 and much of what does remain is not well protected."

Project goals are to:

1) Identify priority habitats for conservation of neotropical migrants by surveying a series of chronically understudied and critically threatened habitats.
2) Build in-country capacity by training local residents, university students, and professional biologists via direct participation in research and education efforts.
3) Provide environmental education on neotropical migrants and their conservation needs to local adults and children.
4) Create and preserve habitat for neotropical migrants by establishing community forest reserves and reforestation of over 600 hectares.

Funding - nearly $572,000 - comes from a National Migratory Bird Conservation Act federal grant provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with matching funds that provided $452,000 of the total amount, from partners including the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Conservation, Food, and Health Foundation, University of California, Los Angeles, Jatun Sacha Foundation, and a private donor to the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The work is coordinated with and supported by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, and undertaken in collaboration with Ecuadorian non-governmental organizations and universities and is explicitly coordinated with BirdLife International's Important Bird Area program," according to the grant summary.

"The Chocó biogeographical region spans about 100,000 square kilometers of humid forest in western Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world," according to Dr. Jordan Karubian, with the Center for Tropical Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Surveys have revealed exceptional diversity and endemism in plants, reptiles, amphibians, birds and butterflies, and the area is widely recognized as one of 17 'Hot Spots' for biodiversity. In terms of migratory birds, for example, the Chocó supports wintering populations at least 70 potential Neotropical migrants," according to data from Birdlife International, "including 20 species listed as conservation priorities in Birds of Conservation Concern, and five of the top ten priority species listed in the Partners in Flight, North American Landbird Conservation Plan: the Cerulean Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Canada Warbler, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and American Swallow-tailed Kite."

The project will "identify priority areas in the Choco region, and will be implemented in three large, Important Birding Area's: 1), the Mache-Chindul Reserve (120,000 hectares, 100-700 meters of elevation); 2), Mataje-Cayapas-Santiago (68,000 ha., 0-35 m. elev.); and, 3), Reserva Ecologica Cotacachi-Cayapas (350,000 ha., 80 - 5,000 m. elev)," Karubian explained in an email. "These IBAs in the provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabi, are government-recognized reserves and contain some of the largest tracts of pristine Chocó forests in Ecuador, and were selected for intensive study because of their importance for neotropical migratory bird populations and conservation in general. They also capture much of the variation in elevation within the Ecuadorian Chocó, ranging from sea level to 4,300 m. elevation, and extending to the extreme northern, southern, eastern and western extents of Chocó habitat in Ecuador. The bird sampling regime will include the entire range of elevation, rainfall, and temperature regimes found in the Ecuadorian Chocó. Additionally, the three are priorities for additional data collection because of current low levels of data available for each site.

"These sites also include most major demographic groups in the Ecuadorian Chocó, including indigenous Chachi and Awa peoples, as well as Afro-Ecuadorians and more recent colonists. Most communities subsist on agriculture, livestock, hunting, and/or timber extraction, though many patches of primary forest remain intact.

"The main challenge is to conserve habitat," according to Karubian. "This is challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which is that we have a relatively poor understanding of what habitats are critical for priority species. The key is to work with local residents to (1) educate them about the importance of these habitats and species and (2) provide economically viable alternatives to habitat destruction. These are both challenging, though the second point is the toughest!

"Education is key to local conservation, and we will expand two highly successful models for local education that we developed in the Mache Chindul IBA. The local residents who receive training as field biologists will also be trained to make public presentations to local communities in and around the IBA's in which we work. These Powerpoint presentations will be given using a digital video projector in combination with a portable laptop computer. The general format will be to discuss Chocó habitat; the phenomenon of migration and migratory birds; the importance of the Chocó for migratory birds; our research project on migratory birds including methods and results; and finally the need to conserve remaining habitat. The presentations will be directed toward adults. We have found that local residents are much more effective at conveying a conservation message than people from outside the communities could ever hope to be. An average of one presentation per month will be presented in each of the IBA's, each to a different community (54 total presentations). Community members will be trained in methods such as extracting birds from mist nets, bird identification, and taking blood samples, morphological measures, and habitat samples. These individuals will then receive full time employment as field biologists while working on this project. A model system for this proposed training is already underway in the Mache-Chindul Reserve. Building in-country scientific capacity is key to conservation in Ecuador. We will leverage the strong collaborative relationships that has been developed with Universidad San Francisco de Quito and Universidad Central in Quito, Ecuador to train a total of six promising young biologists.

"One of the major challenges facing conservation groups" in the area, Karubian said, is "the lack of communication between universities, non-governmental organizations, and state government. One of our goals at Center for Tropical Research is to bridge this gap, and an explicit goal of this project is to bring together communities, NGO's and universities and government from Ecuador and the United States."

The Center for Tropical Research (CTR) is an inter-disciplinary research group dedicated to conservation through the highest quality scientific research coupled with on-the-ground socioeconomic approaches. CTR operates under the umbrella of the Institute of the Environment at UCLA and is led by Director Dr. Thomas B. Smith and Dr. Jordan Karubian, who maintained a full-time presence in Ecuador from 2001 - 2005. Our goal is to implement research, conservation, and training projects with collaborators from local communities, universities, government departments, and NGOs.

This project will take place from July 2008 to July 1010.

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