Fundación Jocotoco’s ambitious projects aim to save Ecuador’s — and the world’s — endangered species

Dec 26, 2022 | 2 comments

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series “Saving the World – One Ecosystem at a Time”. Article 2: “Your opportunities to connect with nature on an ecotour.”

By John Keeble

In a skeptical world coming to terms with the recent 190-nation agreement to save 30 percent of the planet for nature by 2030, one of South America’s top conservation foundations is forging ahead with its own “action not talk” expansion.

Fundación Jocotoco, which has 15 critically important sites in Ecuador, is expanding its work from endangered reserves and species to covering whole ecosystems, along with a new marine corridor linking the Galapagos exclusion zone with a protected area in Costa Rican waters.

The bird that started it all – the jocotoco antpitta. (Photo by Juan Carlos Figueroa)

This, say foundation specialists, offers hope for the future as people widely start to understand that there is good news and reasons for optimism despite the media focus on disasters and warnings.

“The COP15 agreed on a number of wonderful [nature saving] goals,” said Martin Schaefer, CEO of the foundation. “It would be wonderful if those targets served to guide actions. We are seeing too little action and too much talk [worldwide]. Which is why organizations such as Jocotoco are needed in the first place.

“The UN had targets before, such as the Aichi targets [to stem biodiversity loss] for 2020. None of them were met. As long as we do not set up yearly goals and penalties for missing them, little progress will be made. Thus, I rate the probability of reaching the COP15 targets as being low.”

Jocotoco and many other organizations are rising to the challenge to make positive impacts and to press leaders and governments into measures that reduce the biodiversity crisis.

The foundation’s record so far is impressive. It has identified critical areas, bought the land, and regenerated it as sanctuaries for endangered species. It now has 24,500 hectares across a wild range of ecosystems in Ecuador.

Martin Schaefer (Jocotoco file photo)

Its reforestation team has successfully planted over 1.6 million trees, including 130 native species. More than 1,000 species of birds, including 51 threatened with extinction on a global scale, and at least 200 species of amphibians and reptiles are protected at Jocotoco reserves. Large and rare mammals on reserves include spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, Chocó tapirs, puma, and jaguars.

Jocotoco’s current reorganization, with new targets, aims to expand its high-impact policies by increasing its cooperation with local communities, Ecuador’s leaders, and international governments.

At the same time, its fund-raising visitors’ arm, Jocotours, is expanding from its traditional bird watching and bird photography tours to a wider market of responsible ecotourists.

In the past, Jocotoco has been so focused on conservation that it has left aside its own image. As one insider said: “Jocotoco is one of the most impactful and important South American conservation foundations that no one has heard of.”

Dr Schaefer said the decision to up Jocotoco’s efforts was made well before COP15 because world governments and decision-makers “are not doing nearly enough to reduce, let alone prevent, future disasters.”

Before and after – Grass landscape in front of a Jocotoco reserve

The constant barrage of bad news, he added, was numbing people to the point of being resigned to disasters through climate change and the biodiversity crash.

The good news is that, as Jocotoco has proved, ecosystems and endangered species from insects to hummingbirds and whole forests, can significantly recover in just one human generation.

“Change is absolutely important,” Dr Schaefer said. “We need to give people hope, especially the young. There is only one way to do this – by acting. Hope is created by action. By protecting ecosystems and species, by influencing others to act, by avoiding extinctions, by being effective.

“We are at a tipping point. If we cannot counter the bad news, it can lead to resignation. We need to see hope through inspiring actions. People need to be confident their actions [to combat biodiversity loss] can have an effect.”

A constant check is kept on all reserves to make sure nothing disturbs them.

Conservation, he added, must take human presence and needs into account. Local communities, vital for sustainable projects, are being helped by the foundation to see economic and social advantages in their lives when local habitats and species are saved.

Examples can be seen in areas of existing land reserves and in the new 60,000 square kilometer marine corridor, La Hermandad, linking the Galapagos Marine Reserve with protected areas off Costa Rica.

One of Jocotoco’s working concepts, “spillover benefits” to human populations, comes into play. Marine wildlife is protected in the reserve, but bigger fish populations lead to more being available for local people to catch outside its borders. La Hermandad is in Ecuadorian waters and protected against the devastating Chinese fishing fleet that operates off the Galapagos.

Working with local communities, economically and educationally, is vital.

In addition to the corridor, Jocotoco also works internationally to protect highly threatened migratory species such as whale sharks, hammerhead sharks, marine turtles and manta rays.

On land, in cooperation with the Re:wild foundation, its staff are achieving fascinating restorations of ecosystems with reforestation and the re-establishment of healthy populations of threatened birds, animals, trees and other plants.

Jocotoco was started in 1998 to rescue the endangered jocotoco antpitta bird. The bird was found in 1997, clinging to species survival, in a small area of southern Ecuador that is now known as Tapichalaca reserve. Its population was extremely localized and its habitat was under threat.

The jocotoco antpitta, named after its distinctive call, drew attention to the plight of other bird, animal and plant species dependent on highly-localized conditions which were being eroded by human activity. That was the start of Jocotoco’s mission.

Reserves are part of the ecosystem and biodiversity.

“We need places as safe havens for endangered species,” said Dr Schaefer. “Our Noah’s Arks to protect wildlife and plants. If we can do that, we have achieved a lot.”

The foundation’s 15 “critically at risk” sanctuary sites are grouped in four areas of Ecuador – northern, southern, coastal, and the Galapagos. All can be visited, their rare inhabitants observed, and some reserves have lodges and cabins to accommodate travelers.

While the world focuses on the threat to the Amazon, natural habitats in other areas are being destroyed by agriculture and development almost unnoticed.

In northwestern Ecuador, for example, there is very little natural habitat left after human exploitation. Jocotoco is protecting some of the remaining areas of natural habitat so that species can survive and thrive. It is trying to buy and restore more land critical for biodiversity – a sometimes difficult process with land prices rising despite more farmers quitting as younger generations head for cities instead of working on the land.

Southern Ecuador, while badly affected by human activities, has fared better and some parts are almost as diverse as the Amazon. It faces threats, however, as human activities demand forest clearing and destruction of habitat for agriculture or development.

“We are losing species without knowing it,” added Dr Schaefer.

Dr Schaefer added: “The situation [worldwide] is so much more dramatic than 10 years ago. The climate is getting worse and biodiversity loss is faster than at any time since the dinosaurs. Urgency [to counter negative effects] is undeniable.”

However, there is hope for the future with many good organizations and initiatives saving the natural world and, in some cases, rebuilding biodiversity.
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