Voices from the Rainforest: Guardian Spotlight on Walter Gaona

Walter Gaona works as a forest guardian in the Copalinga Nature Reserve in southern Ecuador. Rainforest Trust and our local partner Fundación Jocotoco founded Copalinga in 2018, with an ecolodge for tourists already in place. Walter spends much of his time maintaining trails for visitors to enjoy and “learning how life unfolds in the reserve.”

But the more trying aspect of Walter’s role is monitoring the 370-acre property for harmful activities. Rainforest Trust Guardians strive to safeguard the protected areas we help create across the tropics. They are essential in this region of Ecuador, where premontane forests hold the greatest concentration of biodiversity in the country. Logging, mining, agriculture and human settlements threaten the region.

Part of the forest that Walter Gaona patrols. Photo by Doug Wechsler.

Walter receives his honorary inspector’s license. Photo by Fundación Jocotoco.

“In a healthy forest, you can find many things, among which I like to find very rare bird nests,” Walter shared. At least 432 bird species have been recorded in Copalinga, along with monkeys, endangered frogs and butterflies. But the illegal wildlife trade threatens animals there, and Walter said the most difficult part of his job is blocking poachers and their dogs from entering the reserve.

But Walter is now armed with more skills in combating illicit activities, along with the authority to take legal action against forest exploiters in Copalinga. In January, Walter attended a two-day training session to become an honorary inspector by the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment.

“Being an honorary inspector means that I can act in cases of extraction and/or transport of wild species in the reserve and other places,” Walter said. “After the training, I have legal tools to prevent these activities from happening.” He learned tactics to handle poachers and other threats, and received a license that underpins his work in Copalinga.

Walter shared his appreciation of being recognized for his work to protect the rainforest: “For me it is an honor to have been taken into account in this space. I am also grateful for this designation because I can contribute to taking better care of our ecosystems.”

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.

Header image: The Vulnerable Military Macaw, found in Copalinga. Photo by Michell Leon.

Latin America – Planet

The Pangolin, Unscienced

You might have heard of a pangolin. Or you might not have.

But Rainforest Trust’s Outreach & Communications Team wanted to show you the pangolin’s true anatomy. We hope that learning more about this animal found in Africa and Asia will lead you to learning to love the eight species of pangolin as much as we do. And, of course, we hope you’ll help protect them from extinction.

Original photo of Critically Endangered Sunda Pangolin by David Brossard.

This shy mammal has the distinction of being the one of the least known and most trafficked animals in the illegal wildlife trade. The pangolin’s Armoured Floof is attractive to many across Asia, as the scales are thought to hold major medicinal properties. And with a Chonk Level of 100, the interest in hunting pangolins for meat is a prominent problem.

While the pangolin’s main defense against poachers and other threats is curling into a tight protective ball, it does have Legs for Zooming if it needs to enter PanGOlin mode.

The pangolin subsists on ants and other insects, using T-Rex Hands to dig into termite mounds, and its Snack Sniffer to root out savory larvae. Some folks refer to pangolins as scaly anteaters, but a more apt title is “Artichoke with Legs,” considering its armored adorability. The pangolin’s Honestly Too Cute Face is enhanced by its Cuteness Extension on the other end.

It is estimated that 2.7 million pangolins are poached each year, so this World Pangolin Day, consider donating to save pangolin habitat in Nepal. All of your gift will go directly to conservation action at our project site, including being used to hire forest guards who ward off the biggest threat to pangolin survival: Us.

Click here to learn more about the plight of the pangolin.

Conservation Basics: Attack of the Pizzly Bears

Rainforest Trust’s work to protect habitats for threatened species is grounded in cutting-edge conservation science. But in this series, we explore the basics of conservation science and how they inform Rainforest Trust’s scientists.

What is a species?

No, I’m serious — let’s come up with a definition.

Alright, well, we know specific species, like Polar Bears. A Polar Bear is a species of bear, which is a mammal, which is an animal, which is a living thing. (For more on taxonomy, see my article on spaghetti.)

A different species of bear would be the Brown Bear (AKA the Grizzly Bear). The Polar Bear’s scientific name is Ursus maritumus. The Brown Bear’s is Ursus arctos. They have different species names — making them different species.

But how did we decide this?

There’s got to be a standard system for determining where one species ends and another begins. Right?

Wrong.

Turns out, there are three systems for determining where one species ends and another begins. We have our physiological species concept where species differ by physical traits. We also have our ecological species concept where species differ by geography and which ecosystems they occupy. Finally, we have our genetic species concept where species differ by differences in their DNA.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on,” you might be thinking. “Isn’t evolution like a tree, where each species is the end of a branch? Shouldn’t it be simple to tell the difference? How could we disagree over where one species ends and another begins?”

A Polar Bear, which is definitely not a Brown Bear.

My copy of Dictionary of Ecology by Herbert C. Hanson, published in 1962 by Philosophical Library and picked up by me for free in 2015 at a give-away by the Cleveland Park Library in Washington, D.C., defines a species as:

“A unit of classification of plants and animals, consisting of the largest and most inclusive array of sexual reproducing and cross-fertilizing individuals which share a common gene pool.”

Nature, the infamous science journal, defines a species a little differently in their online learning resource:

“A biological species is a group of organisms that can reproduce with one another in nature and produce fertile offspring. Species are characterized by the fact that they are reproductively isolated from other groups, which means that the organisms in one species are incapable of reproducing with organisms in another species.”

Neither of these definitions are (entirely) correct. (Cue: gasp)

Both come down to a few ideas.

1 – Members of a species can reproduce with another in nature.

2 – Offspring must be fertile

3 – They must be reproductively isolated from other groups — one species cannot reproduce with another species (“largest and most inclusive array of sexual reproducing and cross-fertilizing individuals”)

Here, I found two definitions of a species: one from a world-renowned scientific journal and one from some random book I got for free on the sidewalk once. But they both miss something big, gnarly and strange.

The Pizzly Bear. That’s what happens when a Polar Bear and a Brown (Grizzly) Bear mate. They create a Pizzly Bear. Otherwise known as a Grolar Bear.

As we established before, Polar Bears and Brown Bears are different species. They have different names! But let’s break them down into the three species concepts:

The aforementioned Pizzly Bear, in a zoo. Photo by Corradox/CC 3.0

Physiological Species Concept

Polar Bears have white fur and adult males usually weigh somewhere around 1000 lbs. Brown Bears have brown fur and adult males usually weigh somewhere around 500 lbs.

The two species differ in other, more specific ways, but physiologically, they look like different species.

Ecological Species Concept

Polar Bears live in oceanic, arctic climates, in Northern Canada and Alaska, through Russia and Norway. Brown Bears live in the Northern Hemisphere also but in terrestrial environments and range much further south than the Polar Bear.

Ecologically, they seem like different species.

Genetic Species Concept

I don’t have the DNA results on hand, but we can probably assume there‘s some DNA differentiation.

Hence, genetically they (probably) seem like different species.

But let’s go back to the two species definitions and their caveats. They both came down to species differing from one another by the ability to reproduce and create fertile offspring. Here’s where Polar Bears and Brown Bears miss that mark.

Where the two species overlap, people have documented the rare but definitely occuring-in-nature Pizzly Bear. The Pizzly was first discovered in 2006, with a few more discovered since then. Theories speculate that all the bears are descendants of one female, making this a unique case. In fact, some ecologists believe this never would have occurred without the impact of climate change — a warmer climate pushed Brown Bears further north and into more of the Polar Bear’s range, increasing the likelihood of contact.

But no matter what the cause, the two species could reproduce. What’s more, researchers believe some of the Pizzly bears found are descendants of a Brown Bear and a Pizzly Bear! Meaning, not only could they reproduce, but the offspring can be fertile!

This isn’t the only instance of hybridization occuring in the wild. Narwhals have mated with Beluga Whales. Dozens of bird species hybridize, often proving an identification challenge for birdwatchers. Napolean Dynamite’s pretty-much-favorite animal, the Liger, however, does not exist in the wild as Lions and Tigers have no overlapping range. But it does exist in captivity. That big cat actually has a thorny ethical reality.

A Brewster’s Warbler, a common hybrid of Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers in North America. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/ CC 2.0

Yet Brown Bears and a Polar Bears are so clearly different species. Where does this leave our species definitions?

Neither is right. But neither is wrong. If I were to ask a random grouping of 1,000 ecologists, evolutionary biologists and taxonomists their definition of a species, I doubt I’d get two of the same answers. It’s not that no two would be worded the same — it’s that no two would be the same in their caveats. I’d likely get a few pages-long essays. I’d likely get a couple of laughs and a “No, thank you.”

Biologists debate this topic all the time. They also debate whether species are best divided physiologically, ecologically or genetically. A lot is up for debate. And that’s great! You know, scientific discourse and all that.

Sometimes scientific progress prompts us to revise species boundaries to divide two groups, but sometimes we merge two groups. Sometimes one species living on two different islands or mountains are actually two species. Sometimes two species living on two different islands or mountains are actually one species.

It’s always changing. But that’s part of the fun.

I wrote this to give you more answers. I’m realizing I may not have been entirely successful. Sorry. But now you know how weird, complicated and nebulous some elements of taxonomy can be. I guess that’s an answer to something, maybe.

Point is — if you ever see a dusty white/brown bear, somewhere way up in the taiga, take a closer look.

New Malaysian State Park Tripled in Size Through the Support of Rainforest Trust

In 2018, Rainforest Trust helped establish and then expand Malaysia’s new Kenyir State Park. A designation of an additional 48,466 acres, combined with another logging concession we protected last May, bring the new park to 74,140 rainforest acres — nearly three times the size of San Francisco and three times the park’s original size! The creation and management of this new protected area is a collaborative effort involving the Terengganu State Government and the local nonprofit organization Rimba, in partnership with Rainforest Trust, Panthera and the Woodland Park Zoo.

The Kenyir State Park is the first ever state park for the State of Terengganu and the first state park to be gazetted in Peninsular Malaysia since 2007. The park is phase one of a much larger conservation project that will encompass 250,000 acres that lie within a globally important Tiger Conservation Landscape and critical wildlife corridor.

“Rainforest Trust is thrilled that the Terengganu State Government is taking action to overturn a logging concession and strengthen protection of imperiled rainforests,” said Rainforest Trust CEO Paul Salaman. “The new park provides an unparalleled opportunity to safeguard habitat for one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring predators – the Malayan Tiger — as well as protect a vital watershed for Malaysians.”

The Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger is a subspecies that lives only on the Malay Peninsula and in the southern tip of Thailand. They face tremendous pressure from poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, with their numbers in Malaysia estimated to be less than 250 individuals as of 2018. But happily, a sizeable number of Malayan Tigers are found to be living within Kenyir State Park, as documented through camera traps.

 

 

Rainforest Trust is pleased that the national government and the State of Terengganu are recognizing the value of their natural resources, especially in an era of increasing deforestation in Malaysia. The Kenyir State Park is now three times the size it was in May 2018 and, beyond Malayan Tigers, protects the Critically Endangered Sunda Pangolin and the Endangered Asian Elephant, two other species in decline due to poaching and habitat loss.

 

This project was made possible by the SAVES Challenge and donors to the Conservation Action Fund, with a special note of thanks to Ann Kaupp, Geo Chen and Angela Huang, Jazmyn McDonald, Joan Hero and William Baumgardt for their leadership gifts.
Header photo: A Critically Endangered Malayan Tiger swimming. Photo by Hans Stieglitz.