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Interview with our neighbor ornithologist Juan Manuel Aguilar

Life in paradise trough the eyes of biologist and ornithologist Juan Manuel Aguilar

Juan Manuel Aguilar Ullauri is an Ecuadorian biologist, specialized in conservational biology, biodiversity and ornithology. He lives and works on the territory of the ecological reservation of Runahurco and is one of the closest neighbours of the refugio of Bosque medicinal.

Juan Manuel, you live next to the El Paraiso and Bosque Medicinal. How did you find this place?

I am originally from Cuenca and already in 2015 I started to look for land in the province of Morona Santiago. During the pandemic I came to the refugio of Bosque medicinal, where I stayed for almost three months. I was teaching my university classes on conservation, sustainability and natural resources remotely, as well as continuing my academic work. Meanwhile I was walking in the area to monitor birds. One day I saw a Quetzal (very rare, strikingly colored bird from the trogon family. Recent studies estimate that there are only around 50,000 Quetzals left in the whole world). I started coming back to the same place to observe and record its song. After a while the opportunity came to buy the land, where this bird was coming, and now I live here.

Why do you chose this way of life?

I had my academic degree in Conservation Biology, Biodiversity, Ecology and Evolution. I was working in laboratories, teaching and writing scientific papers. But I was also doing field work and I spent much time out in the wild nature of Southern Ecuador, as well as among the native communities, mostly among the shuar people. With the time I realized that there are some controversies between the academic literature and the real situation of the wild nature and wild life. I considered also that I am getting much more data for considerably shorter time when I am in nature. So two months ago I left the academic life behind and came to live here full time.

What is your plan for your life here in the wilderness?

I saw this niche in conservation of biodiversity and I have the needed qualification, so that is why I took the risk to come live and work here. I am as well in charge of monitoring the eagles in this whole area around. Another project, that I am involved in, is conservation and extension ot protected areas. The end point is to make a protected corridor all alongside Southern Ecuador, conecting the national park Podocarpus in the south with the national park Sangay in the north. We are a group of around 20 people who are working in this direction and it is not that easy so far.

What are the main problems concerning conservation and biodiversity in this area?

Firstly it is important to mention that here, where the mountain slopes of the Andes meet the Amazonian jungle, we have the biggest biodiversity in whole Ecuador. At the same time we are constantly loosing this biodiversity due to deforestation. Definitely the main problem is cutting down forest for creating pastures for cattle. We have also a lot of illegal mining. There is more gold in this land than anywhere in the world. Particular mines have been exploited for 5000 years so far and they are still operational. The iconic golden mask, that is symbolic for Ecuador, was as well found in this area. But while mining is more localized, deforestation is everywhere. And with it more and more species are being endangered. We hear a lot about climate change, but it is difficult to feel it's real effects. The effects of deforestation we feel and observe every day.

Are all farmers cutting down extensively?

There are a couple of cattle rangers, mostly foreigners from the USA, who are trying to introduce a more sustainable model where farmers are obliged to preserve a certain amount of their land as it is and not use it, usually 60%. On the remaining 40% they can plant or raise animals.

You mentioned that you are in charge of monitoring eagles. How is the situation with their populations?

I just published a paper on eagles and it shows how in the most deforestated areas there are none of them. For instance from the species of the Solitary eagle we have only one in whole Ecuador, not even a couple. This bird flies over a territory of 75 km and it is right here in this region where it can be observed. As well there is only one Crested eagle - one of the most endangered species. There are 4 more in Columbia. The population of the Harpy eagles is bigger, but they are still on the list of endangered ones.

With eagle's population we face also the problem that people hunt them down, because they sometimes attack their cattle or house animals. Recently we had a case where an eagle, from which there are only 26 couples in the while country, attacked the good fighting rooster of a farmer. We managed to repay the rooster, so the farmer would not go after the eagle, so this story had a happy end.

Another issue is related to the falcons. Nowadays we are not even allowed to publish where we observe some rare species, especially the Peregrine falcon - the fastest animal on the earth, because the falconers, mostly from abroad, will immediately go and capture the bird in order to train it.

You have spent and are still spending time with shuar communities. How is the ecological situations in their territories?

About only 60 years ago the shuar people were able to hunt big wild animals without having to move further than their own porch in front of the house. Nowadays due to overpopulation and overhunting they need to sometimes walk 20 miles to find a pray.

At the same time they live way more sustainable than the rest of the population - they know the water sources, the edible plants of the jungle, they produce their own food, etc. At the same time we have developed those 15 Sustainable development objectives and we are trying to impose them on those people, who know how to live much more sustainable than our society, which is pulling further and further away from nature and natural way of living.

Do you believe it is possible to really change the mindset of the people towards a more sustainable way of life and work?

If it could be shown to them that they can earn their living through more sustainable practices, I believe that yes. For instance, there is big niche for eco sustainable tourism here in Southern Ecuador. Maybe it requires more devotion and effort than just moving the pastures every now and than, but it is still a good way of life and if it is introduced properly, it could make a difference.

At the end would you share some good example from your experience?

My father is a farmer. He also used to enjoy hunting. Because of my influence he changed his "weapon" and now he has a camera, spending hours in waiting to "shoot" some wild animal or bird. Also I planted many different kind of trees around his house. Now his land is one of the most bio diverse places in his region and there are more and more birds and animals coming there.

Finally I would like to share some experience from my work on the Galapagos Islands some years ago. Every weekend all the lab team would go to a particular island and collect the garbage there - mostly plastic bottles. In the begging we were very surprised, because most of them were with chines labels, but as well from all over the world. The Galapagos are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and are hit by three currents. The way we live our lifes, what we consume and use could have an impact on nature and on some endangered species even on the other side ot the planet.

Maru Boncheva

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