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Finding orchids in Colombia’s other rainforest

Colombia has made impressive progress in declaring a large part of its Amazon rain forest protected for conservation. But there’s another rain forest in Colombia, the Chocó, on the Pacific side of the country. This forest teems with even more species than in the Amazon forest, but it is not as well protected. Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm recently visited the region to see the biodiversity for himself.

By Stuart L. Pimm
Special contributor to NatGeo News Watch

Ten days ago I was in Colombia with my Colombian graduate student German Forero Medina, about to give a keynote address on REDD–Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation — the subject now uppermost in the minds of those of us who care about biodiversity. (Read about REDD on my earlier blog on NatGeo News Watch.)

I wasn’t going to go that far without taking time to visit one of the most diverse rain forests on Earth–the Chocó, along the country’s Pacific Slope.

Colombia has more than one rain forest. The most familiar is the Amazon.

This has been a good few weeks for the Amazon, so that news first.

Just over a week ago, Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that only 7,000 square kilometres (2,700 square miles) of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared in the 12 months to August 2009. [NatGeo News Watch: Amazon deforestation slows as Brazil tightens prevention.]

That’s by far the lowest rate since the country’s National Institute for Space Research started using satellite imagery to monitor forest losses.

Neighbouring Colombia has much less of the Amazon compared to Brazil, but it too has been losing forest cover.

At the International Forum on Biodiversity and Climate Change on the November 6, Environment Minister Carlos Costa told his audience in Bogotá: “It is important for the world to know that the Colombian Amazon is for conservation only.” I was in the audience.

The Colombian government was making more than bold statements. At the Protected Areas Conference and on the Biodiversity Forum two weeks earlier (October 26, also in Bogotá), the country announced the creation of the Yaigoyé Apaporis National Par –an area of over 1,000,000 hectares (4,000 square miles) in the Amazon close to the equator.

Even before that addition, Colombia had exceeded the targets for conservation it had agreed to meet by signing the Convention on Biological Diversity. Signers agreed to set aside 10 percent of their land for protected areas by 2010.

With this latest addition, Colombia has protected 12.5 million hectares of its country–about 49,000 square miles, or 11 percent of the country– an area a little smaller than the State of Florida. Some 70 percent of the protected land is in the Amazon.

Here’s the problem that had me at the second meeting–and German Forero Medina at both meetings: Colombia is spectacularly rich in biodiversity. (Ask any birdwatcher. Colombia has nearly 1,900 species, more than any other country and 19 percent of the world’s total. It has a similar excess of mammals and amphibians.)

But rich in species though the Amazon might be, it’s Colombia’s other forests that have even more species–and they are not been given the same protection. German and I were in Colombia to argue for more reserves outside Colombia’s Amazon.

 

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Chocó rain forest

Conservation biologist Stuart L. Pimm visits Colombia’s Chocó rain forest. There Jorge Orejuela, director of the Cali Botanic Garden and an expert on the Chocó’s birds and orchids, tells Pimm about the remarkable orchids and other species in one of Earth’s biodiversity “hotspots.”

Video by Stuart L. Pimm

One of those regions, the Chocó was where I headed after the meeting. The old road from Cali to Buenaventura is “the best area in the world for seeing a rich diversity of birds,” according to Steven Hilty and William Brown, authors of the Birds of Colombia.

How could I resist? This is one of 25 “biodiversity hotspots”–places that my Duke University colleague Professor Norman Myers and colleagues showed contained half of all the variety of life on Earth–in about 10 percent of the land surface. By definition, hotspots are also places where there’s been large losses of habitats.

22 feet of rain a year

Resist? Well, easily, it happens. Dripping wet mountain forest, some areas getting 7 metres (22 feet) of rain each year sounds wonderful, but tragically, it’s been a war zone. Coca grows well here. The consequence of U.S. citizens being unable to “just say no” to cocaine have played havoc with Colombia and scarred the lives of millions of its people. Armed conflict and anti-government guerrillas had been active in the Chocó.

But all my Colombian friends were cautiously optimistic about the reduction in violence in the last few years. So I set off with Jorge Orejuela, an old friend with whom I shared a house in graduate school decades ago.

Jorge won the prestigious National Geographic/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation in 2007. He’s the director of the Cali Botanic Garden and an expert on the Chocó’s birds and orchids. And he won the prize for his efforts to protect the Chocó’s forest.

 

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Photo of orchid Dracula wallisii by Luis Mazariegos

In the rain, our 4×4 slipped and slid down the narrow dirt road, from Cali to the coast. Then we turned into the watershed of a large reservoir, showing our permits to the Colombian military who guard the area.

The next morning the rain let up. Jorge spotted orchids everywhere–many were small and I missed them. Close up, they were lovely.

“Here’s a branch covered with orchids.” Jorge pointed them out. “There’s an orchid in the genus Pleurothallis–perhaps it’s a new species…There are a hundred or more new species being described every couple of years from this genus in Colombia and Ecuador.”

 

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Sobrailia orchid

Video still by Stuart L. Pimm

Later, standing in the middle of a small river, looking at its bank covered in showy Sobralia orchids, Jorge continued, “Biodiversity here is unbelievable. Along this gradient from the Andes to the lowlands, we may have 1,500 species of butterflies and 800 bird species.” (That’s half as many again as birds that nest in all of Europe and North Africa.) “Orchids–perhaps 1,000 species.”

“There’s high human pressure on this area. My work that was highlighted by National Geographic was protecting areas that, had they been destroyed, the endemic species–those that we found only within them–would have been lost for ever.”

 

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Photo of orchid D. syndactyla by Luis Mazariegos

Just how many species are found only in these areas, I wondered. “And how many species are still unknown to science here,” I asked Jorge.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “In one area, not knowing anything about orchids, we collected 400 species–and that was not the only thing I had to do. This was in an area of only 30 square kilometres.” (About 12 square miles).

“Easily 20 percent of those species were new to science…Many of those are endangered–they are rare and found only in those particular places.”

stuart-pimm-bio-picture.jpgProfessor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”

 

 

Read earlier blog posts by Stuart Pimm>>