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Identidad Madidi: Exploring the Fantastic Biodiversity of Bolivia

By Rob Wallace

[Note: this is the first in a series of reports from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) on the Identidad Madidi expedition currently taking place in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park]

It’s an idea that was four years in the making: to send a group of Bolivian scientists to investigate fourteen different habitats spanning 6,000 meters – from the Andes down to the Amazon – in what is the most biodiverse protected area on the planet. Identidad Madidi, expected to take a year and a half to complete, is a scientific expedition intended to draw attention to the wonders of Boliva’s Madidi National Park.

For the 18-month Identidad Madidi expedition, a group of Bolivian scientists will investigate fourteen different habitats spanning 6,000 meters – from the Andes down to the Amazon – in what is the most biodiverse protected area on the planet. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.
For the 18-month Identidad Madidi expedition, a group of Bolivian scientists will investigate fourteen different habitats spanning 6,000 meters – from the Andes down to the Amazon – in what is the most biodiverse protected area on the planet. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.

From a biodiversity perspective Madidi is quite simply nirvana. At close to two million hectares in size it is also a global stronghold for many of Latin America´s most charismatic wildlife, including Andean condor, Andean bear, jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and lowland tapir. There you will also find several unique major vegetation types.

The Madidi trip is the culmination of an even longer journey for me and my colleague Lilian Painter in our work for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

This southern climbing mouse (Rhipidomys cf. austrinus) one of 32 species newly discovered in Madidi National Park during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.
This southern climbing mouse (Rhipidomys cf. austrinus) is one of 32 vertebrate species newly discovered in Madidi National Park so far during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.

In 1999, after working for seven years in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park (one of Bolivia´s 22 national protected areas), Lilian and I were asked to move to a new protected area and broader landscape in Bolivia. It was tough to leave Noel Kempff Mercado, an exceptionally beautiful landscape thought to be one of the inspirations for Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.”

But the wrench of leaving the Huanchaca escarpment and the Itenez River was mixed with the anticipation and excitement about working in Madidi. Since then it has been an honor and a privilege to partner with the local people, national institutions, and Bolivian government implementing conservation actions in this unbelievably special place.

The Identidad Madidi expedition team. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.
The Identidad Madidi expedition team. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.

Created in September 1995 as a National Park and Natural Area of Integrated Management, Madidi is important to Bolivia for more than its fantastic fauna and flora. It boasts a rich cultural and historical heritage of both pre-Hispanic and colonial South America and a contemporary diverse indigenous local population – a place with lifetimes of fascination.

Identidad Madidi was organized under the National Biodiversity Network with support from the Ministry of the Environment and Water and the Vice Ministry of Science and Technology. Participants include national institutions and organizations such as the National Herbarium, Bolivian Fauna Collection, Institute of Ecology and Armonia, as well as WCS.

An annellated coral snake (Micrurus annellatus), one of 32 species newly discovered in Madidi National Park during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.
An annellated coral snake (Micrurus annellatus), one of 32 vertebrate species newly discovered in Madidi National Park so far during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.

On the one hand we would like to significantly improve biodiversity knowledge in the park, including the locations of key vertebrates and our list of confirmed species. On the other, we would like this expedition to better inform Bolivians of their natural heritage.

Through national and international media, a dedicated website, and social networks we are committed to sharing our findings in the field with the people of Bolivia, especially the urban audience whose knowledge about – and engagement with – their nation’s natural assets is developing. School children can identify global wildlife symbols such as elephants and tigers but struggle to pick out native species like pink river dolphins or maned wolves.

The velvety fruit-eating bat (Enchisthenes hartii) is one of 32 species newly discovered in Madidi National Park during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.
This velvety fruit-eating bat (Enchisthenes hartii) is one of 32 vertebrate species newly discovered in Madidi National Park so far during the Identidad Madidi expedition. Photo by Mileniusz Spanowicz ©WCS.

In this extraordinarily biodiverse region, we expect at least 2,200 vertebrate species to be registered eventually – including around 1,100 birds (a whopping 11 percent of all the world´s bird species in a park the size of New Jersey). Before Identidad Madidi the number of confirmed vertebrate species for the park stood at 1,493.

On World Environment Day in early June 2015 a team of nearly thirty scientists and local guides set off from La Paz to the first study site in the tropical savannas of Apolo and adjacent gallery forests that lie in fingers along streams and rivers of this mountainous region. Knowledge on vertebrate biodiversity was especially poor for this isolated habitat surrounded by a variety of montane tropical forests.

Cock-of-the-Rock. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.
Cock-of-the-Rock. Photo by Rob Wallace ©WCS.

Upon arrival at our first camp on the upper Machariapo River we were welcomed by a stunning and rather curious male Cock-of-the-Rock who subsequently visited camp every day.

In two weeks at this site we registered 209 vertebrate species, of which 32 are new records for the park, including the southern climbing mouse (Rhipidomys cf. austrinus), the velvety fruit-eating bat (Enchisthenes hartii), the cinereous harrier (Circus cinereus), the annellated coral snake (Micrurus annellatus), and several naked suckermouth catfish species – a fantastic result that has exceeded our expectations and bodes well for the sites that follow.

One study site down, thirteen to go!

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Rob Wallace is a Bolivia-based conservationist in the Latin America and Caribbean Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).