Monday, March 30, 2015

Can Tapirus kabomani become a flagship species for conserving biodiversity in the Bolivian Amazon?

From Tapirus kabomani to integral development

Article and photos by Vincent A. Vos, Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesina, Regional Norte Amazónico (CIPCA-N.A.), Riberalta, Beni, Bolivia

A New Species of Tapir 

In the research proposal “Tapirus kabomani in Bolivia,” based on preliminary results Huascar Bustillos and I suggested this recently discovered species of tapir could also be found in the Bolivian Amazon. Our research received attention from the Bolivian media that cited our belief that this small black tapir could turn into a flagship species for regional conservation projects.

However, considering the actual situation in Bolivia in relation to the conservation of biodiversity, this is still a rather theoretical possibility. In this article we offer an explanation for this statement, providing some general information on biodiversity in Bolivia and the Bolivian Amazon. Using the case of the municipality of Riberalta as an example, we analyze the reach of several conservation initiatives in the region, and argue that the actual levels of biodiversity can only be maintained adequately through a change in the paradigms of regional development towards more integral landscape approaches with greater compatibility with the Amazonian context.

Fig. 1. Comparison between the new small “Tapirus kabomani" and the earlier known “Tapirus terrestris” (Adopted from Antelo et al 2014, based on information by Cozzuol et al 2013).

The value of biodiversity

Bolivia is one of the 17 countries considered mega-biodivers (Jímenez 2014). Both in flora and in fauna it is found within the 10 countries with highest species diversity. This diversity should not only be conserved for esthetic reasons (for the beauty of nature) or ethic principals (because of our moral responsibility to protect the natural heritage for future generations), but it also deserves to be protected for the economic value it represents. Within this economic value, the value of biodiversity as one of the key factors for tourism in Bolivia is often highlighted, but even without this added value, biodiversity is the basis of large economic movements, through timber and non-timber forest products (such as brazil nuts from natural Amazonian forests that annually contribute US $162,500,000 through exports). Additionally, numerous fruits and other parts of plants and animals constitute the main basis of rural livelihoods, and even contribute to the security and wellbeing of the urban populations through food, medicines, construction materials, tools and utensils, etc. (eg. CIPCA 2008, Pokorny et al 2010, Vos 2011).

Fig. 2. Maps representing the global distribution of biodiversity in plants and animals, revealing the extreme biodiversity of Bolivia. Sources: Botany Online 2014 and Geographic 2012. 

Moreover, the organisms, which together make up the biodiversity, provide a large quantity of environmental services, including the production of oxygen (i.e. carbon storage), the contribution to water cycles, the control of erosion and pollination, amongst many others that help to improve the climate and human wellbeing from local to global levels (Andersen 2009). The protection of ecosystems and their services thus affect health quality and conditions, physical integrity, food security, and other aspects for human security and wellbeing (PNUD 2011).

Despite this huge value, knowledge on biodiversity in Bolivia is still surprisingly limited. More than half of Bolivia’s mammals were only registered scientifically after 1980 (Andersen 1997) and new discoveries such as that of Tapirus kabomani show that there is still a lot to investigate, even for groups of species supposedly well inventoried such as large mammals (Cozzuol et al 2013, Fernandes 2014). Moreover, the information on this biodiversity is hard to access; for many groups there aren’t even actualized checklists, and to date there is not one complete and actualized field guide for any of the taxonomic groups in Bolivia (but see Armonia in elaboration). Without doubt, Bolivia is one of the countries that knows the least about the biodiversity it possesses (ABI 2014).

Fig. 3. Hylopezus auricularis, endemic to the Riberalta area.

Conservation in Bolivia 

This lack of attention to biodiversity is typical of the importance given in Bolivia to conservation in general. Only in 2009 did the Bolivian Government publish a serious version of a “red book” describing the threatened species of wildlife (vertebrates) within the country, and for many species there is still insufficient information to really evaluate the threats to their survival (MMAyA 2009). More so, the initiatives for conservation are limited, both in number and in their reach: Bolivia harbors 22 national parks (Araujo et al 2010), but most do not even have management plans, and despite their legal status, at the moment there are multiple plans for the exploration of petrol and minerals, as well as projects for highways and other megaprojects that together with illegal settlements constitute a potentially devastating impact on regional biodiversity. Especially in many protected areas on lower levels (e.g. departmental, municipal, etc.) the protective status in itself is questionable, since in many cases conservation is limited principally to good intentions on paper, but with very little concrete actions in the field.

Fig. 4. The Bolivian Amazon has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years, but recently the global demand for forest products has led to the adoption of less sustainable ways of living by local populations.

The case of the Riberalta municipality

To visualize this weakness of conservation in Bolivia, I’d like to use the example of the Riberalta municipality, one of the largest municipalities in the Bolivian Amazon, with large extensions of tropical forests that harbor several endangered species. The largest part of the municipal area was originally covered by extensive Amazonian forests, and to date more than half of the municipality still maintains a good state of conservation. However, in the last decades, especially areas close to the city of Riberalta and along its main highways, have suffered a growing pressure from human intervention including timber extraction and the conversion of large surfaces of forests into grasslands for cattle. In the decade of 2000-2010 a total of 83.026 Ha has been cleared (GAMR and FAN 2014).

Fig. 5. Besides being a direct threat to several timber species, logging is one of the main causes of forest degradation, opening up the forest to poaching and the often indiscriminate harvesting of other forest resources, while favoring further degradation through forest fires and invasive species.

Additionally wildfires have provoked a strong degradation of soils and vegetation through a degradation of forests followed by the invasion of grasses such as “sujo” (Imperata sp.) that because of its high fire susceptibility, in turn favor the reoccurrence of wildfires. As a result of this vicious cycle, each year new areas burn down. The drought of 2010 resulted in extreme losses, with wildfires destroying 22,000 Ha of terra firme forests and an additional 68,000 Ha of grasslands (GAMR and FAN 2014). To put these numbers in perspective: the total surface burned down in this years’ dry season equaled more than 11 times the surface of the urbanized area of the city of Riberalta, home to about 100.000 inhabitants. The destruction of 22,000 Ha of Amazonian forests caused the destruction of about 1.3 million trees, including some 45,000 Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) that together produced an amount of Brazil nuts with a value of more than 2 million dollars. To this value, we can add additional losses of timber and non-timber forest products, as well as the invaluable environmental services that used to be provided by these forests. At the same time forest conversion, degradation and forest fires are the main drivers of the local extinction of wildlife.

Fig. 6. The smaller vertebrates such as these Dendropsophus rhodopeplus frogs are especially threatened by habitat loss.

Conservation efforts in Riberalta

Despite the natural richness, the mentioned pressures and the consequent economic losses, so far there are no efforts that significantly contribute to biodiversity conservation.
The recent declaration as a RAMSAR site of the surroundings of the Yata River including an important surface of the municipal area, locally passes virtually unnoticed, and limits of the area and the reach of the area's conservation status remain unclear. In practice, activities such as legal and illegal timber extraction and hunting continue without change.

A similar situation can be found in virtually all “protected areas.” In many cases there isn’t even a sufficient legal base to avoid human settlements and/or the extraction of natural resources. We can stress the case of the Hamburgo/San Vicente area, habitat of the masked antpitta (Hylopezus auricularis), an endemic bird considered critically endangered (MMAyA 2009). After receiving international recognition as an Important Bird Area (BirdLife International 2006), in 2001 the area was declared protected through Ordenanza Municipal 038/2001. However, the local law was filed without further diffusion and at the moment the natural habitat of the masked antpitta continues to be affected by timber and fuel-wood extraction, by the collection of non-timber forest products and through hunting and fishing. Moreover there is growing pressure on natural vegetation while the brickmaking industry and farmers, and even new urbanizations and rural communities keep encroaching deeper into the area (López et al 2014).

A similar situation can be found in other conservation units such as the “Área de Inmovilización Yata,” “Tumichucua,” and “San José.” Although these figure as protected areas on some maps (see also GAMR and FAN 2014), in practice their legal situation is confusing and there are overlaps with other land claims including claims for recently doted peasant and indigenous lands. In practice, conservation never advanced much more than the good intentions put on paper.

Similarly, efforts to reduce illegal logging are rather ineffective, and illegal logging is typically estimated to be in the range of 50 to 70% of total volumes (e.g. Müller et al 2014). Even endangered or legally protected species such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) are intensively harvested. In respect to hunting and fishing, things are even worse, since there are no significant efforts to reduce impacts from these pressures on natural ecosystems. Even the obviously extremely alarming context related to forest fires has not received any actions besides some small-scale efforts to implement fire-breaks and a group of volunteer fire fighters without any significant government support. When compared to the numbers of trees and areas lost to fires and through forest conversion, projects for reforestation are seen to be completely insignificant.
Threats to biodiversity

Within this context threats to biodiversity are severe: subsistence hunting and fishing still form the principal source of protein for the largest part of the rural population, and at the moment an intensification of harvesting practices can be observed, such as the use of large nets in some lagoons resulting in a virtually complete extraction of some fish species. In relation to hunting, the rainy season coincides with the annual harvesting of Brazil nuts. During the harvest season, more than 5,000 families from Riberalta move into the Amazonian forests (mostly in the neighboring Pando department) to dedicate themselves to the collection of these natural nuts. During three months, these temporary inhabitants as well as the existing population depends almost entirely on regional wildlife for the provision of meat. Even outside of this time of the year, hunting continues, since many families maintain relations in which animals hunted in the rural area are shared with urban family members. Although there is no clear information on this subject, we estimate that along one single road opened up by a timber company to access the Chacobo indigenous reserve in the south of Riberalta, hunters yearly extract around 3,000 animals (Vos unpublished data). Hunting is indiscriminate since even endangered species such as tapirs (Tapirus spp.) are in high demand in the virtually uncontrolled markets of the city. Even meat of species such as jaguars (Panthera onca) is commercialized, being passed off as some other more accepted species.

Fig. 7. An indigenous Takana woman adopted two young taitetus (collared peccaries, Pecari tejacu) after their parents became victims of local hunters. Although some species of mammals are affected by hunting, especially after introduction of modern weapons, the overall effect of hunting is small compared to large-scale degradation and conversion of regional forests.

Moreover, many species valued as pets, such as monkeys and parrots, are extracted from their habitats through practices that suggest that for each individual effectively sold, at least five others die during collection or transport. Other species such as various types of cats are persecuted for being considered a threat to humans or domestic animals. For instance, snakes in general are killed at any opportunity although only a handful of species is effectively venomous and in only few cases actually present a threat to human health. Something similar occurs with bats; there are at least 119 bat species in Bolivia, of which only two are vampires, while many others perform important services such as pest control, pollination, and seed distribution. The fear exhibited towards these flying mammals is also generalized, and many cases exist where bat colonies have been destroyed in a cruel and unnecessary way.

Habitat loss

The direct threats we mentioned each year cause the death of millions of vertebrates and have put some species such as the spider monkeys (Ateles chamek) on the brink of extinction. But, paradoxically, these pressures are not the main threat to the majority of the species. The principal threat contributing to the risk of extinction of Bolivian vertebrates is related to habitat loss (MMAyA 2009, Araujo et al 2010, MMAyA 2013). 

In Bolivia, the practice of slashing and burning the vegetation to prepare agricultural fields and grasslands, is used by millions of small farmers as well as by large-scale cattle ranchers and soya producers. In the last 50 years, this traditional production scheme has been the principal, and almost only alternative of production, maintaining and expanding itself in the east and north of the country. Although this production model without a doubt contributes to food production, labor, income, exports, and even poverty reduction, its inefficiency in terms of productivity has also been demonstrated, while this production implies the conversion and degradation of large tracts of forests and has led to severe social conflicts (Pokorny et al 2010, Vos 2011). 

At the moment, Bolivia is experiencing a boom of demographic and economic growth, implying large pressures on natural resources and ecosystems (Müller et al 2014). Pressures of fragmentation, vegetation- and soil-degradation, as well as contamination, are becoming a generalized problem for growing parts of the country. In recent years Bolivia has witnessed an increase in the conversion of natural ecosystems for megaprojects and the advance of the agricultural frontier. In the area of the Bolivian lowlands alone (including Yungas), between 2000 and 2010, 182,750 Ha of tropical forests were converted to agricultural fields and pastures (FAN 2012).

Fig. 8. Climate change not only affects Amazon forests, but also local sustainable initiatives such as these agroforestry systems of Mario Huari (Takana Indian); floods ruined his 2014 cacao plantation and destroyed some plantations that had cost more that 10 years of management. 

The conversion of forests to other soil uses implies an instantaneous and complete destruction of the original ecosystem and a drastic reduction in local biodiversity (Araujo et al 2010). Climate change now adds an additional important threat (Andersen and Mamani 2009, Nordgren 2011). Based on a simulation of the combined impacts of deforestation and climate change using the PRECIS model, it is expected that by the year 2100 biodiversity in Bolivia will show a loss of 40% in comparison with the original level (Andersen and Mamani 2009).

Fig. 9. The extreme floods of 2014, related to global climate change, not only affected regional economy and local livelihoods, but have also had a huge effect on regional wildlife. This Mabuya sp. lizard was one of few individuals that managed to find a relatively dry spot on the recently paved highway from Riberalta to Guayaramerín. 

A new development model

Considering the ecosystem benefits and environmental services mentioned, the actual and expected losses of biodiversity will have a devastating affect on Bolivia (CDB 2007). These losses will not only have important consequences for the variety of life in Bolivia, but also for the subsistence of the human population. The rural poor are particularly vulnerable to the loss of essential ecosystem functions when an ecosystem is degraded. The loss of services such as the access to arable lands, the provision of clean water, and the disposition of medicinal plants, will have devastating effects on the poor that often don’t have any other options at their disposal (CDB 2007). 

The previously-mentioned conservation initiatives are clearly insufficient to counter these negative impacts. The real reach of many of the initiatives directed to protecting areas, individual species, or restoring biodiversity, is extremely limited, and despite good intentions and efforts, in practice these initiatives aren’t anywhere near to being able to protect the biodiversity in the national territory as long as there is no change to the traditional paradigm of development. More and more institutions argue that effective conservation requires the assignation of a higher value to biodiversity within development strategies to counteract the economic forces that favor deforestation and degradation of natural ecosystems. In one of its reports the Comunidad Andina refers to this aspect in the following manner: 

The situation of environmental degradation in the world and threats represented by Global Climate Change within the region, call for a deepening of a new vision of development. . . . This vision has to include a more harmonic vision with nature, to offer options for a better planning of our territory, the validation of our cultural diversity and more efforts towards the conservation of our biodiversity and our forests. (Comunidad Andina 2008)

It’s no easy task to generate a new vision of development with higher compatibility with the conservation of biodiversity. However, there are multiple promising productive initiatives; from the millenary experiences of indigenous peoples (Eg. Barba et al 2010), up to relatively new initiatives for the sustainable management of non-timber forest products destined to new markets (see also Peralta et al 2011). For instance, the management of Brazil nuts has received worldwide attention as a model for sustainable development for tropical forests, considering their collection not only typically provides half of rural families’ annual income, but is also one of the main factors explaining the relatively good level of preservation of the forests of the Bolivian Amazon (Vos and Aviana, in press).
Agroforestry systems – an example of sustainable production

Agroforestry is another production system that has received attention for its potential to combine economic and environmental benefits. Recently the Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado (CIPCA) carried out research to evaluate the economic and environmental potential of Agroforestry Systems (AFS) implemented in the Bolivian Amazon (Vos et al in elaboration). The study shows that local producers in the Bolivian Amazon highly estimate ecosystem functioning and environmental services of their AFS, such as the recovery of soil structure and fertility, the conservation of high quality water, the production of oxygen, the provision of shade, the improvement of the local microclimate and the recovery of biodiversity.

Fig. 10. Local agroforestry systems were shown to favor high levels of biodiversity.

The study shows that AFS’s store important amounts of carbon, while levels of biodiversity measured in the eleven evaluated cases are much higher than those registered in areas with alternative production systems such as cattle farming and mechanized agriculture. At the same time, the study reveals that the agroforestry plots generate highly competitive levels of income while contributing to local food security. Moreover, agroforestry is compatible with the livelihood strategies of rural families in the Amazon, and permits income generation from affordable investments in a way that favors rural families’ independence. In this sense, AFS's are an example of production systems that can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity while securing economic and social development.


The example of AFS helps us to understand that it’s possible to foment production systems with higher compatibility with the vocation and rural livelihoods of the Amazon. However, to date we observe a virtual lack of public policies towards this type of production in Bolivia, while, especially in the last decade there has been an increase in public funding for highly questionable production systems such as extensive cattle breeding and mechanized agriculture. Considering the information offered in this article, we argue that it is necessary to rethink these political policies within the development agenda of Bolivia and its Amazon region. A new model of development is needed - one that is based on a more integral vision of territory and a diversification of productive activities by strengthening local experience and knowledge with modern innovations. Only in this way will it be possible to secure an adequate management of biodiversity and environmental conservation, and thus guarantee its environmental and even economic benefits for the inhabitants of the region and the global population.

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