The Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve
The Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve has come a long way. From the time it was just a parcel along the Iquitos–Nauta Road to becoming a must-visit for birdwatchers and eco-travelers.
I remember visiting with my friend Jose (Pepe) Alvarez every time I was in Iquitos. We would spend whole afternoons talking about Allpahuayo-Mishana’s unique birds, plants, wildlife, and ongoing social issues. I kept thinking how can these many birds and plants be new to science at a place so close to Iquitos, a large cosmopolitan city in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon? After spending time there and further reading about what I saw, I began to believe. The Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve is a unique ecosystem combining upland or “Terra Firme” Amazonian forest with patches of white sand “Varillal” forests.
But how is this place becoming the talk of the City?
The place is biologically unique, but that’s not enough to call the attention of the layman. For people to pay attention, it was needed a passionate spoke person and that job was handled by Pepe. This brown-bearded Spaniard missionary came to Peru to fulfill his calling of working for the less fortunate in the Amazon Jungle. Trained to communicate the gospel along with an inherent talent for communicating ideas, Pepe became the spoke person for Allpahuayo Mishana.
Pepe’s dedication and willingness to spend endless hours observing, listening and studying the birds enabled him to explain every reason why Alpahuayo-Mishana should be protected. He first heard these unknown birds, then along with colleague Bret Whitney, an ornithologist and research associate at Louisiana State University formally described them. The two of them have worked together on all the discoveries of new species mentioned here, as well as on other projects. While Pepe does most of the fieldwork, Whitney does most of the lab work.
These discoveries were not low hanging fruits.
If you take a look at any Neotropical bird book chances are you will be quickly overwhelmed just by the sheer number of species most of which can occur at a single site. To complicate matters, go to the plates portraying the antbirds, antwrens, gnatcatchers, and tyrannulets; only subtle differences sets one species apart from the other. One needs to be familiar with their distribution, natural history, and vocalizations to begin to be able to identify them. Allpahuayo Mishana gave itself as a biodiversity hotspot when gems such as the Gray-legged Tinamou (Crypturellus duidae), White-winged Potoo (Nyctibius leucopterus), Brown-banded Puffbird (Notharcus ordii), Cinnamon-crested Spadebill (Platyrinchus saturatus), and Pompadour Cotinga (Xipholena punicea ), were found there. These birds are largely associated with white-sand forests in other places in South America. This means they have patchy distribution and in Peru are found only at the Allpahuayo Mishana area and surroundings. But these birds are relatively large and distinctive, the other birds Pepe and Brett described as new to science where some of the most cryptic and difficult to identify, let alone knowing they were new to science.
When we discussed what Pepe thought were unusual forms of similar species occurring in the region, I have to admit that oftentimes I did not see the differences he saw. For instance, the Allpahuayo Antbirds (Percnostola arenarum) was nearly identical to the closely related Black-headed Antbird (Percnostola rufifrons) found only a few rivers over in the general region.
Similarly, Zimmer’s Antbird (Myrmeciza castanea) was nearly identical to Chestnut-tailed Antbirds (Mirmeciza hemimelaena) also found in the region. If these two antbirds were difficult to distinguish, the Mishana Tyrannulet (Zimmerius villarejoi), Iquitos Gnatcatcher (Polioptila clementsi), and Ancient Antwren (Herpsilochmus gentryi) were a real challenge. For a taste of this challenge, check the member of the genus Zimmerius, Polioptila and Herpsilochmus in the bird book.
Moreover, add the fact that these birds live largely in the canopy, alongside members of the same orlk similar genera and are smaller than most of the predominantly broad leaves of the Amazonian Rainforest canopy. Broad leaves make the observation of small birds very difficult. It took a detective’s work to figure out which of these warbler-sized birds were indeed new and undescribed species.
It took a lot of time and dedication to become familiar with the birds and other wildlife of the region.
Pepe spent years at a small native community deep in the Peruvian Amazon where he divided his time between his missionary work and studying birds. The stories he tells about those years can be material for a book, really. The field experience he gained was crucial to later take a job with the Research Institute of the Amazon in Iquitos. Taking a job came as a big change. It took some self-questioning to resolve discrepancies between his congregation’s established ideas and his own. Pepe decided to live his congregation took the job and began a relationship with Elena whom he eventually married and started a family.
How did Allpahuayo Mishana National Reserve come about?
Soon after the project of opening a road connecting the cities of Iquitos and Nauta was known to the public, people began to make plans to acquire a parcel along the road. A sort of gold rush for the best roadside parcels. People wishing to farm or establish a homestead picked the best spots. The Research Institute of the Amazon chose a parcel with the idea of conducting research pertaining to the organization’s goals. Soon after the researcher begins to conduct inventories of this parcel, they realized they had patches of forest over white sand soil.
The white sand forest is ill-suited for agricultural practices but supports unique biological elements. As neighboring farmers began to farm their parcels, it was obvious that the white-sand was among the worst soil types to establish a crop. Parcels of white sand sparingly covered in weeds laid along the road apparently abandoned as some farmer tried once to establish a crop field. But the lack of suitability for agriculture meant that people turn to timber extraction as a means to make a living.
Pepe and others saw the imminent threat Allpahuayo Misshana was under and proposed to establish a conservation area with formal legal protection. A proposal was written and elevated to regional and national authorities knowing that these proposals take a long time to materialize if ever. After only a few months and a lot of luck, Allpahuayo Mishana was established in January 2004.
Although the formal creation of Allpahuayo Mishana gives it legal protection, this does not guarantee actual protection, given the huge population pressure in the area, its proximity to Iquitos, and the limited availability of resources in Peru to protect a network of parks. Pepe and his colleagues understand well the need for people to make a living and the need for conservation of natural resources. It is urgent and indispensable at this time, private sector involvement and international cooperation to establish a minimum level of protection in the reserve, and to promote environmental education eco-development, and ecotourism initiatives so that local people living around Allpahuayo-Mishana have alternative sustainable use of natural resources and need not destroy the forest to survive.
By Alfredo Begazo.