Protecting Argentina’s primeval Araucaria Forest

Misiones – Forests and diversity

Misiones is the second-smallest of Argentina’s provinces but home to slightly over half of the approximately one thousand bird species known from the country.  A variety of vegetation types thrive here, from Pampas grasslands in the southwest to mixed Atlantic Forest in the north and east of the Province.  Through the centre the Cordillera Central, a chain of low, rounded hills running east-to-west, make for a myriad of cascading waterfalls and clearwater streams.  Towards the Brazilian border where they attain an elevation of 700m and more, these hills were once covered in a great, seemingly unending swathe of ancient upland forest full of tree ferns and orchids.

For over fifty years the dominant tree of the upland forest formation, the so-called Monkey-Puzzle tree, Araucaria angustifolia, an emergent species growing to over thirty metres in height with a typically straight, cylindrical trunk, has been mercilessly felled throughout its restricted range.  Today, estimates put old-growth coverage of the unique Argentinean ecotonal Araucaria sub-formation at less than 2000 hectares.  San Pedro lies at the heart of what remains of Argentina’s once great Araucaria forest.

Now, bird species dependent on Argentinean Araucaria and Mixed Atlantic Forest formations in Misiones have begun to disappear.  Among the twenty-five species at risk of local extinction, some, like Brazilian Merganser (Mergus octosetaceus), Purple-winged Ground-Dove (Claravis godefrida) and Blue-winged Macaw (Primolius maracana), are probably gone forever.  Others, such as Black-fronted Piping-Guan (Pipile yacutinga), Helmeted Woodpecker (Dryocopus galeatus) and Solitary Tinamou (Tinamus solitarius) are clinging on but with such reduced populations that, unless solutions are found very soon, long-term survival is unlikely.

In his recent visit to the area’s most important old-growth Araucaria reserve last November (2010), author and woodpecker specialist Gerard Gorman found a single female Helmeted Woodpecker.  Indications are that, late on into the breeding season, the bird had failed to find a mate.  The species seems to be on the verge of extinction but we simply do not know what the actual population is or how many others are in the same desperate situation.

An annual survey led by Kristina Cockle and Alejandro Bodrati of Fundación de Historia Natural Felix de Azara, together with volunteer field assistants from San Pedro, is tracking the fortune of one Araucaria-dependent species.  Twenty years ago, so it is said, people in San Pedro found it hard to hold a conversation on the town plaza for all noise the Vinaceous-breasted Amazons (Amazona vinacea) made as they flapped, gabbled and flew from treetop to treetop.  Last year the annual simultaneous count gave an estimated total of one-hundred and twenty-six individuals in the whole of Argentina.  Fortunately there is still a remnant population of around thirty-five birds in San Pedro, and the numbers are up five or six from the previous year.

COA Tucaí – a first response

“What surprised me the most”, says Guy Cox, English birder and tour guide who moved to the area nearly four years ago, “was that there are no big conservation groups on the ground here.  No Greenpeace, no WWF,  nothing.  And the Atlantic Forest has one of the highest conservation priorities on the planet.  I sometimes go to the main Route 14 for an hour or so and count the number of logging trucks laden with old-growth hardwoods.  Probably the majority of these trees have been cut illicitly from inside protected areas.  On a bad day you can count as many as eighty per hour coming through”.

So the vounteers of the 2010 Parrot Census decided to take things into their own hands.  At the closing meeting there was great interest in maintaining the momentum generated during the five-day count and, after some discussion, we decided to form a COA, or Club de Observadores de Aves in affiliation with Aves Argentinas – the Argentinean associate organization of Birdlife International.  Since April 2010 membership has jumped from the twenty-five original volunteers to over forty.  Most are young people, students of the town’s Forest Ranger teaching facility, who come for the two-year course and then take up positions in protected areas anywhere in the country.  Others are long-time residents eager to participate in protection of the area’s unique forest habitat.

We waited while our COA was approved by the AA central office in Buenos Aires then, at half-past six on our first misty birdwatching morning in August 2010, on the lawn of the small but surprisingly species-rich Araucarias Provincial Park in San Pedro, despite all our enthusiasm, we had a major problem.  There were twenty five students, two facilitators, and we had three pairs of binoculars between us.

When Cox mentioned the binocular problem to John Yerger and Jake Mohlmann, two friends and birding guides from Adventure Birding based in Arizona, USA, they suggested he apply for equipment support through the ABA Birders’ Exchange program.  A few months later, very soon after the proposal was sent, COA Tucaí received a most welcome mail from program director Betty Petersen.  Greg Budney of Cornell kindly agreed to coordinate the equipment transfer at a very busy time of year so that now, early in the New Year, in time to meet the new students in their first semester in San Pedro, COA Tucaí is all set up and ready to go.

“Apart from weekly birding outings and planned wildlife education projects, we were soon offered a weekly half-hour radio slot and have entered into discussions with local landowners for declaration of a key core forest area just south of San Pedro as a private reserve.

“Our success in organizing a rapid group response to the critical situation we saw around us” Cox told ABA, “is all due to the far-sighted and selfless acts of the people mentioned here, and of course the donors of the equipment we will be using to continue our preservation-through-education environmental awareness initiative.”

The future

Despite the area’s thoughtlessly extractive past, a new consciousness is taking hold.  The people of Argentina in general and in Misiones in particular are to be congratulated.  Despite everything, 45%, almost half, of Misiones’ Atlantic Forests remain, a great achievement compared with the estimated surviving 4% on the Brazilian side.  Some years ago, San Pedro was named a Site of Special Interest for Bird Conservation (AICA) by Aves Argentinas, the only town in Misiones to enjoy this privilege.

With the end of traditional free-for-all timber extraction in plain sight, the time is ripe for environmental education and new directions.  Many schoolchildren, thanks to the efforts of FHN Felix de Azara environmental projects and Ecology Ministry educational programs undertaken by park guards in Araucarias Park, know the names of the local birds and their importance in these threatened ecosystems.

Finding ways to bring people from outside to see what is happening is also of vital importance.  COA Tucaí is committed to preparing students to work as wildlife guides as well as field assistants in environmental monitoring projects, and believes responsible ecotourism to be a way forward for our community.  To this end we are working in close partnership with Verde Profundo, a new tourism coperative based in San Pedro, and its parent organizations, ARCentral and Turismo Alto Parana Travel Agency, which, in 2011 will market short-break packages nationally and internationally to cooperatives in Misiones.

Tuca-í is the Guarani name for Atlantic Forest endemic Green-billed Toucan (Ramphastos dicolorus). Thank you all for helping us to help the birds of this unique and ancient ecosystem which once covered the Earth.

COA Tucaí – San Pedro – Misiones, Argentina