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viernes, 28 de diciembre de 2012

Year of Para La Tierra

This blog is long overdue. The staff and volunteers have written an impressive total of 25 blogs in 2012, while this will be my first. My name is Karina Atkinson, the founder and director of Para La Tierra and this seems like a good time to share this year’s successes with you. First of all though I want to thank everyone who was involved in the program this year; volunteers, interns, researchers, visitors, staff and supporters. You all know who you are, and without you none of this would have been possible. Last weekend I did something unheard of – I volunteered to play in a game of women’s football. My teammates were Fatima and Nidia, local girls who are currently working at the reserve, and another two girls who I’ll admit I don’t know the names of. We came to a draw in the match, and went to penalties. The final shot came down to me – win or lose. I shot the ball straight into the centre of the goal, where it rolled easily into the goalies legs. The home team whom we were playing against jumped and cheered so much at my loss that it was almost as if I had won. It was a nice feeling! Working in the community is a part of my daily role as project coordinator onsite at Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca. In March we taught 200 five-ten year olds what a reserve was; in April we joined a school close to the reserve with a school in Scotland in a pen-pal program so that they could learn about the reserve together; in July we showed 40 eight-eleven year olds what animals live in the reserve and in October they learned all about the benefits of bats to the environment; then in November we gave lectures in the local high school and invited groups of students to take part in two day internships at the reserve. All of these activities brought us closer to the communities surrounding Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca, but none quite like losing a game of football. In addition to our work with local communities, our reach stretched as far as Asuncion this year. A group of 17 students from the CCPA who are learning English joined us to complete a two day field course run by Jonny Miller, leader of the primate project in 2012. To see the video the students made of their experience and other photos from this year, have a look at our facebook page. Apart from community outreach, the main aim of Para La Tierra is to conduct scientific research which contributes to the justification for the protection of the reserve. The more data we can publish proving why the reserve is so special, the more attention it will get and the better the chance we have to save it and other habitats like it. One of the things I love most about my job is that on any given day, a new species previously unknown in the reserve, the region or even in the whole of Paraguay could be discovered. With any luck we may someday discover some that are new to science! It’s all out there waiting for the explorer who pays the most attention to detail. Thanks to a grant from Lush Charity Pot North America at the end of 2011, we were able to purchase a vast range of scientific equipment to help build on our ongoing inventory of the reserve. Consequently, we have published two scientific papers this year in international journals with a further six in preparation and press. The camera traps bought through the funding opened the door to discover the wildlife that creeps in the night, and the mammals we didn’t know were living along-side us, including little spotted cats, tamanduas and tayras. Other equipment allowed us to produce maps, catch snakes, lizards and frogs and find out what species of bats are flying high above us. A total of 16 interns joined us in 2012, each one conducting his or her own project. Studies included an investigation into the structure of burrow systems in the cerrado, the use of blue and red tail colouration in teiid lizards, vertical stratification of opossums in different habitats and the spacial distribution of bats within the reserve. We also hosted 32 volunteers who took part in all of PLT’s projects including the butterfly inventory, primate project and bird morphology programs. Volunteers and interns travelled to us from as close as Asuncion and as far away as Australia, then everywhere in between. The volunteers and interns are what keep us going and able to do our work for fragile habitats in Paraguay and for the people who live close to them. 2012 has also been the year of Rolex. In November, following a long application process, I travelled to New Delhi, India to be announced as a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Young Laureate. Pitched against 3500 other projects worldwide, myself and four others undertaking projects in India, Mexico and Afghanistan were awarded funding for our organisations, worldwide press coverage for our projects and inclusion into a network of extraordinary people doing exceptional things around the globe. The funding we received will allow PLT to grow into a model conservation organisation in Paraguay through a sustainable community project, the employment of two forest guards, the construction of a museum and visitor centre and the purchase of equipment to continue our work. The project will take place over the next two years, but already we have made significant progress. Chicken houses have been built in each of three communities closest to the reserve. In October we stocked each one with chicks, food, medicines, incubators and grinders and provided the women of the community with support to grow and sell their product. As the year comes to an end the last of the first batch of chickens will be sold to those who will eat chicken for New Years dinner and the councils of women will have raised enough money to begin the cycle again, hopefully with a little left over to pay themselves. The idea is that with time and practice, they will be able to grow and sell chickens every month, gaining an income at the same time. Two forest guards have been rehired after a year without funding. Jorge and Concepcion will now continue to patrol the reserve, maintain the trails and help to make the reserve altogether more accessible so that visitors can enjoy all it has to offer. They also double up as education and outreach specialists, acting as our link to the neighbouring population who speak mostly in Guarani, the local dialect. With their help we have been able to develop new education programs, reach farther into the community and learn new skills essential to reserve management. You can read more about the project at Today I received a visitor. It was a young girl delivering an invitation to come and play football this Saturday to raise money for her school. Whether they enjoy our company or think they’d like to beat us again is irrelevant. We are now an accepted part of the community surrounding Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca and we are here to stay. I hope that 2013 brings PLT as much success as 2012 and the same to everyone else in the coming year. We are looking towards the 2013 with the intention of expanding the scope and depth of our scientific projects, including more schools in our education program while introducing a wider variety of environmental topics, plus playing football on the weekends of course. If you are thinking of volunteering this year, think of us. We promise a varied experience with plenty of cultural twists. For more information check the website at, or contact me directly at Happy New Year everyone! Karina

sábado, 22 de diciembre de 2012

The Cerrado by Jacqui Gunn

White sands dotted with patchy green islands of razor sharp bromeliads, fire proof trees and cacti as tall as a house - the cerrado, despite its hot dry aridness, has me entranced. At a glance it seems empty and devoid of wildlife, almost like the African Savannah without the herds of black and white stripes, but it only takes a few 5am bird mist netting sessions to appreciate that the wildlife is just very good at hiding. Like a fresh layer of snow, the sand after a heavy rain creates a fresh canvass for all who sneak in the darkness to be recognised. Hoof prints possibly from peccary or deer, mysterious burrows in the sand and scuttling amongst the dead leaves also indicates the presence of the illusive. A night time trek into the cerrado with a flash light would most likely reveal a pair of small haunting glowing spheres - the eyes of a bird belonging to the night jar family. Stunned by the lights you can get amazingly close before they flutter into the darkness. Bats are also busy in search of fruit and insects overhead. As the sun rises the dawn chorus begins, some of the more eager contenders get a tweet or a chirp in whilst the stars are still out. A distant knocking draws your eye to a dead tree protruding through its greener companions. The distinct hammer shaped head of a woodpecker can be seen as creeps up and down the trunk in search of grubs. Pairs of parakeets squawk noisily overhead in a flash of green, and higher still the turkey vultures wheel up high on thermals. Smaller perching birds flit from bush to bush being heard more than they are being seen. At a closer look amongst the green, you can find hidden treasures of bright pink and purple flowers. The cerrado wouldn't be the same place without the endless termite mounds and sandy trails of leaf cutter ants. The snipping can even be heard as the ants dismantle the leaves with their powerful jaws. Bullet ants are less organised but just as impressive, their size most appreciated when seen crossing the leaf cutter ant trails like a monster truck on a highway. Yesterday we had a very exciting delivery from a student who had visited Para la Tierra previously who had found a slightly unexpected house guest – a Southern naked tailed armadillo (Cabassous unicinctus). This is the first live specimen found in the country, a really important find for Laguna Blanca and for Paraguay. We jumped into the back of the Hilux and headed to the cerrado for some film making of the release. The volunteers and interns all got to hold it before we made a video for Para la Tierra, then released it into the cerrado. After everyone got their fill of photos the armadillo was placed on the ground and within seconds the armadillo dug its way into the sand and out of sight, leaving only a mound of disturbed sand as evidence. As the activities of the day come to an end, the cerrado puts on the most impressive encore. The burning orange and red skies amalgamate with the purple and blue until eventually the stars pierce through the blackness. Jacqui Gunn Para La Tierra Volunteer 2012

martes, 18 de diciembre de 2012

An impromptu rattkesnake workshop, fuzzies falling out of the sky and old friends reunited

I love it when it gets hot, so much more goes on! For example last week I was walking towards the beach in the late afternoon when Jonny phoned “there’s a rattlesnake in the water, a rattlesnake in the water RIGHT NOW!” as I sped towards him it was clear there definitely was a rattlesnake and what a beauty! The beach was swarming with Paraguayan tourists and Jonny was keeping people back (not too tricky when most people are afraid of snakes) and keeping an eye on the snake. I jumped into the water with the snake and waited to see what it was going to do. Although rattlesnakes have potent venom they are not aggressive so I was confident that I could keep my distance whilst steering it away from people who may panic and harm the snake. Once it was on the beach it stayed where it was, so I asked Jonny to run back to the house and get a bag and the snake grabber. I needed to bag it and take it somewhere safe away from people. While we were waiting, quite a crowd had gathered so I used it as an opportunity to talk about the species and explain that whilst these snakes are venomous they aren’t aggressive so the actual threat they pose is fairly low. Jonny returned and our star was a model example while I demonstrated how to catch and safely bag a snake. A collective sigh of relief followed by a round of applause from the crowd concluded a successful and admittedly quite exciting snake rescue. We took it to the forest and released it unharmed. I love my job. But it’s not just the scaly wildlife that gets rescued. I was working in the museum a couple of days ago when one of the forest guards came to find me. On the floor in the corner of their house, was the most pathetic neonatal small mammal, squeaking its little heart out. Even the most hardened herpetologist is going to go weak at the knees at the sight of that; so I had no hope! I scooped him up and took him home. Sadly after two long nights of round the clock feeding he didn’t make it, it was always going to be a long shot but at least we tried and we did manage to establish he was a rodent before he went off to the great cheese board in the sky. And finally it was exactly this week last year when Norman Scott and his wife Joan came to visit us at Laguna Blanca. Norman Scott is a world expert in herpetology and one of PLT’s extrernal collaborators. He returned, and this time brought his family with him. It was such fun to have 3 generations of Scotts and their respective partners here. Nick Reed is Norman’s granddaughter’s partner and is a film maker by profession. How convenient! A PLT movie is something we’ve wanted to make for a while now, so when Nick suggested that he wanted to get some footage, everything simply fell into place. We would like to say a massive thank you to Nick for his hard work making this happen and to the interns Georgia and Ruby for being brave enough to talk about their projects on camera, plus all the other volunteers who contributed their personal footage to the film. Be the first to view it here Now there is no excuse not to come and volunteer with us! Until next time Hx

viernes, 14 de diciembre de 2012

I had a dream by Georgia Lorenti

I had a dream. A vision of distant cultures, exotic wildlife and enthralling adventure. I had always seen myself as a great explorer, boldly going where no one had gone before. Convinced I was destined to master the world of primatology, I packed my bag and boarded the plane to Paraguay. South America represented the ultimate getaway, an untouched paradise, an adventurer’s dream. I was a pioneer on the verge of discovery, a traveller of the open road. Fuelled by the promise of adventure and with my iPod set on shuffle, I donned my new fedora, and arrived in Asuncion. Armed only with the Spanish speaking capabilities of a German shepherd, it quickly dawned on me that I was out of my depth. I was in a foreign country and miles away from home. Up the creek without a paddle, had I bitten off more than I could chew? No, this was my first solo expedition and adversity was to be expected. I simply gritted my teeth, laced up my hiking boots, and became really really good at charades. After the initial shock, the rest of the journey was smooth sailing. The people were very friendly and extremely patient. I caught the earliest bus to Santa Rosa and was soon safely at Para La Tierra. Once at the reserve, I was immediately enamoured by the pristine beauty of the sanctuary. The lake glistened a beautiful cool blue and the hot sun bathed the dry landscape. The reserve was teeming with wildlife and the staff were extremely welcoming. I soon felt right at home, and what a place to live in! In my first couple of weeks we had three visitors to the house, a beautiful tropical screech owl, a brilliant black tegu, and a massive rococo toad. Living in close proximity to such like-minded people also provided the perfect opportunity to form some terrific friendships. I met several great people and often found myself laughing hysterically. I deeply enjoyed playing volleyball on the beach, despite having the hand-eye coordination of a dead badger. Swimming in the lake became a daily ritual which I will miss immensely. I had joined Para La Tierra as an intern for the primate initiative, which centred on a small population of capuchin monkeys. This project had been started 10 months earlier and was still in the initial stages of habituating the capuchins. Habituation is a long process which requires an enormous amount of time, dedication and perseverance. It involves many hours spent locating the capuchins, marking their GPS location and recording their behavioural activity. Most of the time, the capuchins were observed travelling as they were still largely unaccustomed to the presence of humans. My internship started almost immediately and I found my supervisor to be extremely knowledgeable. He quickly introduced me to the Atlantic Forest, which was to be my office for the next four months. Initially, my main responsibilities involved observing the capuchins and trail maintenance. It soon became apparent that I was hopeless in the forest! I spent a majority of my time stumbling over tree roots, tearing my clothes on branches, stinging my hands on nettles, and wrapping myself in spider webs. In general, my face spent more time in the mud than looking up for capuchins and I was starting to doubt my future in primatology. Jane Goodall had made it look so easy! What was I doing wrong? Then suddenly, everything changed. A heavy crash of branches caught my attention, and was followed quickly by a strange chirping noise. My heart starting pumping, the adrenaline started rushing. There they were! Up in the canopy! I completely forgot what I was doing. All the training I had received totally disappeared. I was looking at real capuchins, wild capuchins, and all the weeks of struggling through unforgiving forest seemed utterly worth it! It took my breath away, and has continued to do so every time since. One of the greatest aspects of completing an internship at Para La Tierra is the opportunity to plan and carry out your own piece of original research. The supervisors are all very willing to offer guidance and constructive input, but ultimately you get to design your own field study. My project featured an investigation into the forest structure and selection of sleeping areas selected by Cebus libidinosus paraguayanus. The aim of the study was to determine whether capuchin monkeys selected their sleeping areas at random or due to a particular preference in forest structure. As the capuchins were still unhabituated, following them to their respective sleeping sites was out of the question. This was a huge limiting factor! I had to rely on finding them during the night or just before dawn, when the capuchins were already asleep. It took a lot of effort and a lot of early mornings, not to be attempted by the faint hearted. At the conclusion of my project, I had located six sleeping areas and sampled the forest structure by completing four belt transects. A statistical analysis of my results revealed that the capuchins preferred sleeping areas with <75% canopy coverage, tree diameter of >65cm, and a first branch height of >18m. In addition to the capuchins, every day at Para La Tierra presented the opportunity to see more and exciting animals. I had the great fortune to see a large variety of creatures, such as rattle snakes, coatis, tarantulas, frogs, turkey vultures, opossums, and even an armadillo! Once in the forest, I happened to dump straight into a fox! He was very civil, I apologised for inconveniencing him, and we both parted as friends. He was off conducting whatever foxy business he had to attend, and I was in hot pursuit of the capuchins. Alas with any great quest, it became time for it to end. The adventure must finish and the explorer must embark on a new and exciting venture. In stories, such as the odyssey, the hero would have learned a valuable lesson and is better prepared for the future. Para La Tierra was, I hope, the first stop in my on-going saga. I have learned so much and have absolutely loved every moment. It was the perfect starting point and an amazing experience. The ultimate question is this? Are you ready to take up the mantle and be the hero of your own quest? Go ahead, I dare you… Georgia Lorenti Para La Tierra Intern