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lunes, 1 de abril de 2013

Holy Fortin Toledo!

Hey everybody, Last week I had the amazing opportunity to visit a private reserve in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco called Fortin Toledo. The name “Gran Chaco” comes from Quechua for the land of great hunting. Its Guarani name translates to something resembling the “Green Hell.” And let me tell you that it certainly lives up to both names. On the bus trip alone up we saw countless birds, including raptors and herons; we also saw caiman and desert hares. The panoramic views from out the window showed huge expanses of the wet savannah plains expanding all the way to the horizon. We passed through the humid Chaco that consisted of palm trees and Quebracho trees surrounded by tall tropical grasses growing out of swamped plains. It looked like a place that even Bear Grylls couldn’t survive in. This habitat is a transitional area between the humid Pantanal and the Dry or Alto Chaco savannah to the north-west. A few hours after leaving Asuncion, we passed out of the Humid Chaco and entered the Alto Chaco. The Alto Chaco is hotter and dryer than the Humid Chaco, and the habitat reflects it. The trees are shorter and spinier, cactuses are more prevalent, and there are sand dunes and small hills from which you can see the desert spreading out around you. The Alto Chaco is also home to a number of large mammals such as peccary, puma and jaguar but due to the increase of agricultural pressures, their numbers are steadily falling. While the trip on the bus was a great introduction to the environment I was going to see at the reserve, it also showed the huge threat to the area: Cattle Ranching! The majority of the Alto Chaco is contained within the Boquerón Department of Paraguay, which is Paraguay’s largest geographic department. Up until recently, due to the lack of infrastructure and the unrelenting heat, it was also a sparsely inhabited department. However, thanks to the completion of the Trans-Chaco highway and an increase in technology it has flourished in the past few decades. It now produces over 65% of the country’s milk and meat due to the fertile soil and ease of clearing land for ranching in the flat savannah. Boquerón is also currently experiencing the country's greatest rate of population increase, about 12.4% annually. The fate of the beautiful Alto Chaco habitat is under grave threat! Once I arrived at the Reserva Privada Fortin Toledo, I was amazed at what I could see. Turning off the main road and onto the reserve, the forest sprung up around me. The near constant sight of herds of cattle disappeared behind us and a new type of fauna surrounded me. Before getting out the car, I’d seen a snake, a tinamou, two buff necked ibises and a Brazilian cotton-tail. The two days I spent there was an amazing experience, especially the evening frog hunt after a heavy rain. We saw 6 species of frog and 2 different snakes on a short walk about the reserve. Truly amazing. The reserve is also home to the Centro Chaqueno de Conservaccion y Investigacion (CCCI) and the site of the Proyecto Tagua. As I mentioned above, all the large mammals are feeling the effects of agricultural expansion but the Chaco Peccary (Catagonus wagneri) or Tagua was thought to have gone extinct over 200 years ago due to poaching and was rediscovered in 1972. The Tagua is one of the few large mammals to be discovered by science since 1900. Proyecto Tagua is a rehabilitation project focusing on the breeding of the Chaco peccary and releasing family groups into pristine environments all throughout the department. The project is over 20 years old and seeing over a one hundred critically endangered peccaries in one place was a great experience. Especially knowing that they were destined to be released back into the wild! For more information on the Chaco peccary and how you can help, please visit Fortin Toledo had one more surprise in store for me. “Fortin” in Spanish means Fort and the site has a number of small bunkers and two graveyards built after a large battle in the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. It was amazing to see the cultural heritage hidden within a beautiful nature reserve. I was also impressed by a giant Palo Boracho tree trunk that had been hollowed out by a sniper to use as cover. The tree trunk was at least a meter and a half wide and had plenty of space for a full grown man to hide within. The whole experience gave a real sense of the inhospitality of the habitat that was only enhanced by the brutal war that took place within it. While I only had enough time to spend two days on the reserve and at least five of those hours I was trapped inside by a torrential rain storm, Fortin Toledo still blew my mind. The mix of passive and active conservation combined with the cultural heritage of the area was enough to make your jaw drop. While I can’t claim to be an expert on the area in such a short time, however I can assure you of one thing: it is a place worth visiting! Even if you have to brave the 40° heat . Until next time, Joseph