I recently returned from a three-week trip to the Peruvian Amazon, working on a San Diego Zoo Global project helping indigenous villages manage their wild aguaje palms so there’s yummy palm fruit left over for wildlife! And while this latest trip was great—it’s always nice to see familiar faces and be back in the forest—I have to admit the work this time around seemed a little “slow.”
Some of the basic big steps in the project have been taken care of, namely getting people trained and outfitted to be able to climb these tall, majestic palms rather than cutting them down to obtain the fruit. We’ve also initiated an agroforestry program so people can grow their own palms and leave more of the wild fruit (which is a bit burdensome for the people to get to, anyway) for the tapirs and macaws. But what I am currently doing is waiting for palms to grow. I’m in the middle of a study that has me repeatedly visiting palms in degraded swamps to see how well they are recovering. You see, though people have largely stopped cutting down the trees, a lot of the damage had already been done. We are trying to figure out how long it takes for these areas to recover and what factors allow these degraded areas to recover faster.
Figuring this out means monitoring growth, survival, and fruit production of marked palms in different populations…for a couple of years. And though it’s often tranquil standing in the same patch of forest for hours on end, the excitement of visiting the patch fades on the umpteenth visit, especially when the changes in the plants aren’t always impressive. It strains the neck a bit looking up to find the fruit (sometimes 90 feet or 27 meters up) and it can be a bit tedious measuring a few thousand plants, especially if you’re having trouble finding a specific one (now where exactly is plant #1207 in the sea of three-foot palms?!). And the changes tend to be subtle (finally found #1207, it’s alive and seems to have grown half an inch or 1.27 centimeters). Plants just need time to grow, and thus our measurements—our science—need to take time, too. In the end, we will have a better idea of how to manage the recovery of these palm populations.
So I will go back and search for palm #1207, and all the rest, again in six months to see which ones have survived and which have actually shot up in height. And on the way I will trudge through swamps, do my best to avoid stepping on any vipers at my feet, listen for troops of the small monkeys crashing through the treetops overhead, and keep an eye out for the interesting insects that cross my path. Because though my patches of forest can be tranquil, and the work may be slow, there is always something interesting going on in the Amazon.
Christa Horn is a research coordinator with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Insects Don’t Bug Me.